Research: Conceptualizing a Dissertation

In my past few posts I have hinted at my next major research project. I’m still about a nine months to a year away from starting the dissertation, but I’ve been playing with a lot of ideas and starting to brainstorming themes. Last semester I took two research seminars and began some preliminary research. One of those papers was fairly successful and is the basis for my MPCA conference paper. The other didn’t turn out so well (mostly because I couldn’t get my hands on the right sources in the limited time) but helped me become more familiar with the basic narrative I want to work with.

Anyways, the general topic for both of them was Glenn S. “Pop” Warner. I envision some sort of a thematic biography that covers different stages of his life for my dissertation. The more I ponder the topic, the more I like it, but I am a bit concerned about finding enough sources since there is no central archive with all of his papers. Length is also one of my fears, but I still have time to track stuff down.

It’s difficult to characterize Warner. Unlike other coaches and figures from his era, he wasn’t particularly religious nor a reformer. He didn’t have a flamboyant personality and star-power. He was unique but not particularly extraordinary. He grew up in New York, but spent a year or two in Texas between high school and college tin smithing and gambling. His family wasn’t well off, but were prosperous. Warner’s Dad loaned him money to get started at Cornell but after that he worked his way through. He was introduced to sports at Cornell and started coaching as a second job. At one point he coached three colleges at the same time. His coaching career spanned forty-four years (1895-1939), ten colleges, and 300+ victories.

So why Warner? A diss. on Warner builds off of my previous work on Native Americans because he coached Jim Thorpe at Carlisle (who features prominently in my MA thesis). At the same time, Warner’s career provides the opportunity to branch out into other areas. He’s also super interesting to me (not to mention there are no biographies of him that I can find). Unlike other coaches during his era, he frequently changed jobs and moved across the country. He was a football innovator creating new offensives schemes and equipment. Likewise, he published books, wrote newspaper and magazine columns, and held coaching clinics. Warner was among the first professional football coaches and athletic directors. His team played in the first college football game broadcast on the radio. He moved West in 1924 and argued his Stanford teams were every bit as good as the traditional Eastern and Midwestern powers. ​

I fancy myself something of social-cultural historian. I like to connect cultural things such as coaches, sports, and pulp magazine stories to larger trends and ‘structures’ in U.S. society. Things like the Progressive Era, the rise of the Organization Man, and the bureaucratization of America. My goal is to do this with him. Warner came of age in the 1890s as a law student at Cornell. He was on the ground level of developing college athletics as we know them. He was a product of the Progressive Era but I wouldn’t label him a Progressive. He, at least superficially, bought into the Carlisle project and amateurism, but also saw opportunity in sport($$). That he chose coaching over practicing law is one indication of this. There are indications in various sources that he guided many of his athletes to careers in sports too, both as coaches and in professional leagues. Like A.A. Stagg he helped build the athletic department and shaped college athletics through his service on rules committees and his commentary in the press. I’m not convinced, however, that he echoed Stagg’s pious view of sports. He was somewhere in the middle. He made tons of money, moved from school to school, had remarkable success but was never quite the cult figure of Rockne. To my knowledge he didn’t have endorsement deals nor a big personality. You could argue that Warner’s legacy is larger though. His name is synonymous with the world of organized youth sports.

As you can see, Pop Warner is a complex figure but he’s most frequently been characterized by his masculine paternalism and link to Jim Thorpe. A thematic biography would allow me to move beyond that. I imagine chapters focusing on these topics in the various contexts of his career: race (Native Americans), the development of football, coaches and the media, the movement from a regional to national game (regionalism), and Warner’s own anxiety about the evolution of sports into a big time business (the topic of my MPCA conference paper), and his association with Pop Warner Youth Football. The biography will be both the story of Warner’s career and the development of football which are jointly a part of the rise of modern America and its cultural institutions. Part of my goal is to tie him to A.A. Stagg and try to get beyond the standard Knute Rockne narratives of football in the 1920s and 30s. I’ve got some ideas on how to do that and complicate it, but I need to keep thinking and exploring sources. Things like connecting him to the rise of radio, pulp magazines and newspaper, human interest journalism, the influence of athletic conferences, westward migration, and the history of higher education. That’s about all I’ve got at this point, no real over arching argument, but some good themes and ideas to get started digging.

Right now my weakness is that I don’t have a lot of sources identified and have had trouble tracking him down in archives. I know Warner is prevalent in the President’s paper at Stanford. I know there is some stuff on him at Carlisle. I’ve found most of his magazine articles and quite a few of his newspaper pieces… but I need to find more. I need to look deeper into the archives at all the places he coached (Georgia, Iowa State, Cornell, Carlisle, Pittsburgh, Standford Temple, and San Jose State). I also need to figure out ways to link him to national events and larger culture. This part of the reason why I am reading about college football this semester. Getting my head around the national narratives and history of the game will better help me place him and see how unique my ideas are. Likewise, as I mentioned in my last post, my autobiography class will help me better make use of his own writings.

So there it is. That’s what I’m working with and thinking about. I need to be cognizant of my sources and let them build an argument for me instead of overlaying my preconceived ideas. I also need to make sure I remains critical. It’s easy for people in sports history to delve into hero-worship and write histories of things from a “oh that’s neat” nostalgic perspective. I really think studying Warner’s life will add something to the history of sports and our understanding of American life, but I haven’t found exactly what, yet. Finding that along with a solid source base will be the key to convincing my major advisor its a worthwhile endeavor and to my success. As always, I welcome any ideas, suggestions, and criticism. I’ve got a long ways to go and no central argument, but some pretty exciting stuff to explore.

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