Bob Zuppke and College Football in the Archive

In the early days of football, coaches became symbols of their universities. Their duties often extended beyond the athletic field and into university and community politics. In his biography of University of Illinois football coach Bob Zuppke, Maynard Brichford highlights the intersections in the stories of a coach, university, and sport. Zuppke was an institution in his own right at Illinois and within the Big Ten.

Zuppke had a distinguished record as coach of the Illini between 1912 and 1941. He was a pillar of stability. Illinois had four different university presidents during his tenure. Under his tutelage, his teams won two national titles and seven conference championships. Brichford, however, is quick to shift the focus away from his on-the-field success to his larger role within the university and its community as well as his commitment to higher education. Indeed, the biography serves more as a glimpse into the life of Zuppke and the University of Illinois than the sport of football.

Born in Germany in 1879, Zuppke moved with his parents to Milwaukee and was raised in the upper Midwest. Unlike many of his contemporary coaches he did not have a stellar athletic career. Instead, he was a student of sports and absorbed knowledge from others and read books on coaching and psychology. Brichford lists A.A. Stagg and Fielding Yost as two of Zuppke’s influences through their football coaching manuals and clinics. Likewise, he notes that the coach traveled east to learn different styles of football, including several trips to watch Harvard practice under coach Percy Haughton (who also wrote his own coaching book). Through this cross-pollination of football ideas Zuppke created his own “system” that relied on trick and surprise plays. While Brichford cautions that it’s difficult to assign primacy to sporting innovations, he counts the “huddle,” multiple pass flea-flicker plays, and the screen pass as hallmarks of his style of play.

This rise too football prominence also followed a different path of other big-name college coaches. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Zuppke began coaching at the high school level while also teaching history and physical education classes. He saw lots of cross over between history and football, Brichford explains, in the ways Greek and Roman troops used formations and worked together. He taught and coached at a small school in Michigan for a year before moving on to Oak Park in Chicago. There he served as athletic director and oversaw all sports. His track and field teams dominated the Illinois state-meet, which was initially organized by Stagg but sometimes held at the University of Illinois. His football teams fared well too and developed both a regional and national reputation. He took intersection trips, including on to Seattle and another to Boston.

These trips and his success earned Zuppke several college job offers. Schools like Northwestern and Purdue offered him large salaries and faculty positions, but he rebuffed them in favor of Illinois. Although Illinois offered less money, Brichford suggests, Zuppke took the job because he thought Illinois had better men to work with.  At Illinois he was the first professional, non-alumni coach. Unlike Stagg and others of this era, he never held the position of athletic director but did help coach basketball and baseball.

Fundraising, however, was also a large part of his job. Brichford devotes substantial space in his biography discussing Zuppke role in fundraising and public relations. Illinois’ various presidents saw the football team and its coach as a prime marketing tool for donations and as a way to woo votes (and money) from the legislature. Zuppke traveled around the state and the region giving talks to alumni groups, typically twenty to forty per year. These speeches and fundraisers were an essential part of his campaign to build Memorial Stadium following the Great War. Beyond football, Zuppke served as the Urbana-Champaign Boy Scout masters for several years while coaching.

In addition to these face-to-face interactions, Zuppke also developed a media persona. Later in his life he wrote columns and published articles. He had a contract with Christy Walsh Syndicate to tell his life story and signed on with Grantland Rice to write a book on sports. Zuppke, however, was perhaps the most famous for his “Zuppkeisms.” Brichford devotes a whole chapter to these sayings, which include motivational quotes and tips for life such as “a good back should keep his feet at all times and never lose his head.” This chapter is one of the few times that Brichford’s dry writing style lets the coach’s personality shine through.

Brichford is University Archivist Emeritus at Illinois and it is fairly clear that he is more concerned with sharing the history of the university than crafting an engaging story about its coach. While the book is well researched, its narrative is dry and offers few transitions. Instead, Brichford strings together facts about Zuppke’s life and career while mixing in larger trends at the University of Illinois, but not the broader spectrum of college football or higher education. This lack of a narrative unity and plot leave the reader wanting more. The author often lists facts and figures about Zuppke as if they are impressive or unique, but rarely substantiates these claims by offering comparison. For example, Brichford explains that Zuppke received a $4,000 per year allowance when he retired in 1942, three-fourths of which came from the athletics association. Without reference to the standards at other schools the reader does not know whether it is the allowance itself or the amount that is important.

Despite these weaknesses, Brichford’s biography is useful and informative. It sheds light on an important and sometimes overlooked coaching figure. His research is also useful to those studying the history of higher education as he often mixes in information about structural changes of the athletic association, board of trustees and other governance, and sheds light on the influence of donors and alums. Perhaps most important is his documentation. While his situation may be unique since he helped construct the archive and collect the sources reference in his book, it serves as a template for other football biographers to follow. Reading his notes gives other researchers and idea of what type of evidence may be available as well as where it and how its filed. Indeed, these are important insights into the archival structure of sports related documents.


1 thought on “Bob Zuppke and College Football in the Archive

  1. Justina Ruell

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