Stagg's wife, Stella, who caught his eye "playing men's basketball in her bloomers" as a Chicago coed, lives alone now in the modest, cream-colored frame house on West Euclid Ave. in Stockton. They rented the house 29 years ago because Stagg didn't think he'd live long enough to buy it. (The Associated Press first wrote his obituary in 1933.) Stella Stagg cares for herself but at 87 is no longer able to attend to her husband. She keeps busy with Stagg's correspondence and rummages among the bookcases and orange crates that brim with trophies, plaques, portraits and old baseballs.
Originally jealous of his attention to football, Stella Stagg learned to diagram plays and to scout opponents, and to make his utilitarian meals palatable for the family. Once he showed her a new play he was going to spring on a COP opponent. She quickly worked out a defense for it. "That'll stop your play," she said. Stagg scratched his white head, puzzling. He padded off to the kitchen for a glass of water. Finally he returned. "He had a gleam in his eye and an eraser in his hand," says Mrs. Stagg. " 'You can't stop it now,' he said with triumph, and erased one of my players. 'You were using 12 men.' "
There is no swimming pool in the Stagg backyard, no big car in front. For all his success, Stagg has lived without frills. "Money," he said, "is damnation," and he never had much. The Giants offered him $4,200 to play baseball in 1888; he refused because there were saloons in big league ballparks. He once passed up a $300 speaking engagement because it meant missing a practice. His salary never exceeded $8,500, yet he contributed annually to the Yale fund, made a $3,000 cash donation to the College of the Pacific to purchase a 21-acre tract adjoining the stadium and donated $1,000 for chimes to the University of Chicago, stipulating that the alma mater be played at 10:05 each night as a signal for football players to get to bed.
The only real money he ever made was by cashing in on a" 100,000-to-3 long shot: two life-term insurance policies, for $690 and $10,000, that reached maturity in 1958. He was once offered $300,000 for the movie rights to his life story. It was to star Spencer Tracy and Catherine Hepburn, who bore marked resemblances to the Staggs. When he turned it down, his sons were aghast. "It's my life," said Stagg, "and I don't expect my sons to tell me how to run it. I wouldn't give the money to you, anyway, I'd give it to the university."
The only tangible rewards Stagg gave his players were sweaters and letters. Stagg abhorred recruiting of any sort and was never told—or perhaps did not want to be told—that there were players 'on scholarship at COP. He said that recruiting breeds dishonesty and was not right for a coach whose profession should be "one of the noblest and far-reaching in building manhood. No man is too good to be the athletic coach for youth."
Until he went to the rest home six months ago, where he will live out his days, Stagg mowed his lawn with a hand mower. "He mowed that lawn to death," said Stella Stagg. One day a neighbor advised him that kids had been playing on it daily, ripping up the turf. "You'll never raise grass that way," he said. "Sir," answered Stagg, "I'm not raising grass. I'm raising boys."