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Amos Stagg: a century of honesty
John Underwood
August 13, 1962
On August 16, Amos Alonzo Stagg celebrates his 100th birthday. One of football's greatest innovators, Stagg coached for 70 years, but his lasting mark as a man is his unyielding idealism
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August 13, 1962

Amos Stagg: A Century Of Honesty

On August 16, Amos Alonzo Stagg celebrates his 100th birthday. One of football's greatest innovators, Stagg coached for 70 years, but his lasting mark as a man is his unyielding idealism

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It is not always so grand to be the grand old man. Amos Alonzo Stagg will be 100 next week. Once he heard the dissonant cry of the football crowd; now it is the muted prattle of old ladies in a rest home in Stockton, Calif. The jaw that once jutted firm on the sidelines of Chicago Stadium is slack. The blue eyes are clouded by cataracts; the left one droops. His hair is wispy and white as tissue. At 96, he ran laps around the fig trees in his backyard. Now, as if prodded by the uncompromising voice within him that has always demanded Spartan discipline, he insists on frequent walks on the patio of the rest home, out in the sun. But he must be led by the hand. In the last six months he has drawn inward and become occupied with his infirmities. He coached for 70 years, until he was 98, but he has become, at last, an old man. On occasion, though, he brightens, and there is a touch of the wryness that often characterized his vigorous life: "I may go on forever," he says, "because statistics show that few men die after the age of 100."

On August 16, his birthday, 10,000 Americans will toast his greatness. Speechmakers at extravagant banquets will review his achievements as player, coach, innovator, teacher, unstinting disciplinarian, humanitarian, father, citizen. Christian and—at New Haven—Yale man. Typically unmoved by such effulgent displays, Stagg, dressed in his plaid flannel bathrobe and plaid slippers, sat in the Stockton sun the other day and, haltingly, expressed a wish. "I would...like to be remembered," he said quietly, "... as an honest man."

Amos Alonzo Stagg is so honest he twice was asked to referee games his own teams played in. Football to him was a means to an end: teaching young men to be honorable. The churlish father in My Fair Lady cracks that the world "is always throwing goodness at you, but with a little bit of luck a man can duck." There was no ducking Stagg. He force-fed his own impeccable standards to his players and to his family, and though some eventually strayed, he was adored for what he believed and, rarer, practiced.

Pappy Waldorf, who coached against him, compared Stagg to a "giant Sequoia that looms over the forest—hardy, sturdy, long-lived, an object of admiration and inspiration...." ( Stagg at his prime was 5 foot 6 and weighed 160.) Years after he was an assistant to Stagg, Fritz Crisler snuffed out a cigarette in the palm of his hand when he saw the old man approaching. At Stagg's 94th birthday party UCLA Coach Red Sanders, who had just been caught in a recruiting violation, took his seat on the rostrum and said sheepishly, " Jesse James will now break bread with a saint."

The story of Stagg has been told so often that some people would like to ignore it. But it is true and worth retelling: born a cobbler's son in West Orange, N.J., at the time Stonewall Jackson was advancing on Manassas; the best college baseball pitcher of his age; an aspirant to the ministry who decided he couldn't preach ("I stammered terribly") and turned instead to coaching.

At Yale, where he lived on soda crackers in a garret, he contracted beriberi. Still, he pitched his team to five straight championships, completing every game he started, and once struck out Ten Thousand Dollar Kelly of the Boston Nationals (the Babe Ruth of the 1880s) with three pitched balls.

He was on Walter Camp's first All-America football team, became the University of Chicago's first head coach in 1892. He was there 41 years, pioneering every aspect of the game, from such basics as the huddle to the intricacies of the T formation. In 1943, when he was 81 years old and coaching at the College of the Pacific, Stagg outpolled Notre Dame's Frank Leahy and was named Coach of the Year. His No. 1 aide at COP feared he would coach forever. Apparently Stagg planned to. At 85, he went to Susquehanna to assist his son Alonzo Jr.—and signed a 10-year contract.

Boss and scrivener

"Formally, he was my assistant; practically, he was in charge," says Alonzo Jr., now 63 and a stockbroker in Chicago. The first-born son, Lonnie was given a letter (below) that was supposed to go to him at his father's death. Stagg Jr. got it when he was 35, and his father still had a third of his career to go.

"To disagree with my father was like breaking with God," Lonnie Stagg said recently. "His logic was unimpeachable. I bought a motorcycle once for $15 without his permission. With great care, and without raising his voice, he explained why he preferred I not keep it. 'You're bigger in a car,' he said. I sold the motorcycle the same day. When I was just 9, lightning struck a tree within 20 feet of us. I fell to the ground in a fright. 'Why, Amos,' said my father, 'you mustn't let things like that disturb you.' He had not moved an inch. I was human, but he was different."

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