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.
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
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.
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."