Through the Trifocals

Bob Zuppke was the winningest football coach in Illinois history. He achieved a status comparable to Amos Alonzo Stagg as one of the greats of the early twentieth century. Illinisports provides some insight into this great man in today's column.

The field inside Memorial Stadium is named Zuppke Field. It is named after Robert Carl Zuppke, the winningest football coach in Illinois history. In his 29 years from 1913-1941, Zuppke amassed a record of 131-81-13, including seven Big 10 Championships and four National Championships.

But Zuppke was much more than just a football coach. To many, he was a hero of the utmost magnitude. Like his most famous player Red Grange, Zuppke was known and revered nationally. He was an orator equalled by few, a painter of considerable talent, a personality respected enough to advertise clothing and sporting goods nationally and even have his own comic book series. We go to the games at Memorial Stadium and see his name below the scoreboard, but few of us really know much about the man they called "Zup".

Bob Zuppke was born to humble beginnings in 1879 in Berlin, Germany. His father moved him and his family to Milwaukee when he was two years old. It was in Wisconsin that Zuppke developed his fighting spirit and his love of all competition. Actually, he played little football. As an undersized lad, Zuppke broke his collarbone in his first football game, and the poor repair job prevented him from playing much again. But that never deterred him from studying the game while playing others.

Zuppke attended the University of Wisconsin and was a starter on their basketball team in their Championship season of 1904-05. Actually, the game was not called basketball when Zup was young. Rather, the name he remembered was "squat tag." After college, Zuppke coached several high school sports at both Muskegon, Michigan, and Oak Park, Illinois. While he had success in several sports, it was in football that he really made his mark.

Bob Zuppke was credited with many football innovations including the spiral pass, screen pass, onside kick, "Flea Flicker", "Flying Trapese", "Whirligig", "Razzle Dazzle", laterals, reverses, the huddle, spring practice and much more. His football teams became known as "adding machines" for their high-scoring nature. He was a major factor in helping football evolve from conservative, massed movement, to the wide-open styles of more modern times.

A pass to Knute Rockne that helped Notre Dame defeat a tough Army team in 1913 is often credited with initiating the era of the forward pass. But Zuppke's teams were throwing passes in 1906. Of course, at that time the ball was thrown end over end, if you can imagine that. That evolved into an underhand spiral thrown like a bowling ball. Later, a player would throw the ball by holding it loosely in the hand and shot-putting it forward. It was the juggling father of a center playing for Zup who started experimenting with actually spiriling the ball to throw it, and Zuppke took this idea and got his players to grasp the ball and create a spiral for both hikes and forward passes.

After four years at Muskegon, Zuppke took a job at Oak Park High School. For $2000 a year, Zup taught five history and three gym classes; coached and managed the football, basketball swimming, track and baseball teams; and managed the tennis team. After losing his first game, he won every other football game he coached at Oak Park in his three years there.

His Oak Park teams played on both coasts, and his fame grew. By 1913, Northwestern, Purdue and Lafayette universities had all offered him jobs to be their head coach. But because of his tremendous impression of Illinois' George Huff, who was honest, trustworthy, and supportive, Zuppke accepted much less money for the chance to coach the Fighting Illini football team.

Illinois lost only two games in Zuppke's first season of 1913, and they tied a mighty Purdue team. The next year, they won the National Championship and outscored their seven opponents 224-22. Thus, in only his second year of college coaching, he took his Illinois team farther than any other in school history. The only comparable team was 1910, a team that was conference champ while being undefeated and unscored upon, but for whatever reason it did not receive the same national recognition.

Zuppke felt his 1914 team was the best he ever coached. His comments about that team, taken from the book "Zuppke of Illinois" by Red Grange (A. L. Glaser, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, 1937) show his enthusiasm:

"That team had everything! EVERYTHING! They were adventurers, boys who played football out of sheer love of competition. They gloried in a tough fight. They had the fastest pickup of any team I ever saw. Snap! The team, as a unit, was off like a shot when that ball was passed from center. They were chatter boxes, they talked it up all through the game--all through the week--with their fire and their zest and their drive. Those boys couldn't eat after a game; they'd play themselves out!

"That backfield! Hal Pogue, Bart Macomber, Gene Schobinger--and Potsy Clark, the greatest quarterback who ever stepped on a football field and a great ball carrier on top of that (ed. note: Clark later coached the Detroit Lions to a national championship). In rhythm, timing, pickup and speed those backs were seconds ahead of the defense--and how they mopped up downfield."

Zuppke's teams also won National Championships in 1919, 1923, and 1927. The year 1923 was Red Grange's first year on the varsity, and the first ever game played in Memorial Stadium was with that great team. What an auspicious beginning for a great stadium!

The dedication game for Memorial Stadium in 1924 against a powerful Michigan team is remembered for the heroics of Red "Galloping Ghost" Grange. While Grange gets all the credit for that win, it was Zuppke who had spent the entire previous year preparing his charges to see that Michigan team as demonic and deserving of a thrashing despite Zuppke's respect for their coach Fielding Yost.

Bob Zuppke was known not only for his championships, but also for his ability to defeat conference favorites. And it was often his great ability to motivate his players to perform beyond their peak that proved the deciding factor. As great as Zuppke's successor Ray Eliot was at inspiring his players, he learned all he knew from his mentor Zuppke.

One such occasion was the week in 1916 when Illinois was scheduled to play at Minnesota and its "perfect team." That Gopher juggernaut had already scored at least 49 points against each of their conquests, including Iowa (67) and Wisconsin (53). In contrast, the Illini were 2-2, and two starters, including George Halas, were sidelined with injury.

Zuppke was always thinking of an angle, and everything he did in preparation for that game was in sharp contrast to his normal methods. For instance, he practiced his team hard Monday through Friday, a tactic likely to wear out and possibly injure his own team. Then, he let his players do whatever they wanted on Friday night, as long as they returned by midnight. He was trying to get them to relax and not worry about the game. Instead of trying to fire them up before the game, he spent his time telling jokes.

Zuppke had the Gophers well scouted, and he knew they always used the same first three plays. He told his team to key on the individuals prescribed for those first three plays and to ignore everyone else. And following his advice, the team pushed Minnesota backward to near its goal line after those first three plays.

Minnesota had invited Walter Camp to attend the game, the man who named the All-America teams, and they had erected a special viewing area so he could watch the game from good vantage point. But after that game, he added Illinois' Bart Macomber to his team as Bart ran and kicked the Illini to an amazing 14-9 victory.

Bob Zuppke was known by many names. Among them were "The Blond-Topped Scowl", "The Illini Dutchman", "The Wily Dutchman", "Smiling Bob Zuppke", "The Little Napoleon", "The Old Philosopher", "The Dutch Master", and "The Illini Menace." But whatever one called him, Zup was a master of understanding the nature of life and how to get the most out of his players. Perhaps the best way to understand him is to listen to what he had to say about coaching, again taken from Grange's book about him:

"A boy who is basically a good loser, is SATISFIED to lose and won't fight hard to win. The boy I value on my squad is the one who hates to lose, prepares NOT to lose, and burns up inside when he DOES lose. Note that I said he burns up INSIDE. Externally, he should lose gracefully enough, congratulate the opponent if necessary, but all the time he should feel deep down in his bones that if the contest were to be repeated, he'd win. Victory in football is 40 percent ability and 60 percent spirit.

"I may use psychology, as they say, but I use it unconsciously. A coach who uses it consciously is a failure. As a matter of fact, I don't call it psychology but merely the employment of knowledge, tact and energy. You roast one man and make him feel honored. Another man has to be toasted and feted to be made effective."

"...Courage doesn't belong to any one nation or race. I have seen them all in thirty-one years of coaching. The longer I am in contact with every race and creed, the more I discover how little the human race differs.

"Human nature remains unchanged and as Kipling said, 'Except for the appliances we make, the rate at which we move ourselves through space and the words we use, nothing in life changes.' By words, he means the expressive terms of the day.

"...Your task will be to get the best out of your squad. To do so, you must deal with them as MEN. Cultivate their respect, confidence and good will by sincerity and absolute fairness. Be impersonal in your criticism to the player in private. Do not ridicule the scrubs. Treat each one alike, be he star or humble substitute. Insist on a high standard of accompishment. Do not permit carelessness or indifference.

"Praise sparingly. If you overdo it, it will be meaningless. Be careful not to spank, then kiss. It will ruin discipline. You must be a developer of men as well as a selector of men. Keep your coaching simple and your English plain. Insist on absolute obedience to a reasonable common sense set of training rules, and keep your squad in the correct mental attitude toward those rules. It is a matter of squad loyalty. Don't spy on the men. Place training rules before them as a matter of a gentlemen's agreement.

"And put this down in capital letters. A losing squad NEEDS YOUR HELP MORE THAN A WINNING TEAM. Bolster their confidence. Let them know that you believe in them and will be with them--win, lose or draw. That is the true test of a coach--how he handles a team that simply hasn't the talent and ability to hold its own against bigger teams from a physical standpoint. If he can lift the boys beyond themselves, then he is a REAL coach.

"...If you are young in your mind and continually searching it for ideas, rather than for words; if you are growing, if you are working yourself into your task and saturating yourself with it, you will always be like a sunrise that is changing with every passing moment.

"Absolute consistency is the measure of smaller minds, minds which have ceased to grow, minds that have given up the possibility of further creation and have settled down to the task of logical coherency and fixity of expression.

"...There are still many young fellows who ARE driven by the hero-urge, who want to stand out from the mob on the basis of their own effort and accomplishment. They want to excel. That desire to rise is part of their nature; it's in their makeup. To a real competitor, victory brings a tremendous inward exultation--defeat, a disappointment so keen it is almost like losing a dear one.

"The boy who wants to stand out and succeeds in doing so reverses the order of Nature. Nature is perpetually engaged in leveling itself, and Man likewise has a lurking negative disposition parading alongside of his positive, aggressive self. That accounts for the 'front runner,' the 'gymnasium champion.' That is why we will always have boys who are supreme on the practice field but falter on the day of competition.

"As I traveled down the mighty Yukon from the Great Divide above Skagway to Dawson, I noticed Nature's endless process of leveling itself, the mountains being slowly brought down to the plains by the rivers, and I connected that with the many negative philosophies which try to level off humanity.

"It is commonly recognized that human beings love a winner, a champion, but after a while they actually pay admission to see the champion leveled--and in leveling the champion, they only produce another.

"...In times of stress, leaders arise. This is as true on the football field as in life. There is always some great soul who unconsciously leads and whom others unconsciously follow. But when the leader CONSCIOUSLY attempts to lead, you have revolt."

Bob Zuppke had a creative mind that was always looking for a new angle to exploit against opposing teams. He wasn't limited by custom or tradition because of his intense need to win. He would try anything within the rules to gain advantage. But one thing he would not do was cheat to recruit a player.

Zuppke was known as a "passive recruiter." While he was eager to invite top prospects to attend Illinois, often through alumni who had played for him, Zuppke would not use the more aggressive tactics preferred by some of his adversaries. At first, many Chicago area players matriculated to Illinois to play for the great man. But when Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa and others began to recruit the Chicago area to upgrade their teams, Zuppke's more passive style was less successful. Thus, his later years were marred by some down years, including losing records in all but one of the years between 1935 and 1941.

But Zuppke's explanations for his recruiting tactics seem somehow heroic despite their mixed success. As he described it: "The Big Ten stands for an ideal--a high standard of ethics, sportsmanship and clean methods.

"I am not against proselyting, in the true meaning of the word. To proselyte means to win someone over to a different sect or party. Churches proselyte when they send out missionaries. A loyal alumnus who points out the advantages of his alma mater to a prospective student is proselyting--and rightly.

"What I AM against is making moochers out of athletes--paying starvation wages to football players! The answer doesn't lie in placing players on an adequate salary basis, either. If the open hiring of athletes were made respectable, the big football schools would outbid the other smaller universities; those with the biggest bank balances would corner the market. The grand game of football, as we know it, would be killed.

"Wrongly conducted, football is a school of bad manners, vulgarity, subterfuge, evasion and brutality. Rightly conducted, it promotes honor, courage, self control and self abnegation, harmony and courtesy in youth. The teams of two fine schools--playing clean, fair football--can set an example in sportsmanship to 80,000 people.

"Rightly conducted, football enriches the emotional life of the players and spectators. To tens of thousands of boys and youths whose names never break into newsprint nationally, it presents an opportunity to compete, to excel, to harmonize and to develop latent power. Football constitutes an effective alternate to our increasingly artificial environment.

"I sincerely believe what I have just said, and I hope you will always find me in the front rank of those who are forever fighting to keep football a game--a game played to WIN--but a GAME!"

Yes, Bob Zuppke was a special man and a special football coach. There is no doubt he could coach as well in the year 2004 as he did in his heyday of the early twentieth century. Of course, he would have little if any chance of recruiting enough star players to compete on equal terms with his contemporaries. But if he was given an equal playing field, chances are great that he would come out victorious.

And in the game of Life, Bob Zuppke was a Champion of Champions. Illinois will be hard pressed to ever find another coach to compare. He deserves to be immortalized on the Memorial Stadium turf without question.

Go Illini!
Illinisports
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