Photo: Jacob Boll (BA '12)
“I think a really valuable lesson that I’ve gotten from this experience, and one that Erin has really helped so much with, is how much history is about asking questions, and how you can allow that to guide your research." -Rian Lussier (BA '14)
Who Was Amos Alonzo Stagg?
With the support of the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Initiative, a student and professor team up to find out.Rian Lussier is intently studying a document. She is sitting in a small, sauna-hot, glass-enclosed room at the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library, trying not to break a sweat in the heat.
The typewritten document in front of her is yellowed with age and marked with handwritten edits. As the twenty-year-old Art History student pores over it, scratching her neck in deep thought, she attempts to determine whether the writing belongs to a man or a woman. “It feels like treasure-hunting and being a detective,” she says.
Lussier (BA ’14) is researching the University of Chicago Archives of Amos Alonzo Stagg and earning course credit for her research through the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Initiative (URMI). Known as the “Grand Old Man of Football,” Stagg was one of the most influential football coaches to set foot on the field, serving as the head coach at the University of Chicago from 1892-1932. During his career, he saw college football evolve from an extracurricular activity to a formal endeavor that is central to the identity and prestige of many colleges and universities in the United States. Because of Stagg and others, modern-day collegiate football is a multibillion-dollar industry.
Today, Lussier is reading a thirty-page speech about the difference between punts and kicks that Stagg delivered to his team in the 1930s. But it is the small details—those handwritten edits—that are the main focus for Lussier, who suspects that Stagg’s wife of seventy years, Stella, was heavily involved in writing and editing his speeches, and Lussier is trying to support her hunch by examining the handwriting on the document. Is it Stella’s or Stagg’s? Her research will help shape a book by Dr. Erin McCarthy, Associate Professor of History in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia.
Dr. McCarthy began researching Stagg when she was in graduate school at Loyola University Chicago. Her dissertation addressed Stagg’s role in shaping collegiate sports, as well as the role that sports play in higher education. Because Stagg spent so many years at the University of Chicago, the institution has an extensive collection of letters, speeches, articles, and other archived materials that can help weave together the patchwork of his life. The collection is so vast, in fact, that even after her dissertation was complete, Dr. McCarthy suspected there was more to Stagg than his role in establishing collegiate athletics. When she went on sabbatical last Spring to write a book, that is just where she put her attention.
While much has been written about Stagg’s influence on athletics (he helped organize the Big Ten Conference, was a founder of the American Football Coaches Association, is credited with football main-stays such as the tackling dummy and the huddle, and coached basketball, baseball, and track), Dr. McCarthy is writing her book as a piece of Chicago history. Stagg came to the University of Chicago in 1892 from the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School (now Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts, and remained at the University of Chicago until 1932. With the years practically bookended by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the World’s Fair of 1933–1934, both of which took place in Chicago, Dr. McCarthy is exploring Stagg’s impact on collegiate sports as the White City evolved into a world-class city.
“I think this is a story of beginnings, for a city coming of age, for a new university, and, for better or worse, the formal, institutional, exploitation of collegiate football for commercial purposes,” she says. To tell that story, she had to go straight to the original setting: the University of Chicago.
Facing the time-consuming task of sifting through an immense amount of archived material, Dr. McCarthy decided to find an assistant for her book project and learned about the URMI. Interested, she sent an email to a select group of Honors students she had taught in the past, informing them of the project. Lussier, who was a student in her Fall 2011 Honors course, “Oral History: The Art of the Interview,” quickly responded, asking for more information. In response, she received Dr. McCarthy’s dissertation.
“I had no idea who Stagg was,” Lussier says. “I’m not necessarily the biggest sports person. I did ballet my entire life and I cannot catch a ball.” And yet, after reading about Stagg, she was hooked. “I wanted to see the bigger picture. It’s sort of like when you watch ten minutes of a movie and you think, ‘I need to see the rest of it!’”
The URMI relationship took root. For ten to twelve hours each week last spring Lussier traveled to the University of Chicago, where she read through a seemingly endless supply of documents, took copious notes, and reported her findings to her professor. Lussier admits it took a while to find her groove. In the beginning stages of her research she expected to find answers immediately, but she quickly discovered that the more she read the more questions she had about Stagg and Stella.
“I think a really valuable lesson that I’ve gotten from this experience, and one that Erin has really helped so much with, is how much history is about asking questions, and how you can allow that to guide your research,” Lussier says. “Before, if I was doing a project and I just kept coming up with more questions, I would be discouraged. And now it’s invigorating and sort of recharges the batteries."
In fact, both professor and student get downright giddy when they are in the same room and talk about discovering new things about Stagg in their research. “Whenever I found things, I thought, ‘Erin’s going to love this!’” Lussier says. Adds Dr. McCarthy, “With all the things she brought back and the questions she asked and answered, it just felt like, ‘Oh! Yes, she’s got it. She’s thinking like a historian.”
During her trips to the University of Chicago, Lussier uncovered a range of new information about Stagg’s life, and the influence his wife had on his work as a coach. Lussier found color-coded game strategies that Stella drew in the 1930s, information that proves she had a direct impact on the way her husband thought about the game. Dr. McCarthy, who is in the process of shopping the book proposal to publishers, says she is so thrilled with Lussier’s research that if the proposal is accepted she will get credit as a coauthor on the sections of the book for which she served as the primary researcher.
“I’m so grateful,” Lussier says to her professor. “You can be grateful for the opportunity,” Dr. McCarthy replies, “but it’s your work, too.”
Black and white photographs are courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago.