Review of Stagg vs. Yost

Kryk, John. Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. 360. 32 b/w photographs, acknowledgements, selected bibliography, index. $33.82 hardcover.

Reviewed by Michael T. Wood

As the title suggests, veteran journalist and Michigan football historian John Kryk’s second book, Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football, examines the bitter rivalry that developed as University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg competed against University of Michigan coach Fielding H. Yost’s nearly unstoppable squads of the early 1900s. Originally, the author intended for this book to focus solely on Yost’s “Point-a-Minute” offense and his dominant teams from 1901-1905, but some interesting discoveries altered his course. Based primarily on “never-before-published” UM athletic department correspondences from the Bentley Historical Library, archival research at the University of Chicago, and newspaper and periodical reports, Kryk expanded his scope to include a revisionist history of Stagg, consistent with Robin Lester’s Stagg’s University (1995) and counter to the popular image of Stagg as an “all-American paragon of virtue.” Stagg v. Yost also offers an argument for greater consideration of Yost’s achievements and his place in college football history.

Stagg v. Yost

Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Organized chronologically in three sections, Stagg vs. Yost establishes the background of each coach and the atmosphere surrounding college football at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, provides a narrative of battles waged between Stagg and Yost both on and off the field from 1901 to 1905, and concludes with the reforms passed in 1906 that changed the nature of college football as a sport and how it was played in the Big Nine (Big Ten) Conference.

In the first section, Kryk contrasts Stagg and Yost. Both men came from humble origins – Stagg from a working class family in West Orange, New Jersey, and Yost from rural Marion County, West Virginia. Both men were religious and abstained from alcohol. Through hard physical labor, they both developed physically and became athletes. As coaches, they both were brilliant tacticians and talented recruiters. But opportunity set them apart.

Stagg’s athleticism led to his attendance of Philips Exeter Academy, one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the United States and a feeder school for the elite colleges of the Northeast. He continued his studies at Yale University’s theological seminary and starred as a pitcher for Yale’s baseball team and became an All-American football player for the “Father of American Football” Walter Camp. After Yale, he enrolled at the International Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) training school in Springfield, Massachusetts (what is now Springfield College), with the hopes of pursuing a career that combined religious instruction with his love of sports. In 1891, William Rainey Harper, a former professor at Yale and the newly appointed president of the University of Chicago, hired Stagg as a member of the faculty and placed him in charge of athletics. Stagg maintained this position, more or less, from 1892 to 1932. The opportunity to attend prep school had allowed Stagg entry into the East Coast establishment, which led to his coaching career and helped build his positive public image.

Yost, on the other hand, took a different path. The author does not mention his formal education prior to attending two years at Ohio Normal University. Afterward, Yost returned to his home state and enrolled at the University of West Virginia in 1895, where he joined the football team. The following year, Yost played as a ringer for Lafayette College, contributing to their 6-4 win over the University of Pennsylvania. He finished his playing career with West Virginia in 1896, and then spent his falls as a journeyman professional coach. Yost coached at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1897, at the University of Nebraska in 1898, at the University of Kansas in 1899, and at Stanford University in 1900. His reputation grew throughout this period of offensive innovation and successful (if not always honorable) roster management. Most importantly, though, his teams won. The University of Michigan hired Yost in 1901, with the hopes that the brash young coach would return the Maize and Blue to championship form. Absent Stagg’s opportunities, Yost earned his chance to coach at Michigan, and he did not disappoint.

Both men entered the 1901 season during an intense period in college football. Kryk rightly describes both the violence and brutality of the game and the search for order that began in the 1890s, with the founding of regional conferences. As members of the Big Nine, representatives from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan often squabbled over scheduling, eligibility requirements, and rule changes. Here, Kryk challenges Stagg’s pristine image, arguing that it was a calculated façade that hid his true win-at-all-costs behavior. He also exposes the University of Michigan’s “loan” scheme that existed from the 1890s to the 1920s whereby instead of payments, administrators and alumni would lend athletes money to defray the cost of attendance. Even with this governing body, athletic departments throughout the conference regularly bent or broke the rules in order to gain or maintain prized athletes.

From 1901 to 1905, Yost’s “Hurry Up” offense dominated college football in the Midwest, going 55-1-1, and winning or sharing conference titles in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1904. Over the same period, Yost’s squads bested Stagg’s teams on the field four straight years. Kryk provides engaging narratives of those seasons and how each coach approached the game during the offseason. Consistent with their backgrounds, Stagg mostly mined prep and high schools for athletes, while Yost primarily built his rosters from graduate transfers. At times, both sides engaged in heated recruiting, most notably over Walter Eckersall, and provided athletes with subsidies, financial inducements, extra benefits, and, in some cases, academic accommodations. After years of disappointment, Stagg and the University of Chicago finally “dethroned” Yost and his machine in 1905.

Kryk also correctly marks that year as a watershed moment in college football history and an end of an era in the Big Nine. Criticism of the brutality of the game and its excesses led to a series of meetings that created a national governing body, which would be later renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). From 1906 to 1912, that organization’s rules committee fundamentally changed the sport with the introduction of the forward pass and the elimination of “mass play.” The Big Nine also passed sweeping changes beginning in 1906, such as a one-year residency rule, three-year eligibility rule, reduced the maximum number of games per year to five, banned the training table, set clear academic standards, and restricted coaching eligibility to university staff members. Kryk makes a compelling case that the majority of the Big Nine rules specifically targeted Yost and justified the University of Michigan’s subsequent departure from the conference in 1908 and its independent status through 1916.

Overall, Kryk successfully supports Lester’s depiction of Stagg as not just college football’s “Grand Old Man” but as a calculating, hypercompetitive coach willing to compromise amateur ideals in order to win. Even though his tone came across as too partisan at times, Kryk also provides a strong argument for Yost to be considered alongside Stagg, Glenn “Pop” Warner, John Heisman, and Knute Rockne as the best coaches in early college football history. This is especially true in an age where “Hurry Up” offenses and playing with tempo are stressed in college football. Yost pioneered that strategy over a century ago and should be remembered for it. Beyond the author’s intended focus, the amount of turnover year-to-year on college rosters and the competition among teams for current players were particularly interesting. With eastern schools raiding western teams and western teams raiding smaller schools, I gained an increased appreciation for just how “cutthroat” college football was at the time.

I would recommend Stagg vs. Yost to both a scholarly and general audience. It serves as a solid example of primary source research and is an enlightening, accessible account of the personalities and contradictions in early college football history.

 

Michael T. Wood is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Geography at Texas Christian University. His research focuses on American football played between U.S. and Cuban teams from 1900s to 1950s. He currently teaches sport-related courses as an instructor for the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. You can contact him at: m.t.wood@tcu.edu, michael.t.wood@ua.edu, or bacardibowl@gmail.com.

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