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 Aug. 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, for what he 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 5'6" 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.
"Formally, he was my assistant; practically, he was in charge," says Alonzo Jr., now 63 and a stockbroker in Chicago. The firstborn son, Lonnie was given a letter 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 nine, 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."
Neither Alonzo Jr. nor his brother, Paul, 55, athletic director at the University of the Pacific, smokes or drinks. Their sister, Ruth, now Mrs. J. Alton Lauren of Chicago, is not so convinced that these things are evil. She enjoys a cocktail and admits, too, that she never particularly eared to play tennis, her father's favorite pastime. "I was the girl in the family," she says, "and I had to suffer for it. I could never have white shoes, and they always had to be square-toed. For my health. Low heels, very plain. Once I frizzed up my hair in front, and my father cut it off. He was very strict. But he loved us. I'm positive of that."
Stagg's wife, Stella, who caught his eye "playing men's basketball in her bloomers" as a Chicago coed, lives alone now in the modest, cream-colored frame house on West Euclid Ave. in Stockton. They rented the house 29 years ago because Stagg didn't think he'd live long enough to buy it. (The Associated Press first wrote his obituary in 1933.) Stella Stagg cares for herself but at 87 is no longer able to attend to her husband. She keeps busy with Stagg's correspondence and rummages among the bookcases and orange crates that brim with trophies, plaques, portraits and old baseballs.
Originally jealous of his attention to football, Stella Stagg learned to diagram plays and to scout opponents, and to make his utilitarian meals palatable for the family. Once he showed her a new play he was going to spring on a COP opponent. She quickly worked out a defense for it. "That'll stop your play," she said. Stagg scratched his white head, puzzling. He padded off to the kitchen for a glass of water. Finally he returned. "He had a gleam in his eye and an eraser in his hand," says Mrs. Stagg. " 'You can't stop it now,' he said with triumph, and erased one of my players. 'You were using 12 men.' "
There is no swimming pool in the Stagg backyard, no big car in front. For all his success, Stagg has lived without frills. "Money," he said, "is damnation," and he never had much. The Giants offered him $4,200 to play baseball in 1888; he refused because there were saloons in big league ballparks. He once passed up a $300 speaking engagement because it meant missing a practice. His salary never exceeded $8,500, yet he contributed annually to the Yale fund, made a $3,000 cash donation to the College of the Pacific to purchase a 21-acre tract adjoining the stadium and donated $1,000 for chimes to the University of Chicago, stipulating that the alma mater be played at 10:05 each night as a signal for football players to get to bed.
The only real money he ever made was by cashing in on a" 100,000-to-3 long shot: two life-term insurance policies, for $690 and $10,000, that reached maturity in 1958. He was once offered $300,000 for the movie rights to his life story. It was to star Spencer Tracy and Catherine Hepburn, who bore marked resemblances to the Staggs. When he turned it down, his sons were aghast. "It's my life," said Stagg, "and I don't expect my sons to tell me how to run it. I wouldn't give the money to you, anyway, I'd give it to the university."
The only tangible rewards Stagg gave his players were sweaters and letters. Stagg abhorred recruiting of any sort and was never told—or perhaps did not want to be told—that there were players 'on scholarship at COP. He said that recruiting breeds dishonesty and was not right for a coach whose profession should be "one of the noblest and far-reaching in building manhood. No man is too good to be the athletic coach for youth."
Until he went to the rest home six months ago, where he will live out his days, Stagg mowed his lawn with a hand mower. "He mowed that lawn to death," said Stella Stagg. One day a neighbor advised him that kids had been playing on it daily, ripping up the turf. "You'll never raise grass that way," he said. "Sir," answered Stagg, "I'm not raising grass. I'm raising boys."
Stagg found fame as a Yale pitcher too.
As coach at Chicago, Stagg made sure his players could hear his orders.
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.