Artist in Residence: Coach Bob Zuppke

An exhibit at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center highlights former Fighting Illini Football Coach Robert Zuppke’s other passion—painting.

Bob Zuppke This 1954 photo reflects the twin passions—football and art—that fascinated Bob Zuppke throughout his life. The 1948 Amos Alonzo Stagg Award (center)honors the longtime coach for advancing “the best interests of football.” (Photo courtesy of UI Archives)
An exhibit at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center highlights former Fighting Illini Football Coach Robert Zuppke’s other passion—painting.

Football might have never had a huddle. Young Robert Zuppke was that serious about his art. Good enough to earn a living painting signs, and confident enough to leave Wisconsin with $4 in his pocket to pursue the artistic life in New York City, Zuppke might have been a mere break or two from a very different life. In his mind, he was good enough to get work, but not good enough to keep it. “I was supposed to draw lions,” he said of one assignment, “but they looked like rats.” Zuppke left New York, but he never left the arts. Throughout his life, he remained an avid and joyous painter.

Zuppke Painting 36

(Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Alumni Association)

The exhibit The Art of Coach Bob Zuppke at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center in Urbana allows visitors to see for themselves what kind of artist Bob Zuppke was. On display are 25 of the coach’s oil paintings, pastels and watercolors, as well as illustrations he executed for a college yearbook and a furniture company, and keepsakes he collected during his years at the University.

Zuppke painting

(Photo courtesy of The News-Gazette)

Zuppke may not have been a great artist, but he was prolific, and he liked to give his paintings away. And because he was a well-known and beloved figure, people tended to keep them. “We had about 50 paintings from which to select,” says Joseph Rank, ’69 MEDIA, MS ’73 MEDIA,  retired vice president of the UI Alumni Association, who helped curate the exhibit. “The fact that so many paintings survived is a testament to his popularity.’’

Zuppke was not generally given to discussing his art, but in a 1936 article in Esquire, he talked about the relationship between art and football. “A painting is a creation and so is a football team,” he said. “Just as an artist creates a picture on a canvas, a football coach creates a mobile image out of an array of raw physical masses. Just as paintings are made of dabs and swabs of different pigments, so football compositions are an orderly conglomeration of different types of men in motion . . . In selecting the men who compose my teams, I always follow this maxim: Pick heat and motion.”

Evidently, the coach had different criteria for what he put on canvas. The vast majority of his works are landscapes, many inspired by his trips to Colorado and the Southwest. What seems fair to say is that they are the product of the enthusiasms of a man who enjoyed many things: reading, traveling, public speaking, writing. Among the non-landscapes in the exhibit are sketches of ordinary folks that he created while visiting Cuba, where the outgoing Zuppke got invited to the wedding of Mary Welsh and Ernest Hemingway—who missed by only a couple of years the chance to play football for Coach Zuppke at Oak Park High School.

Zuppke's Ned Brant Comic

Although most of Zuppke’s work focused on landscapes, he did do some football-related images. From 1929-1941, Zuppke augmented his income by serving as technical adviser and co-author of the syndicated Ned Brant sports comic strip, which featured the football exploits of the title character. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

Zuppke's "The Benchwarmer"

(Photo courtesy of Patrick Hayes and Maria Salinas-Hayes)

Zuppke seldom painted people or football subjects, but ironically, one painting in the hands of the University that will not appear in the exhibit possesses both those features. Called “The Benchwarmer,” it captures a young leatherhead riding the pine, waiting for his coach to call. The painting hangs in the office of Lovie Smith, the school’s new head coach, and it’s probably right where it belongs.

Source: Bob Zuppke: The Life and
Football Legacy of the Illinois Coach
by Maynard Brichford

View The Art of Coach Bob Zuppke at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center