Mr. Razzle Dazzle: Coach Bob Zuppke
In the early part of the last century, when football was played on mud-slop fields by leather-helmeted men with zigzag noses, Illinois (the University and the state) stood at the epicenter of the game. In large measure, that was because many of the iconic coaches of the era were located here: Amos Alonzo Stagg, who led the University of Chicago, won two national championships and seven Big Ten titles between 1892 and 1932; George Halas, ’18 ENG, the NFL pioneer, who at various times—and sometimes simultaneously—founded, co-owned, coached, managed and played for the Chicago Bears; and Robert (Bob) Zuppke, the loquacious, innovative German immigrant whose 29 years as head coach at the University of Illinois resulted in four national championships and seven Big Ten titles. When Zuppke retired, he was the winningest, most decorated coach in school history. Nearly 60 years after his death, that distinction remains unchallenged.
The contributions Bob Zuppke made to the sport of football are like the contributions Stone Age man made to tools: His brainstorms are now commonplace. The huddle? Zuppke invented it after realizing that just shouting instructions was not a very secure way to call a play, and nobody has had a better idea since. The long snap from the center to the punter? Zuppke was the one who said, “Make that a spiral.” The screen pass? Zup. The linebacker position? Also Zup. The forward pass? Well, maybe he didn’t invent it, but he surely used it more frequently and inventively than any of his peers. But more than any single innovation, even more than his steadfast, unyielding defense, Zuppke was known for his inventive alignments and trick plays. The flea flicker, the sidewinder, the whirligig, the razzle dazzle, the whoa back, the flying trapeze, the comparatively conventional on-side kick, and other high-risk, high-reward stunts and fakes all originated in the mad laboratory of Dr. Zuppke.
One explanation for Zuppke’s creative approach to football was that he was a creative man in general. Growing up in Milwaukee, where 2-year-old Robert and his family had emigrated from Berlin, he was very interested in art. A gifted illustrator, Zuppke contributed drawings to his yearbooks at Normal School and, later, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This interest in art stayed with Zuppke throughout his life, and when not coaching, he became a prolific oil painter (see accompanying article). But even after a year spent pursuing his artistic muse in New York City, young Zuppke was drawn back to sports, and when he proved too small and slow to play football, he turned to coaching. He won a state championship at his first stop, Muskegon High School in Michigan, and two more at athletic powerhouse Oak Park High School in Illinois. Those achievements, combined with post-season visits to both coasts, turned him into a hot prospect. When the Illinois position opened in 1912, 33-year-old Zuppke accepted an offer of $2,750 a year to coach the football team.
Zuppke’s 29-year tenure breaks rather cleanly into two parts: 17 seasons of plenty, including four when he won the national championship (1914, 1919, 1923 and 1927), followed by a dozen years of lean that led to his retirement. Although Zuppke enjoyed the services of a number of great players, including Halas and the sensational Red Grange, ’26 ATTENDEE, his teams were better known for smarts than physical gifts; his average player weighed less than 170 pounds, and no player on the undefeated 1927 team was a consensus All-American. Zuppke thought recruiting was undignified; even Grange was a walk-on (he came by his distinctive Number 77 jersey, Grange explained, because “the man in front of me got 76”). Zuppke approached his team each year like his peers on the faculty approached their pupils. “I’ll take whoever shows up the first day of practice,” he once said, “and I’ll turn them into a team”—and he succeeded by teaching. Grange said that Zuppke “understood men—who to pat on the back and who to kick in the ass.”
Whatever his secret, Zuppke’s success was his undoing; when other schools saw attendance at Illinois games increase from 4,500 to 60,000, with commensurate benefit to the University’s bottom line, they built football programs of their own. But in the face of cutthroat competition for athletic talent, the stubborn Zuppke—“the last strong-hold of simon-pure university athletics,” as the Chicago Tribune called him in 1941—refused to adjust. Even though the losing seasons acquired a sour regularity, the wiley Zup managed to magically summon some great moments from his lesser squads. “When you’re faced with one of those years when your material is only fair,” Zuppke said, “put all your eggs in one basket, pick out a tough team and lay for it.” Never was there a better example of this point than in 1939, when a winless Illinois team astonishingly ambushed a heavily favored No. 2-ranked Michigan squad 16-9, in what is still called one of the biggest upsets in Big Ten history.
Like many of today’s college coaches, Zuppke enjoyed his celebrity, and was much in demand as an after-dinner speaker. He was well-known for his Zuppkeisms—pithy, witty aphorisms that connected life and athletic competition. The quotes are many, and cover a wide range of topics. Some are sardonic: “Alumni are loyal if a coach wins all his games.” Others droll: “Advice to freshmen: Don’t drink the liniment.” Many are focused on football: “The greatest athlete is one who can carry a nimble brain to the place of action.” Most, however, are what we today would call motivational: “Moral courage is the result of respect from fellow men; Guts win more games than ability.”
During the Great Depression, Zuppke altered the theme of his dinner addresses. He never worried about whether his team would win or lose, he said, but whether it could stay in the game. “Can you take it?” was the question he said he posed to his players, but no one in the audience mistook the query’s real target.
Zuppke left the team after the 1941 season, reluctantly, but without complaint, and enjoyed a retirement that saw him travel, paint and raise pigs. He died in 1957. This fall, as the team has done every year since 1966, the Fighting Illini will play its home games at Zuppke Field.