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Biography - Amos Alonzo Stagg

Image - Amos Alonzo Stagg WalkingAmos Alonzo Stagg was born to a poor family in the town of West Orange, New Jersey, on August 16, 1862.  At the time, the nation was engaged in a bitterly fought civil war.  The years following that war proved to be difficult ones for the Stagg family.  As a result, while still a young and growing boy, “Lonnie” as Stagg was called, had to work to help his father provide for the family.  He earned meager wages running errands, carrying buckets of ashes, cutting the threshing grain by hand for farmers around the salt meadows of Newark and chopping wood.  It was hard work and usually meant laboring many hours each day. Fortunately, when Lonnie was a young boy, life was not all work and no play.  Early in his boyhood, he enjoyed hard play and competition.  He loved to participate in games requiring physical prowess, stamina and skill.  One game, of the soccer type, was played with balls from blown-up pig bladders, which Lonnie’s father, after butchering hogs each fall, would give to him.  Usually the games involved a lot of rough action.  The long hours of hard work and participation in rough, competitive games did much to help Lonnie develop a strong body. At the time, Lonnie and his boyhood friends knew very little about the game of football.  He was only seven years of age when, in 1869, the first intercollegiate game was played between Rutgers and Princeton.  However, as time was to eventually reveal, it would be from his years of association with football, as a player and coach, that he would achieve recognition and greatness. While football and fame were waiting in the wings for Stagg, he became keenly interested in playing the game of baseball.  Although he played first and third base, Lonnie liked to pitch best.  He practiced diligently for many hours to improve his pitching skills.  Opposing batters had difficulty hitting his combination of pitches and by the time he graduated from Orange High School, Orange, New Jersey, Lonnie had become an outstanding pitcher.   Numerous home, educational, athletic and religious experiences during Lonnie’s childhood and young adult life positively influenced the development of his code of ethics and character.  In his parents’ home, because of their poverty, he learned about the virtues of self-discipline, sacrifice, hard work and honesty.  Early in his life, he became aware of the necessity of a good education and he strived to attain one.  He was able to achieve a high school and college education through hard work, sacrifice and perseverance.  When he was in high school, he became a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Orange, New Jersey.  Undoubtedly, accepting the teachings and moral principles of his religion greatly influenced Lonnie’s attitude toward living a highly moral life.  In high school athletics, principally baseball, he developed a keen sense of loyalty, fair play and sportsmanship. Lonnie Stagg, upon his graduation from high school in 1883, had a fervent desire to continue his education.  He chose to attend Yale University, which maintains an excellent reputation as an educational institution.  It had a divinity school, which was important to Lonnie, for he wanted to become a Presbyterian minister.  Already strongly driven to extend his education, he received additional motivation from others.  Amos Alonzo Stagg, Jr., in later years said his father’s decision to attend Yale was strongly influenced by his sister, his Sunday school teacher and the minister of his church.

However, Lonnie soon learned that his high school education had not adequately prepared him to pass the entrance exams at Yale.  Therefore, he found it necessary to attend, for one year, Phillips Exeter Academy, a college preparatory school for boys, located in Exeter, New Hampshire.  The 1883-84 school year at Phillips Exeter Academy was a hard one for Lonnie.  He found that wagesImage - Amos Alonzo Stagg on 1884 Exeter Baseball Team earned during the previous summer cutting hay in the salt meadows were barely sufficient for him to pay Exeter’s tuition and still have enough remaining for room and food.  He overcame the financial burden by following a strict budget.   (Picture right - Mr. Stagg was part of the 1884 Phillips Exeter Academy Baseball Team.)

In the fall of 1884, he entered Yale University.  At Yale, Lonnie didn’t have enough money to provide for room and board.  After paying the $29.80 tuition fee for entrance into Yale’s divinity school, he had only a small amount of money left.  For the first three months at Yale, in an attempt to conserve his money, he decided upon a daily diet that consisted of soda crackers or stale bread and a quart of milk.  He lived in a small, unheated room, which cost him one dollar a week.  A short time after school began, he was able to find a job sweeping out the school’s chapel.  However, the little wages received were not enough to stop the steady drain on his small money supply. One day Lonnie became ill with a fever and chills.  A doctor diagnosed his illness as resulting from malnutrition.  His daily diet simply was not providing his body with the needed nutrition.  With the help of friends, Lonnie soon found a job waiting on tables at one of the school’s student dining halls.  His situation began to improve.  Also, he began to receive additional help from other members of his family, one of whom was a sister who had attended Vassar College.  Amos Alonzo Stagg, Jr., commented that during those critical years of decision-making and commitment, his father received much encouragement and help from her.  Later, one of his professors, upon learning of Lonnie Stagg’s hardships, gave him board (meals) for doing various chores around his home.  These turns in fortune helped him nourish his body back to full strength.  He felt more secure about completing college. In the spring of his freshman year, he tried out for the University’s freshman baseball team.  He had no difficulty, as a third base man, making the team.  He was such an outstanding player that he was soon promoted to the varsity team.  However, as he had at Orange High School, Lonnie wanted to pitch.  He got his opportunity to pitch when it was learned that Yale’s star pitcher was throwing the ball so hard and fast that no one on the team could catch his pitches.  A decision was made to make the hard throwing pitcher the catcher and let Stagg Pitch.  The decision was to change the baseball fortunes of both Stagg and Yale for the next five years.  In his five years of playing baseball at Yale, for rules of eligibility then permitted an athlete to participate in his postgraduate year, Stagg pitched the team to five successive championships.  

Image - Amos Alonzo Stagg as a baseball player.(Picture Left - Mr. Stagg on Yale Baseball Team) Amos Alonzo Stagg’s skill and success as a college pitcher impressed the talent scouts of various major league baseball teams.  In his senior year, six big league baseball teams offered him a contract.  The New York Nationals, later called the Giants, offered Stagg $4,200 for one season of play.  He refused all of the professional team contracts.  He did so for a number of reasons.  First, he strongly believed that games were best played in the spirit of amateurism.  He disliked the thought of anyone playing sports for a salary.  Second, big league ball parks of the era contained saloons and some of the professional athletes at the time were of questionable character.  His moral standards would not permit him to play in such an environment.  No amount of money could have enticed him to play professionally.  Money was unimportant to Lonnie Stagg, as shown by numerous examples.  He was content to live on the modest salary of a college professor.  In his later years, a Hollywood film producing company wanted to make a movie about his illustrious career and life.  They offered him a large sum of money for his permission to make the movie.  He refused their offer.  He explained to family members that he believed it wasn’t proper to have his personal and professional life portrayed on film.  “Incidentally,” he said to his family, “if I had signed a movie contract, I wouldn’t have kept any of the money.  I would have given it to Yale and the University of Chicago.”  On another occasion, he refused a three hundred dollar afternoon speaking engagement because it conflicted with his team’s scheduled football practice.

Image - Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaching The 1924 Olympics Track Team in Paris, France.

(Picture Left - Amos Alonzo Stagg posing with the 1924 Olympics Track Team in Paris, France.  He was the coach.)

He was known to be generous with his money, often bringing track athletes to the Olympic Games at his expense.  He purchased, for three thousand dollars, a 40-acre tract of land as a gift at the College of the Pacific for development into athletic fields.  He gave one thousand dollars to the University of Chicago for the placement of chimes in one of its buildings - - chimes which would, on a given evening hour, signal bedtime for its athletes.

Lonnie Stagg didn’t play much football at Yale until 1887, his junior year.  He did not play as a regular before then because the baseball schedule carried over into the football season.  Also, the baseball team feared that a football injury could cost it the loss of its star pitcher.  Image - Mr. Stagg as member of 1888 Yale Football teamThe conflict between the two sport schedules continued to limit his participation in football until the 1889 season, when he played regularly at the right end position.  Enroute to winning the conference championship, the 1889 Yale football team won 15 games and lost one.  Stagg, because of his outstanding play at right end, was selected by Caspar Whitney and Walter Camp to be on the roster of the first All-American football team.  

(Picture Right - Amos Alonzo Stagg - 1888 Yale Football Team)

While at Yale, Lonnie learned that he was not very effective as a public speaker.  He had difficulty addressing audiences at Christian meetings, conferences and camps.  Feeling that a successful minister must be able to speak effectively to large groups and at the time lacking such an ability, he decided to withdraw from Yale’s divinity school.  However, he was determined to spread his Christian ideals to others.  He decided that if he couldn’t do so as a minister, he would accomplish the goal on the athletic field as a coach.

In 1890, he entered the International Y.M.C.A. College at Springfield, Massachusetts.  He was preparing to become a physical education teacher and coach.  At the Y.M.C.A. College, Stagg was quickly recognized, not only for his athletic skill and moral character, but also for his genius as a young coach.  He formed and coached the college’s first football team.  He and his teams were respected by opponents for their hard, fair play and sportsmanship, which became a trademark of all future Stagg coached teams.

Image - Mr. Stagg YMCA Class Picture


(Image Left - Mr. Stagg's 1891 YMCA Graduating Class)

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Image - List of 1891 YMCA Graduation Class Members

 (List of 1891 YMCA Graduating Class Members)

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James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, in 1891, was a classmate of Stagg’s at the Y.M.C.A. College.  It is a little known fact that Amos Alonzo Stagg had a hand in the creation of basketball.  Before introducing his new game, James Naismith discussed its various facets with Stagg.  Amos Alonzo Stagg, Jr., said his father was to have played in the very first game of basketball, but wasImage - Amos Alonzo Stagg and James Naismith on the YMCA Football Team. unable to do so because of a previously scheduled speaking engagement.  (Picture Right - Y.M.C.A. College 1891 Football team.  James Naismith is bottom row, second from left. )  In 1890, while still a student at the Y.M.C.A. College and in addition to playing with and coaching the College’s teams, Stagg was persuaded to coach the football teams of Williston Seminary, in Easthampton, Massachusetts.  It was the first coaching job for which he received pay.  However, his schedule at the Y.M.C.A. College and the traveling distance to Easthampton limited his coaching at Williston Seminary to one day a week.  Nevertheless, he did a good job, considering the limitations and, in 1891, was offered a second contract to coach the Seminary team.   By 1892, the knowledge of Lonnie Stagg’s inventiveness and genius as a coach, as well as his gentlemanly qualities had become widely known.  Dr. William Rainey Harper, president of the newly formed University of Image - Mr. Stagg posing with University of Chicago football player.Chicago, desired a man of Stagg’s stature to become the director of the new university’s Department of Physical Culture and Athletics.  He persuaded Lonnie to come to the Midwest university and assigned him the rank of Associate Professor.  Such an academic rating for an athletic coach was unheard of in that era.  Stagg’s association with the University of Chicago was to last for the next 41 years.   During Stagg’s years at the University of Chicago, its athletic program developed into one of the nation’s best.  In football, it became nationally recognized as a powerhouse.  Always well-coached, its teams were known for their hard play and sportsmanship, as well as the crafty offensive and defensive formations demonstrated each game.  Lonnie Stagg, as coach, was like a magician.  Opponents never knew what to expect.  He invented numerous offensive and defensive formations, many of which are still used today. 

Image - University of Chicago Football Team of 1892His University of Chicago teams won 225 games, losing 113 and tying 27.  In addition to coaching football at the University, Stagg coached track and field for 32 years, baseball for 19 years and basketball for one year.  

Image Left - University of Chicago Football Team 1892
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Image - 1893 University of Chicago Football Team

Image Left - University of Chicago Football Team 1893

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At age 70, because of university policy, Stagg was forced into retirement.  He wanted to remain at the University of Chicago but realized that he could not.  Still in good health and desiring to continue coaching, he found a job as head coach at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California.  He coached there for the next fourteen years.  Three of his College of the Image - Coach Stagg kneeling with a football in his hand/Pacific teams won the Far Western Conference Championship.  The small college, which previously was  unknown to many, now received nationwide publicity.  In 1943, a year in which his Tigers won 7 and lost 2, the Football Coaches Association honored him by voting Lonnie as “Coach of the Year.”  At the time he was 81 years of age. 

Stagg, at age 84, left the College of the Pacific.  He went back east and joined his son, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Jr., the coach at Susquehanna University, located in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.  While Stagg was at Susquehanna, the University, in 1951, had its first unbeaten and untied season.  He was listed, officially, as an advisory coach to his son.  In later years, his son stated that his father handled all of the duties and responsibilities of a head coach and that he, Stagg, Jr., actually served as an assistant coach.  The statement was supported by a number of athletes who played on the Susquehanna teams during Lonnie’s stay at the university.  Amos Alonzo Stagg, Jr., contends that his father should be credited with the 21 games won during those years at Susquehanna.  However, A.A. Stagg, Jr’s., contention notwithstanding, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) would not credit Lonnie with the Susquehanna victories but only with those victories number 314 wherein he was listed officially as the head coach.

During the 1981 football season, Bear Bryant, coach of the University of Alabama football team, won his 315th game and succeeded Amos Alonzo Stagg as the “winningest football coach” in the game’s history.  However, had the NCAA credited Stagg with the games won at Susquehanna, he would have a total of 335 victories. In 1952, at age 90, because of his wife, Stella’s, failing health, Image - Mr. Stagg mowing his lawn at age 98he left Susquehanna University and returned to their home in Stockton.  From the time of their marriage on September 10, 1892, she had been Lonnie’s constant companion and “assistant coach.”  Stella Stagg observed, year after year, many of the practice sessions and was present at most of the games.  She kept game statistics, scouting forms and helped answer, daily, the large volume of mail addressed to Coach Stagg.  He felt now that his place must be near to her.  However, once he returned to Stockton, Lonnie found some time each afternoon in the fall to work with the Stockton Junior College kickers and punters.  He was, until age 97, an “advisory coach” on the school’s football staff.  It was Lonnie’s last coaching assignment.   (Image left - Mr. Stagg mowing his lawn at age 98.)

President John F. Kennedy, on the occasion of Amos Alonzo Stagg’s 100th birthday, wrote this tribute.  “His character and career have been an inspiration since his undergraduate days for countless Americans.  Few men in our history have set so persuasive and shining examples as aImage - Mr. Stagg in 1932 posing with Pop Warner teacher, coach and citizen.  His integrity and dedication to all the goals he has set for himself are unmatched.”   The “Grand Old Man of Football,” as Lonnie for years was affectionately called, lived to an age just five months short of his 103rd birthday.   (Image Right - 1932, Mr. Stagg and Pop Warner, Hollywood, California)

Dr. Robert E. Burns, when President of the University of the Pacific and the Amos Alonzo Stagg Foundation, Inc., said, “Ever a participant rather than a spectator, Amos Alonzo Stagg, through scholarships, playing fields, schools bearing his name and other perpetual awards made possible by his thousands of admirers, will be forever in the minds of young and old.  The rare example of his life - - his philosophy, his sportsmanship, his countless achievements through physical and moral fitness, will inspire Americans in the years ahead.” “ . . . . Image - Mr. Stagg and Will Rogers 1934THERE NEVER WAS A MAN OF STAGG’S STATURE IN U.S. SPORTS, AND THERE NEVER WILL BE AGAIN.” Author, Bob Considine

(Image Left - Mr. Stagg and Will Rogers - 1934) 

This biography is a publication of the Amos Alonzo Stagg Special Collection Committee.  The committee wishes to especially thank Mr. Dominic Bertinetti Jr., Chairman of the Special Collection Committee, for his tireless efforts in making this biography and the assembling of the materials in the Amos Alonzo Stagg High School Stagg archives.  This biography was prepared by Mr. Bertinetti drawing from these resources. All pictures are taken from the Amos Alonzo Stagg Special Collection.  The pictures were donated by members of the Amos Alonzo Stagg family to the Special Collection residing at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School, Palos Hills, Illinois. Clicking on any picture will show a larger view of that picture.