U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Intellectual History of College Coaching and the Penn State Scandal

Today’s guest blogger, Brian M. Ingrassia, is the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time College Football (University Press of Kansas, March 2012). He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and currently teaches at Middle Tennessee State University.

What the Intellectual History of College Coaching Can Tell Us about Penn State
By Brian Ingrassia

In recent weeks, Americans listened with horror as graphic tales of sexual abuse emanated from the criminal trial of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who last Friday was convicted of 45 counts of molesting boys over the course of more than a decade. The scandal and its cover up—which led to the firing of iconic coach Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier last fall—have demonstrated the incredible power that departments of athletics hold in many universities. Here, I would like to explore the intellectual history of college coaching (yes, I argue that there is such a thing) in order to gain a fuller understanding of the Penn State fiasco and the place of big-time sports in American colleges.

First, realize that coaching was transformed from an amateur vocation into a profession in the early 1900s. Before this time, players served as coaches, or unpaid graduate advisors like Yale’s Walter Camp worked day jobs while leading their teams to gridiron success. By the 1920s, though, dozens of men—such as Amos Alonzo Stagg of the University of Chicago, Fielding Yost of Michigan, and John Heisman of Georgia Tech and Penn, among others—devoted their careers to coaching. These men had to make a living from the game. Ultimately, some of them garnered large salaries and even gained professorial rank (as did Stagg and Yost, and later Paterno) at their respective universities.

How did such men justify faculty status and outsized paychecks? In short, they portrayed themselves, in both writings and speeches, as educators skilled at the art of training young men in the ways of discipline and self-control. They were “teaching” football, but they were also—so they claimed—teaching so much more. This argument appeared in numerous popular manuals written by early-1900s coaches. For example, in Principles of Football (1922), John Heisman called the athletic field “the best laboratory known where a young man can get the training, the discipline, [and] the experience” that he would need for a successful post-college life. Such arguments were echoed throughout this genre, as coaches said that they were better able to teach discipline than anyone else—including fathers, ministers, and professors.

These men were writing at a time when American universities were growing larger and more fragmented. Once upon a time, legendary professors like Francis Wayland, Mark Hopkins, and Noah Porter had stressed the teaching of moral, mental, and physical discipline in intimate classrooms and residence halls. But by 1900, expanding universities embraced the modern division of labor and taught knowledge to students in a multitude of new disciplines: history, economics, and psychology, just to name a few. In this pragmatic era, higher education was no longer dedicated to teaching individuals moral virtue. Rather, universities were designed to train members of a population how to make contributions to a complex, highly differentiated society. Athletics seemed to fill the void that opened when the curriculum shifted from moral discipline to academic disciplines. Coaches claimed to assume the important duty of teaching young men proper behavior, ethics, morality, and self-control. The athletic department, at least in theory, became the one department of the modern university dedicated to this task.

By the early 1900s, coaches even regularly asserted that football arenas (note that we are not talking about physical education courses) were essential spaces for teaching discipline. Coaches even posited that college athletics could teach the multitude or the crowd, not just a handful of players. Thousands of fellow students and spectators might learn discipline by watching sports. Coaches like John Heisman and Princeton’s Bill Roper contended that a team could only win on Saturday afternoon if the entire student body observed training rules, thus supporting the team’s efforts throughout the whole week. Fielding Yost, in his 1905 manual Football for Player and Spectator, went even further. He wrote that a football game could inspire spectators to absorb temperate habits and forge “a spirit which reaches out from the athletic field through the campus and into the very recitation room.” The games occurring in the stadium, Michigan’s coach thus asserted, could even improve a college’s academic environment.

As farfetched as such arguments may sound, we need to keep in mind that Yost was not the only (ahem) intellectual to make such claims during the Progressive Era. Josiah Royce said something similar in a turn-of-the-century piece when he stated that properly supervised physical training could “extend its influence to large bodies of boys who, as spectators of games or as schoolmates, are more or less influenced by the athletic spirit.” All those present at expertly conducted games, in other words, could learn ethical lessons useful in modern society.

Can disciplined behavior really be taught to a few men on an athletic field during a commercial spectacle? Do tens of thousands of people really learn how to be better, more disciplined members of society in football stadiums? These are good questions, ones that would be difficult to answer in any historical context. (Not only is it dubious that football teaches players and spectators temperate habits, as Fielding Yost posited in 1905, but there is also no way to measure such an expansive claim.) Nevertheless, similar rhetoric is often utilized today. Great coaches, we are told, are not just great because they win games, recruit star athletes, or reap publicity for their universities. Rather, what makes them great is their dedication to young men—and their identities as “teachers” or mentors, as well as coaches.

Until November 2011, many Americans thought that Joe Paterno and his coaching staff, including Jerry Sandusky, were true educators dedicated to teaching young men morality and discipline—not to enriching themselves. The excesses of big-time intercollegiate athletics could more easily be overlooked when they were balanced out by feel-good programs like Penn State’s. As it turns out, though, at least one coach in Happy Valley appears to have been abusing his position and doing something perverse and antithetical to the teaching of virtue. In any case, Sandusky’s alleged criminal behavior—and the late Paterno’s apparent complicity in covering it up—indicates that we need to be skeptical of tropes such as that of the wise football teacher who adroitly instills disciplined behavior and good sportsmanship. After all, the questionable notion that famous, powerful, and highly compensated coaches successfully teach young men (and the public) virtuous lessons through spectator sport is one that dates back roughly a century.

Ultimately, understanding the intellectual history of college coaching can help us interrogate the place of athletics in America’s universities, a task that needs critical attention now more than ever.