President Barack Obama (C) poses for photographs with the 2012 NCAA Women�s Basketball champion Baylor University Lady Bears and Head Coach Kim Mulkey in the East Room of the White House July 18, 2012 in Washington, DC. The Baylor Lady Bears became the first NCAA basketball team to complete a 40-0 season by defeating Notre Dame 80-61 in the NCAA women's championship. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Obama, we all know, is a big college basketball fan. But he’s never been associated with a college that has a team worth rooting for. As an undergraduate, he attended Occidental and Columbia. He went to law school at Harvard, which made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946 this year, losing to Vanderbilt in the first round. Then Obama taught at the University of Chicago, a Division III school, where he was more into pick-up basketball than the intercollegiate variety. (The U of C Maroons play such schools as Maranatha Baptist, Illinois Wesleyan and Kalamazoo, so who can blame him?)
There is, however, a solution to that. As long as the Big Ten is expanding, inviting Maryland and Rutgers into the conference, why not bring back U of C, the only charter member not currently in the league. U of C actually founded the Big Ten, hosting a 1895 meeting at the Palmer House to create what was then known as the Western Conference. (In the same sense that the Michigan fight song declares the Wolverines, “champions of the West.”) Coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame's inaugural class, the Maroons were a turn-of-the-century powerhouse, winning the 1899 Big Ten title with a 16-0-2 record. In 1905, they went 11-0 to win the national championship. Long before the Bears came to town, the Maroons were the original Monsters of the Midway. The first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger, played halfback for U of C.
Stagg was forced out at age 70 by President Robert Maynard Hutchins, who hated physical culture so much that he once said, “Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away.” (Stagg lived to be 102; Hutchins died at 78.) Deciding to take U of C full nerd, Hutchins abolished football in 1939. The school’s place in the Big Ten was taken over by Michigan State College.
Frankly, big-time intercollegiate sports would improve U of C. It’s a pretty gloomy campus, consistently voted the worst social life of any school in the USA. Attending a lecture by a Middle Eastern scholar qualifies as a gay old time in Hyde Park. My favorite U of C joke: “‘How many University of Chicago students does it take to screw in a light bulb?’ ‘Quiet! I’m trying to study in the dark.’”
Big Ten basketball would bring some life to Hyde Park. And Obama would finally have a team to root for.
This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $9.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.