What if this were the schedule for the 2008 Michigan football team?

Kenyon, Wabash, Elmhurst, Oberlin, Macalester, Denison, Case, Washington (Mo.) and Carnegie Mellon.

Of course, it isn’t. It’s the schedule for the Division III University of Chicago Maroons, which used to be one of college football’s powerhouses.

Chicago also used to be one of Michigan’s biggest rivals. The two teams competed at the turn of the century in the Western Conference (does “champions of the West” sound familiar?), which was later known as the Big Ten Conference. They traded conference championships for decades. In 1898, a Michigan student composed “The Victors” on the way back from a one-point victory over the Maroons.

Chicago was the Ohio State of the early 20th century – albeit with a better academic reputation. The two heavyweights competed in the classroom and on the gridiron. They were a perfect match in both arenas.

Football was a serious pursuit at Chicago. Almost two years before the school held its first class, it hired a football coach and athletic director, Amos Alonzo Stagg. Stagg pioneered the center snap and the “T” formation, now common in sports vernacular. On the day of the school’s first class, Oct. 1, 1892, Stagg also held the Maroons’ first football practice.

From 1899 to 1924, Chicago team captured six conference titles in football. It won the 1905 national championship. In all sports combined, the school won or shared 71 Big Ten championships. It produced the first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger, in 1935.

So why are the Maroons opening their 2008 season with Kenyon – a slightly lesser known Ohio football team than the one in Columbus – when Michigan is opening its campaign against Utah, which produced the top pick in the 2005 NFL draft?

Because in 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then-president of the University of Chicago, decided to eliminate the football program. He saw it as a distraction from the true mission of the university. One of higher education’s most idealistic figures – his seminal work is titled “The University of Utopia” – Hutchins had the vision seven decades ago to anticipate the goliath distraction that Division I athletics would soon become.

When Hutchins made the unpopular decision to cut the football team before it became too powerful to control, the fates of the universities of Michigan and Chicago began to diverge. Today, both are easily among the Midwest’s premiere colleges. But at Chicago – which is considered to offer the superior education, especially at the undergraduate level – athletics don’t share the spotlight with academics in the same way that they do at Michigan. There’s a different culture.

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer does not have to deal with the same issues that University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman does, for instance. Wouldn’t it be nice if the central administration spent more of its time worrying about whether professors are concentrating on undergraduates and less about whether the Big House remains the largest college football stadium in the country?

In Ann Arbor, the talk of campus this week will be The Ann Arbor News’s report about how athletes are funneled into an independent study course taught by Psychology Prof. John Hagen, which offers them an easy A for minimal work. In Hyde Park, what will they be talking about? Probably not Terrelle Pryor.

The Division I athletic program has given this university a lot. It’s a wonderful thing for the Michigan community to come together seven or eight Saturdays a year, and a lot of athletes get unparalleled educations in the classroom and on the field.

But I’ll leave you with a couple of questions: Why is it that when average Americans think of one of the world’s top higher institutions of higher education, the University of Chicago, most think of economics or the Nobel Prize?

And why is it that when they think of another of the world’s finest schools, the University of Michigan, most think of sports?

Karl Stampfl was the Daily’s fall/winter editor in chief in 2007. He can be reached at kstampfl@umich.edu.

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