If Robert Zuppke could see collegiate football in the United States today, it would likely be unrecognizable. Sure, he would see things he himself invented, the flea-flicker, the screen pass, and the huddle, but the vast majority of the structure of the sport would be a far cry from football of his time. As such, Zuppke does not much resemble football coaches of today. Zuppke did not recruit or offer his players scholarships, even as pressure to do so increased over the course of his career, and he used his time off to paint. Nowadays, you don’t hear much about time off for football coaches, and you certainly wouldn’t expect to hear that they’d used that time to paint.
To celebrate this unique man, his life, career, and his art, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is hosting an art exhibition featuring 25 of his pieces, five panels on his life, and artifacts from his time as coach. “The Art of Coach Bob Zuppke” exhibition is being hosted at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center. The show opened in June and will continue to be on display until December this year. Beginning to the left of the Lincoln Avenue entrance to the Alumni Center, patrons can view oil and watercolor paintings, as well as charcoal drawings created by the coach. In addition, five panels detail Zuppke’s life, giving viewers a glimpse into the mind and motivation of the man behind 131 wins over the course of a career lasting from 1913 until 1941.
Although it is unknown how many pieces of work Zuppke created over his lifetime, it is believed that he painted hundreds of pieces, many of which he gave away. Many of Zuppke’s paintings depict landscapes from the places he loved to travel most: the Southwest, Colorado, and Muskegon, Michigan, where Zuppke had his first coaching job. Very few of his pieces actually depict any scenes from football. It is hard to date Zuppke’s paintings because many of them lack any written name or date; however, it is known that most of the works displayed at the Alumni Center were created after he retired from coaching in 1941.
And though it may be surprising, “he doesn’t embarrass himself,” says Ryan Ross, the Coordinator of the History and Traditions Programs at the Alumni Center. In fact, during his tenure as a coach at the university, Zuppke participated in the Art Department’s faculty art shows and entered them in other exhibitions. Confident in his abilities, Zuppke surely held his own amongst his peers.
Though Zuppke’s name is well known you can see it carved in stone at Memorial Stadium, Ross hopes that Zuppke’s name will take on new meaning. As patrons move from painting, to panel, to painting, they will get a sense for the man that Zuppke was, a man who ate raw onions and drank beer for breakfast. He was also a man who held many titles. Coach, artist, sports writer, and motivational speaker. These are all titles that describe Robert Zuppke, but they only make up one part of the man, who on the whole, was a character.
“A painting is a creation, and so is a football team,” said Zuppke. And he certainly contributed a lot in making football the game it is today. From coaching Red Grange, who said Zuppke was a, “maker of champions and wrecker of championship hopes,” and innovating numerous plays, Zuppke was a creative and unique personality, who had a lot to share with the world. Though there is something to be said for timing, Zuppke came to the University at a time when football was increasing in popularity throughout the United States, Zuppke clearly had the vision to make the game great. He didn’t just contribute to the creation of great teams, teams that won four national titles and seven Big 10 championships, but one of the creators of a foundation that football continues to stand on today.
“The Art of Bob Zuppke” exhibition will be available for the public to view through December. The exhibit is located on the first and second floors of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center and can be viewed from 8:30am-5pm Monday through Friday. Saturday hours will be offered when the fall semester begins. Because of the large number of Zuppke paintings that Ross and the Alumni center found (over 50 in total), when the live exhibit closes in December, a virtual exhibit will become available online.
Ryan Ross can be reached at [email protected] for any inquiries.
Photos courtesy of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.