OAK PARK, Ill. — On a late summer evening at Oak Park River Forest High School, the high-pitched bark of football coach John Hoerster, Jr. is really an echo of football history.
“Offense, offense come here,” Hoerster said to the team, “Huddle up.”
The huddle – that staple of football at every level from Pop Warner to the pros, was invented at Oak Park River Forest High School by Robert Zuppke, one of the greatest minds in the history of the game.
In a closely cropped parted haircut, and a bowtie, Zuppke prowled the sidelines more than a century ago.
Zuppke was a German-born, Milwaukee-raised basketball player who became a football genius and landed at OPRF High School in 1910.
“Oak Park-River Forest High School hired him to be athletic director, a history teacher – and the new football coach,” Frank Lipo, the Oak Park Historical Society’s executive director, said.
OPRF H.S. is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. A special exhibit marks the milestone at the Oak Park River Forest Museum.
Zuppke’s work includes a book published in 1922 entitled “Football Technique and Tactics,” an early blueprint for football strategy.
Over three seasons, at the high school, Zuppke’s teams went undefeated.
“After three years here, one of the things he was getting a reputation for was not just for his team’s play, but sort if for the flair with which they did it,” Lipo said. “That kind of thing really made people sit up and take notice.”
Then the University of Illinois came calling.
Zuppke invented mainstays, such as the huddle, the screen pass, the spiral snap, and perhaps the greatest trick play in sports: the flea flicker. It’s designed to deceive the defense into thinking that a play is a run, and just when the defense commits to the ground, the running back flicks the ball, like a dog flicks a flea, back to the quarterback who launches a long pass down the field, usually to a wide-open wide receiver.
“The more you develop unusual strategies, you’re counting on your players to use their brains and not just always go to that same place in the line when you’re the running back,” Lipo said.
Zuppke’s players towered over him. Though he was small in stature – nicknamed the “Little Dutchman” – he stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the era; Knute Rockne, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Fielding Yost.
“I mean, he was right there with all the great ones,” said Kent Brown, the historian of the University of Illinois Athletics Department.
Zuppke’s teams won four national titles at the University of Illinois – and soon had a new nickname: “Mr. Razzle Dazzle.”
“He won four national titles, seven Big Ten championships,” Brown said. “That era was a pretty impressive run that they had here,” Brown said,
Today the football field at Memorial Stadium bears Zuppke’s name along with a plaque celebrating his philosophical football maxims known as ‘Zuppkeisms’ like “Never let hope elude you; that is life’s biggest fumble.”
But deep in the University of Illinois archives, among a collection of Zuppke photos and writings, we find that the image of a coach focused only on football doesn’t show the whole picture. Zuppke was also a prolific painter.
“This artistic expression that he felt like his whole life he couldn’t do enough of,” said Joanne Kaczmarek, the University of Illinois’ interim archivist.
In Zuppke’s writings he detailed post-season painting trips. Over the course of decades, he completed hundreds of paintings. Some of them now hang in the University’s Zuppke gallery. There are surreal landscapes, many show midwestern farms and forests. Some are depictions of the Florida Keys.
“Hemmingway was one of his students at Oak Park High School, so he would go to Key West or Cuba and hang out with Hemingway,” Brown said.
And one portrait of his greatest player, the galloping ghost, Red Grange.
“Probably his most famous painting,” Brown said. “He was very imaginative, and part of his imagination. I think came from his art background – he was an artist too who produced an enormous number of paintings.”
A thread of creativity binds his playbook with his paintings.
Kaczmarek read from one of his letters: “He writes: ‘Although I have been painting for many years, there are still people who seem to be surprised that a football coach should be interested in what seems to them an avocation far removed from football.’”
Back at OPRF High School, a football team in blue and orange connects the community to the black and white photos of a century ago.
Zuppke’s distant voice echoes and inspires a new generation of artists and innovators.
“I think the biggest thing I take away from his innovation is to continue to innovate,” Hoerster said. “Be curious and try new things, and not get stuck in your ways.”