By John Franch
There would never be another Homecoming game like it. On the 80-degree afternoon of Oct. 18, 1924, some 67,000 raucous fans, jammed into a newly dedicated Memorial Stadium, waited in suspense for the start of the contest against a powerhouse Michigan team. A whistle sounded, a cheer arose, and the Michigan captain kicked the football. It was a low kick, and the ball, spiraling northward through the sun-washed sky, plopped into the outstretched arms of Harold “Red” Grange ’26, who stood on the five-yard line of the emerald-green field. “Cautiously, almost shyly,” the bare-legged Grange embarked upon the famous 95-yard run that would win him sports immortality. Starting on his left, he quickly dodged to the right to avoid a tackler and then again swerved left. He had outflanked his befuddled Michigan opponents, extricating himself from “seemingly hopeless tangles of tacklers,” and an open field lay ahead. Grange sprinted into the end zone, and the bleachers “went crazy,” the fans standing up and trying to “split their throats cheering.” He wasn’t done that day – far from it. Grange scored three more times that quarter – four touchdowns in 12 minutes – and the Illini would go on to crush Michigan 39-14.
Like the fabled runs of Red Grange on that distant autumn afternoon, Homecoming at the University of Illinois has enjoyed many memorable twists and turns in the course of its 100-year history.
The idea of Homecoming was born, so the story goes, on the steps of the old University YMCA, now Illini Hall. In the spring of 1910, 28-year-old Walter Elmer “Ek” Ekblaw, Class of 1910, and 23-year-old Clarence Foss “Dab” Williams, both seniors, were sitting there and talking about “graduation and being ‘old grads’ and Alma Mater.”
“I’d like to do something really big for the old school before I leave,” one supposedly said to the other.
“We talked about this, that and the other thing,” Williams recalled in 1930, “and gradually came to a conclusion when one of us suggested a university reunion like the old home weeks of some of the towns of New England. We figured that alumni would like to come back while school was in session, and we felt that a good football game would act as a magnet.”
The story is a good one, but it contains at least one inaccurate detail: Williams claimed that the conversation on the YMCA steps occurred in April or May of 1910, but by that point, the movement for a University Homecoming was already well under way.
The first Homecoming
However the idea originated, on March 13, 1910, members of the two senior honorary societies – Shield and Trident as well as the Phoenix – assembled in the basement of the YMCA and resolved to urge the Council of Administration, the University’s central body for student affairs, to sanction an annual Homecoming.
One month later, a committee of the senior societies formally presented its Homecoming petition to the council. The petition maintained that “the setting aside of such a day as a holiday would afford alumni and students the opportunity to come into closer touch with each other.” This Homecoming, it was hoped, would give the alumni a “true conception of the real greatness of the University” and thereby “create a more active and sincere loyalty to the University.”
Taking nearly six weeks to decide, the Council of Administration finally – on May 24, 1910 – approved the Homecoming but “with the understanding that it will be determined later whether this shall be made an annual event.” A jubilant Daily Illini predicted that the Homecoming would become “a particularly and distinctively Illinois institution which if successful will without doubt be followed by other Universities.”
Homecoming at the University of Illinois debuted on Friday, Oct. 14, 1910, and many alumni returned. “The Illini can come back,” the Alumni Quarterly declared in apparent amazement. “They can come from all directions at once, and in astonishing numbers, back to Alma Mater and a jollification that sets new standards of fellowship between the graduate and the graduate to be, between Illinois and all her great family.” The Quarterly estimated that some 1,500 alumni attended the Homecoming, more alumni “than ever returned at Commencement time.”
The Friday events of the “jollification” – a match between the Illini baseball team and alumni all-stars, a pushball contest between freshmen and sophomores (in photo above), the Hobo Band (comprising colorfully and often outrageously dressed students) and a mass meeting – were all but a prelude to the Saturday pigskin duel between the Illini and the University of Chicago Maroons. Thousands were packed into the rickety grandstands and temporary bleachers of Illinois Field, including an organized “rooters’ section” of undergraduates selected for “their peculiar rooting ability and attired in Orange and Blue dress in a manner that formed a block ‘I.’” To the surprise of many witnesses, the Illini “outplayed and outgeneraled” the Maroons on that warm and dusty day.
The Daily Illini declared the first Homecoming to be an unqualified success and also touted the University as the originator of the affair:
The echoes of the events of this great Home-coming will be heard as long as the University endures, for it is now almost a certainty that it will be adopted as a permanent annual institution the like of which no other University can boast. Illinois may well pride itself on being the originator of the plan for drawing home the alumni, a plan which will undoubtedly be adopted generally.
Unfortunately for The Daily Illini’s assertion, on Nov. 24-25 of the previous year – 1909 – Baylor University had sponsored an alumni event called a “Home-coming” featuring a concert, pep rally, parade, bonfire and football game. However, Baylor’s next Homecoming apparently wasn’t held until 1915. So, at the very least, the University of Illinois can legitimately claim to have had the longest college tradition called “Homecoming.”
Making it permanent
In 1911 the Council of Administration endorsed the idea that Homecoming should be an annual affair. This decision did not please all alumni, a fact that became evident at the second Homecoming, when the New York alumni made known then their belief that the annual class and alumni reunions should continue to be held during Commencement Week. Strongly agreeing with the New Yorkers was J.N. Chester, Class of 1891, of Pittsburgh, who suspected that Homecoming “had been planned and promoted by the Athletic Association in order to increase its gate receipts at the football game.” Of course, Chester’s statement is exaggerated, but one cannot deny the importance of football to Homecoming. So the hiring in 1913 of Robert Zuppke ’38 as football coach may have been one of the best things that happened to the UI Homecoming in its early years.
Later described as “a truly magnetic, dynamic personality – the personification of pep and fight,” the 33-year-old Zuppke quickly revived the flagging football fortunes of the Illini. In his first 17 years as coach, Zuppke would lead his teams to win seven Western Conference championships and compile a remarkable 90-29-8 record. Not coincidentally, attendance at the Homecoming games soared in the wake of football success.
Judging by The Daily Illini headlines, each early Homecoming had been “the greatest,” far outdoing its predecessor, but then 1918 arrived. That was the year without a Homecoming, the only such lapse in the tradition’s 100-year-old history. Due to the exigencies of World War I, no preparations for the annual tradition had been made by early autumn, the Big Ten football game was canceled, and Homecoming never took place. (A popularly held belief credits the Spanish influenza epidemic with felling Homecoming; however, the oft-mentioned football game on Illinois Field – as recounted by Fred H. Turner ’22 las, am ’26 las, phd ’31 ed – was indeed played behind locked gates because of the epidemic, but the contest was between the Illini and a group of Navy men on what would have been Homecoming Saturday.)
As the war came to an end, the Alumni Quarterly issued a call for a great postwar Homecoming, “a homecoming that will shake the old campus and all of us to the very foundations.”
Held on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 1919, the so-called “Victory Homecoming” fully lived up to the expectations of the Alumni Quarterly. An estimated 12,000 alumni returned to the old Alma Mater; some parked their cars in the Armory, which had been pressed into service as a garage. The alumni enjoyed an elaborate Homecoming program that featured old favorites like dances, the pep rally, reunions, the Hobo Band and innovations like a Coed Carnival, whose vaudeville-type program would later become known as The Stunt Show. On Homecoming Saturday, the Illini thwarted Chicago in a 10-0 upset before a crowd of 18,000.
That evening a crackling bonfire on Illinois Field and a booming fireworks display ended “the Greatest Homecoming” in a blaze of glory.
The Roaring ’20s
The Victory Homecoming ushered in the decade of the 1920s – perhaps the heyday of Homecoming at the University of Illinois. One great Homecoming followed another: In 1920 the Library (now Altgeld Hall) chimes were dedicated; in 1922 a dedication ceremony occurred on the site of what would eventually become Memorial Stadium; and in 1923, a year before Grange’s legendary run, the first game was played there.
Costing nearly $2 million (the money having been raised from alumni and students), Memorial Stadium forever changed the scale of Homecoming. That fact became evident on Homecoming Saturday, Nov. 3, 1923, when the partially completed Memorial Stadium first opened its gates and received “a baptism of rain” as the Illini faced off against Chicago.
Logan Fletcher Peirce ’24 bus, a senior, witnessed the historic contest that raw and drizzly day, sitting in the stands of the vast stadium, the exposed steel framework of which he likened to a “spider webb” (sic). “Dear, the spectacle here Saturday was beyond my powers of description,” Peirce raved in a letter to his girlfriend. “It was wonderful! 62,000 people jammed into the stadium. Chicago, with their maroon colors, formed an enormous C in the east bleachers. The players looked like midgets – but you could see wonderfully well. Railroad trains were backed right up to the Stadium gates and 19 special trains unloaded their mass of seething humanity between 8 A.M. and noon Saturday.”
Peirce thought that the massive stadium formed an appropriately dramatic stage for the grand performances of the University Band, a longtime highlight of Homecoming games. “The Illinois band was out in full force and it was a wonderful sight to look down from such a gigantic structure and see the band playing ‘Loyalty’ and spelling out a perfect ‘Illini’ below us,” Peirce wrote.
And then there was a sophomore halfback by the name of Harold “Red” Grange. “When Red Grange broke loose with his long end runs – you undoubtedly heard the deafening roar in St. Louis,” Peirce kidded his girlfriend.
Grange “broke loose” into the end zone only once on that rain-drenched day, but the one touchdown was enough to defeat a scoreless Chicago. That night “the campus was nothing but a howling mob of half crazy homecomers,” Peirce reported.
Red Grange ran wild the next year with his four famous touchdowns, but after the 1925 season, he signed a pro contract with the Chicago Bears. Only 42,555 attended the 1926 Homecoming game against Iowa, but big crowds returned in 1927 to watch Illinois triumph over Michigan by a score of 14-0. This game would mark the first Homecoming appearance of the Chief Illiniwek symbol, which had been introduced late in the previous season.
The Illini football fortunes faded after 1929. This “football depression,” coupled with the economic depression gripping the country, cast a shadow over the Homecomings of the 1930s. As early as 1930, The Daily Illini detected what it thought was a decline in Homecoming spirit.
“After almost two decades of continuous growth, each year on a larger scale,” the student newspaper asserted, “Homecoming appears to be back-sliding this year, not because of faulty management or any cause of the like, but seemingly because many students seem to think that all the frivolity and collegiate spirit connected with the weekend is more or less passé.”
The Hobo Parade, pictured above, was a casualty of the Depression era, canceled in 1934 because of a lack of interest. The parade had been a feature of Homecoming since the beginning.
While one Homecoming tradition died during the Depression, another was born. In 1936 Dolores Thomas Sims ’39 las was crowned the first UI Homecoming queen. Unfortunately, the Northwestern University band marred the pregame crowning ceremony, blaring forth just before the introductions were to be made. The bewildered Thomas and her maids of honor soon left the field without being heard, causing one observer to ask, “What happened to the Homecoming queen?”
The Depression decade concluded on a cheerful note for UI Homecomers. On Nov. 4, 1939, the Illini toppled a mighty Michigan team, stunning the football world. This victory would be the last major upset engineered by Bob Zuppke, who coached his last Homecoming game on Nov. 1, 1941 – a Homecoming marked by the dedication of the Illini Union – and retired later that month after 29 years at the helm of the Fighting Illini.
Women and wartime
Shortly after the close of Zuppke’s last season, the Pearl Harbor attack occurred and the United States entered World War II. Transforming University life almost overnight, the war gave a more subdued tone to Homecoming. Ever since the teens and ’20s, members of the Greek fraternity and sorority system had festively decorated their houses for Homecoming, but, beginning in 1942, this tradition was put on hold because of wartime rationing. The red, white and blue of the American flag, the orange and blue of the University flag, and “the star-studded service flag indicating the number of members in that house in the armed services” replaced the usual garish decorations.
As the men went off to war, women took charge of campus affairs. “Sans gas, sans the usual decorations, but not sans the traditional Illini spirit,” the 34th Homecoming in 1943 was a largely women-run affair. That year’s pep rally kicked things off in the usual fashion except for one notable wartime innovation: Princess Illiniwek, portrayed by Idelle Stith Brooks ’44 media made her debut. The influence of the war could even be seen in the Homecoming Stunt Show of 1943, in which Allan Sherman ’45 (the campus comedian who later hit it big with the 1964 Grammy-winning song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”) poked fun at the 4F-ers like himself; periodically during the performance “plaid-shirted ‘hunters’” popped up on stage searching for a “draft-dodger.”
In 1944, 20 years after being dedicated to the Illini who perished in World War I, Memorial Stadium was rededicated on Homecoming Saturday to World War II’s Gold Star Illini (those who perished in war).
After the war, University enrollment boomed, thanks in large part to the GI Bill, and Homecoming roared back on a scale surpassing even that of the 1920s. During the 1946 Homecoming – “THE Homecoming the soldiers, sailors and marines had been dreaming of during those years in the foxholes, on board ship or in a bomber over Germany” – a crowd of 62,597 watched the fifth-ranked Illini come from behind in the fourth quarter to defeat Wisconsin by a score of 27-21.
A ’50s ‘first’
The decade of the 1950s opened with the crowning of two noteworthy Homecoming queens. In 1950 Mildred Fogel ’52 wore the “Miss Illinois” crown; in later years, “Millie” starred in the “Mission Impossible” TV series and would be better known by her stage name – Barbara Bain. The following year students selected Clarice Davis Presnell ’52 las, an African-American senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to be “Miss Illinois” in “the biggest vote for Homecoming queen in the history of the University.” According to the Chicago Defender, Davis was the first African-American to hold the Homecoming queen title at a major American university.
Homecomings in the 1950s were characterized by large attendances and memorable football games. In 1951, on a field fringed in snow, the undefeated Illini slaughtered Iowa 40-13. Two years later, halfback J.C. Caroline ’56 shattered Red Grange’s Big Ten rushing record in a 19-3 rout over Michigan. In 1957 an Illini team “hobbled and hampered by injuries and inconsistency” throttled a powerful Minnesota squad, subjecting the proud Gopher defense to “a beating the likes of which they never dreamed possible.”
‘For the times they are a-changin’’
The University marked the golden anniversary of Homecoming on Oct. 7-8, 1960, with several new features. A gallery of color portraits of the recipients of the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award, located in the east wing of the Illini Union, was dedicated on Homecoming Saturday. The Homecoming queen and her Big Ten Court were moved from the north wall of the stadium and introduced from the football field – “where they could be seen better.” And, during halftime, the Marching Illini maneuvered to spell out “Ek” and “Dab” in honor of the co-founders of the UI Homecoming and re-created a pushball contest. For the finale, Block I joined the act, depicting “a white-bearded Old Grad, then a brash young Illini” while the band formed “1910.”
As late as 1965, Homecoming remained an important student ritual. The Daily Illini called that year’s Homecoming “one of the all time best,” but the times were “a-changin’,” to quote singer Bob Dylan, and growing numbers of students began to question the relevance of Homecoming as the tumultuous 1960s drew to a close.
The 1968 Homecoming Stunt Show captured the spirit of the times. Many of the skits were politically charged, portraying Vietnam, war and peace, and student power. The Stunt Show, a “barometer of student sentiment” for nearly 50 years, would never be staged again.
The following year’s Homecoming took place on Halloween weekend and proved a disaster. Its theme, “Hexascopic Hell’s a Topic,” brought to mind a spell from an imaginary witch, and indeed, the events seemed cursed. The 1969 Homecoming featured lousy weather; a canceled parade, pep rally, and magic show; credible complaints from “Miss Illinois”; and, last but not least, a rout of the Illini by Purdue. The Illini Union Board’s Homecoming Committee registered a $2,000 net loss. “In my estimation, there will be no Homecoming next year,” the IUB Homecoming Committee’s chairman declared after the 1969 debacle.
’70s and ’80s
There was a Homecoming in 1970, however. That year organizers and participants attempted to make the tradition “relevant”: They instituted Homecoming Saturday symposiums, put up anti-war house decorations and sold a stop-sign-shaped Homecoming badge boasting a slogan with a double meaning, WHEN THE BOYS COME HOME.
As the 1970s progressed, the Homecoming queen contest increasingly became a source of controversy. In 1973 the Illini Union Board dropped its sponsorship in response to charges that the yearly event was “irrelevant and sexist.” Sigma Alpha Epsilon kept the tradition alive for one year, and then the Panhellenic and the Interfraternity councils took charge of it from 1974 until 1978. In 1977 the event was renamed – for that year only – the Homecoming Regency Contest and opened for the first time to male candidates.
During this period, the Greeks on campus organized more and more of the Homecoming festivities. In 1979 the Student Alumni Association, in cooperation with the UI Alumni Association, assumed control of Homecoming. A “new breed of students is hitting the campus,” Josh Grafton ’83 las, the new Homecoming chairman, maintained, students who were “ready to return to the spirit of enthusiasm.” With the theme “Those Were the Days,” that year’s Homecoming revived the parade – which hadn’t been held since 1968 – and the all-campus dance and introduced an entirely new tradition: the Homecoming king.
During the subsequent decade or so, one innovation after another was unveiled as Homecoming expanded into a weeklong affair: a 5K run, Lunch on the Quad, orange-and-blue-day, a fireworks display, the African-American Homecoming, a UI Alumni Association tent party and the Illini Comeback Guests, a program begun by the UIAA in 1980 to honor “distinguished alumni from varied backgrounds” and which would later be described by one student as “the centerpiece of Homecoming.”
Homecoming flourished in the 1980s, buoyed by strong Illini football teams led by stand-out quarterbacks like Dave Wilson ’83, Tony Eason ’83 ahs, Jack Trudeau ’86 las and Jeff George ’91 las. Perhaps the most memorable Homecoming game of the decade occurred on Oct. 15, 1983, when 73,414 fans watched the Illini offense, spearheaded by Trudeau, drive 83 yards down the field in the last minute and 46 seconds of the game to defeat Ohio State for the first time in 16 years.
The recent past
In the 1990s, Homecoming attendance began to decline, prompting concern from some. “I guess I’m enough of a traditionalist that it bothers me, if it really is true, that Homecoming is slipping at the school where it started,” one observer wrote in 1994.
Three years later, the UI Alumni Association set out to rejuvenate Homecoming. Backed by the Office of the Chancellor, the UIAA sought “to give Homecoming a face” and to move it away from being “the mere celebration of a football game,” in the words of The Daily Illini. The 1997 edition of the event restored old traditions like elaborate campus decorations, the bonfire and the wearing of Homecoming buttons.
One old tradition, however, made its final bow that year. During halftime of the football game against Purdue, the Homecoming king and queen opened their jackets to reveal shirts bearing the slogan “racial stereotypes dehumanize.” In subsequent years, the concept of a king and queen was replaced by the more egalitarian Homecoming Court.
During the 2000s, Homecoming endured. Like in the previous nine decades of its existence, the resilient annual ritual featured devastating losses (the 2005 drubbing by Penn State), magnificent victories (the 2001 rollercoaster run against Wisconsin) and community-minded events (such as the iHelp volunteer day; a family-friendly, community kickoff celebration; and SoccerFest, which paired children’s activities with a UI Varsity soccer game).
After quite a ride, Homecoming at the University of Illinois has reached its centennial anniversary, and now is the time to look back to the beginning.
“The echoes of the events of this great Home-coming will be heard as long as the University endures,” The Daily Illini declared in 1910.
Indeed, 100 years later, the echoes of that first Homecoming reverberate still.
Franch ’89 media is a freelance writer based in Champaign
Editor’s note: The material quoted in the story references newspapers, correspondence and other historical documents housed in the University of Illinois Archives, as well as information gleaned from the UI History, Philosophy and Newspaper Library.