How Northwestern Football Did in the Last Pandemic Season, 1918



For the longest time, my cat’s Instagram follower count was stuck on 1918. Given what’s synonymous with that year, and what is going on in the world right now, naturally that bothered me. Now it’s into the 1960s somewhere, so that’s much groovier.

People keep saying that this college football season is one that is unlike any other, and that is not true. The 1918 and 2020 college football seasons are/were very much alike in that they started later than usual, were shorter than standard in duration and saw some games cancelled due to an outbreak of the nasty, deadly virus.

The 1918 Big Ten Conference football season, played amidst the Spanish Flu pandemic, was the 23rd season of college football played by the member schools of the Big Ten Conference (officially known as the Western Intercollegiate Conference Athletic Association) and sometimes referred to as the Western Conference.

Northwestern, coached by Fred J. Murphy and captained by Gene McLaughlin, went 2-2-1, 1-1 in conference. Of their two league games, only was against a program that is still in the conference today- at Iowa.

As Northwestern will play at Iowa on Saturday (WGN Radio AM-720; ESPN, Hawkeyes are 2.5 point favorites), it’s the perfect time to take a look at how NU did in the last pandemic season. (game preview coming later today)

Back then, they were known as the Northwestern Purple (fun fact: original school colors were purple and gold, not purple and white), and they lost that clash at the Hawkeyes 23-7. It was the season finale, played on November 23rd. The Purple beat the immortal Amos Alonzo Stagg and his University of Chicago Maroons the previous week, in their only other conference game.

It was one of Stagg’s worst teams, as they finished last, and the game took place in front of 8,000 spectators in Evanston. The pandemic cancelled NU’s game against Ohio State that season.

The Purple, led by first team all-conference quarterback Marshall Underhill, routed Knox (Knox College) 47-7 at home in “week three,” but got blanked in the second game, 25-0, by Chicago Naval Reserve.


However, the most meaningful game was the season opener, a scoreless draw at Great Lakes Navy.

It was held just two days off from this year’s season opening 43-3 rout of Maryland.

Northwestern has held several practice sessions at Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago in recent years, up until security concerns prevented any further editions.

1918 Great Lakes Navy went 3–0–1 record against the Big Ten, and would win the 1919 Rose Bowl, 17-0 over the Mare Island Marines, and they featured three future Hall of Famers in George Halas, Jimmy Conzelman, and Paddy Driscoll.

Also, regarding that first one, Papa Bear Halas, this was after his days as an All-American End at the University of Illinois. Hence the origin of the Chicago Bears team colors.

1918 College Football Season Recap Series 

Notre Dame     Northwestern     Iowa    Illinois

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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