Illini Football were League Champs, Dynasty Building During Last Pandemic

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Obviously, COVID-19 overshadows everything we do these days and college football is no exception. You don’t need to remind Illinois Fighting Illini football fans of this, you just need to say the name Graham Mertz. However, since the Wisconsin OL effectively socially distanced him from the Illini defense a week ago tonight, well, no worries about getting coronavirus from the Sconnie freshman QB.

So how did the Illini do the last time we had a once-in-a-century deadly global pandemic? They won the 1918 Big Ten Conference football title, amidst the Spanish Flu epidemic.

It wasn’t even the Big Ten back then. This was so long ago that the league was officially known as the Western Intercollegiate Conference Athletic Association and sometimes referred to as the Western Conference. This was pre-Red Grange and Memorial Stadium Illini football. Also, “I wore an onion on my belt, as was the style at the time, but we didn’t have red onions, on account of the war, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them, give me give bees for a quarter you’d say.

Robert Zuppke’s squad, playing the I-formation, won at Iowa Field 19-0 on November 2nd, in a game that pretty much decided the league title. Illini football went 4-0 in the league, with an 83-0 aggregate point differential.

Out of conference, they lost twice, by the score of 7-0 both times to Naval academy squads: Great Lakes Navy (based at the station in North Chicago, a team that won the 1919 Rose Bowl and featured three future Hall of Famers) and Chicago Naval Reserve.

The Chicago Naval Reserve game, staged in Urbana, saw “the gates were barred and the spectators limited to coaches, water carriers, officials, and the few others necessary to pull off a contest.” This was due to public health concerns.

The Illini won the season opener, 3-0 (offense was not a thing that had been invented yet, obviously) against Chanute Air Force Base at Chanute Field.

After graduating from Crane High School in Chicago, “Papa Bear” George Halas attended the University of Illinois, playing football, as well as baseball and basketball, and earning a degree in civil engineering. He helped Illinois to the league crown during this season.

However, he almost didn’t make it to this year, which means he also came close to not founding the Chicago Bears. In 1915, Halas he had a temp job for Western Electric, and was planning on being on the SS Eastland, for the company picnic.

He ran late that morning (July 24) however, as he was attempting to gain weight to play Big Ten football and fortunately missed the capsizing of the boat. The Eastland Disaster, which like the Spanish Flu pandemic itself (until COVID emerged) has sort of fallen through the cracks of history.

That morning saw the death of 844 passengers, including 22 entire families. As for Halas’ Illini football program, they would go on to win the national title the very next year in 1919. Two more national titles (and again, this honorific designation is played with quite fast and very loose) came in 1923 and 1927. They also “won it all” in 1914.

So from the mid 1910s to the roaring 20s was essentially the golden era for Illinois sports- the Bears would claim a NFL championship in 1921.

The Cubs are two for two when it comes to finishing in first place during global pandemic years, as they won the 1918 National League pennant. The White Sox won the World Series in 1917 and threw the 1919 World Series, which they were heavily favored to win.

It’s very doubtful we’ll see local teams all rising, to these levels, at the same time ever again.

red grange chicago bears

1918 College Football Season Recap Series 

Notre Dame     Northwestern     Iowa

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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