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Homecoming: The (sort of) Illinois Original Tradition

A closer look at Homecoming’s Illinois origins and memorable games over past 108 years.

Penn State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Homecoming at the University of Illinois has been a source of pride for over 100 years, with the U of I claiming to have hosted the first collegiate alumni “home coming” event, coupled with a pigskin headliner (although most wouldn’t necessarily equate the pride with the pigskin, but I digress). Despite the claims, the actual origins are more complicated and shrouded in mystery and conjecture.

The following is a brief history of the tradition, controversy surrounding the origins, and yes, even a little football.

Where it all began?

The general consensus among University of Illinois sources is that class of 1911 seniors, Clarence Foss Williams and W. Elmer Ekblaw, came up with the idea to hold alumni, return to campus festivities in the fall of 1910, centered around a football game between the Illini and the University of Chicago Maroons.

However, the debate around origins of collegiate “homecoming” is primarily one of semantics and terminology. According to John Franch, a former Graduate Assistant in the University of Illinois Archives, in his 2005 report on the origins of homecoming, Michigan began holding an annual alumni reunion football game as far back as 1897. Though, according to Franch, Michigan’s yearly event was informal and loosely organized until the 1930s. Most importantly, though, there was no printed reference to a “homecoming” at Michigan until 1915.

So, sorry Blue, not a homecoming.

University of Illinois homecoming program, circa 1943

Baylor, on the other hand, actually had an alumni event, entitled “Home-Coming” in November 1909. While the hyphen is disqualifying enough, Baylor did not hold another one until 1915. Bottom line, if your fancy new event is so successful that you don’t do it again for six years, safe to say, it doesn’t count.

Northern Illinois, then known as Northern Illinois State Normal School (ironically, not a name you would give to a normal school), started a similar tradition in 1906. Unfortunately, as the Huskies didn’t play an intercollegiate opponent until 1914, the intramural nature of these early annual contests is fatal to conferring actual homecoming status.

The most entertaining challenge to Illinois’ homecoming claim comes from none other than our neighbors to the east, at Indiana University. According to Franch’s research on the subject, IU hosted a “Gala Day” in 1909 to mark its annual rivalry contest with Purdue, but the event was informal and not specifically geared toward returning alumni (i.e. not a homecoming). However, the next year, Indiana started planning its own homecoming event a mere five days after the inaugural Illinois homecoming game was played. To make matters more contentious, the IU homecoming planners set the event to take place three weeks after the Illinois homecoming game, to coincide with Indiana’s home football game against, you guessed it, Illinois.

The timing and circumstance was not lost on the editors of The Daily Illini, at the time, and according to Franch, provided the following quip, worthy of modern day twitter:

“As the Daily Illini predicted before the Fall Home Coming, other institutions have adopted that plan of drawing home the alumni, Indiana probably being the first one. . . . Perhaps, though, after the game November 5th, Indiana will have had its fill of Illinois customs and habits, particularly the old one of defeating the Hoosiers in football.”

How wonderfully savage. Anyway, the fore-shading by The Daily Illini proved to be prophetic, as the Illini downed the Hoosiers, 3-0 on an Otto Seiler field goal at Indiana’s first real homecoming. Regardless of posturing and claims of originality, homecoming fever struck the nation following Illinois’ October 15, 1910 game, and many schools quickly followed in adopting the tradition, including notable rivals Missouri and Wisconsin in 1911.

Memorable Homecoming Games

1910: Illinois 3 - University of Chicago 0

Otto Seiler, the Chase McLaughlin of his time, recorded the game’s only points on a winning field goal to see the homecoming hosts through to a victory in front of a record 12,000 fans at Illinois Field against the Chicago Maroons, who were notably led by football forefather and multi-sport Hall of Famer, Amos Alonzo Stagg.

1924: Illinois 39 - Michigan 14

The Red Grange game, as it’s known, came, not only on Illinois Homecoming, 1924, but also the day that Illinois dedicated the new “Memorial Stadium” to honor those who served in World War I. Grange rushed for five touchdowns against a defense that had only conceded three touchdowns, total, in the previous two years on the way to a resounding victory.

2001: Illinois 42 - Wisconsin 35

After blowing an early 25-7 lead, the Illini were forced to regroup and overcome a late 35-28 deficit to take down the Badgers in front of over 70,000 at Memorial Stadium on their way to an outright Big Ten title and BCS, Sugar Bowl appearance. Kurt Kittner threw for four touchdowns to four different receivers, including the dramatic, game-winning fourth quarter strike to Brandon Lloyd in the back corner of the end-zone.

2014: Illinois 28 - Minnesota 24

In the first of the Grey Ghost jersey games, Illinois again blew an early lead, forcing late game heroics to overcome a 24-21 fourth quarter deficit. V’Angelo Bentley returned a shocking Minnesota fumble 12 yards for a touchdown with six minutes left in the game. The Illini hung on in an ugly, mistake-filled battle, which proved crucial in securing bowl eligibility for the only time in the Tim Beckman era.

2018: Illinois - Purdue?

The Illini will look to keep the ball rolling against the visiting Boilermakers, following their first Big Ten Victory in nearly two years. Homecoming 2018 certainly has the potential to start a new tradition of Illinois football under Lovie Smith, and could mark a turning point for the program for years to come.

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