Through the Trifocals

Before there was a Memorial Stadium or Assembly Hall, the centralized location for all Illini sports was on the North side of campus. Unfortunately, most people today have no idea where that was or what occurred there. <br><br> Illinisports reminds us of that former era. He also points out a major problem that has hurt recruiting for many years since.

Do you happen to know what the University of Illinois Class Memorial of 1902 is and where it is located? When I went to school in the mid 1960's, I had to learn about it as part of a fraternity requirement. That memorial is a water fountain located near the corner of Springfield Avenue and Wright Street in front of Kenney Gym (known by many as "Men's Old Gym").

To be more precise, the fountain is located in front of the attachment area that joins the main part of Kenney Gym with its old basketball court annex. It seemed so out of place and forgotten when I first learned about it, and it is even more anonymous now. But sometime when you are on campus, you should check it out because it used to be the center of the athletic universe at the U of I.

The class of 1902 wanted to be remembered, and placing a fountain in that exact spot was a sure way to do it. Before there was an enclosed runway connecting the two parts of Kenney Gym, there was a walkway and grand archway entrance going North to the football, track and baseball complexes that were known collectively as Illinois Field. One had to walk right past the Class of 1902 water fountain to enter this area.

Only a few photos, postcards and booklets now exist to remind us of those distant times. But nearly all the sports played at the University of Illinois back then took place in this area. Of course, now the baseball field is the Beckmann Institute, and there are no further reminders of the football/track complex between the Beckman Institute and the North parking lot of Kenney Gym. But there were some glorious memories hovering around that area in the not too distant past.

Kenney Gym housed gymnastics and swimming, and all UI basketball games were played in the Kenney Gym Annex until Huff Gym was built in the 1920's. Anyone visiting that old Annex gym is shocked at the lack of spectator space, but that was where our basketball ancestors played their ball.

For that matter, Mike Hebert first became famous as a UI women's volleyball coach by leading Mary Eggers, Nancy Brookhart and other top stars to a long winning streak in that old, rickety Annex gym. It was a "snake pit" in the truest sense of the word. It was a pit for both player and fan, but it was the best we could do at the time.

Illinois Field was the place for Illinois' first home Big 10 ("Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives") football game, a 10-4 loss to Northwestern on November 7, 1896. It was also the place for the first ever college homecoming, the Illini defeating Chicago 3-0 on October 15, 1910. In that glorious year, the Illini were unbeaten and unscored upon and won the Big 10 title.

With Coach Bob Zuppke taking over in 1913, the Illini also won Big 10 titles in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1919, and 1923 before playing their first home game in Memorial Stadium on November 3, 1923, a 7-0 victory over Chicago. The Illini were named National Champions in 1914, 1919, 1923 and 1927, so three of those four championship teams played their games on a field that is now part of a massive industrial research park. Gone, yes; forgotten, I hope not.

My first real exposure to these distant times was when I won an auction for a 1922 coaching booklet prepared by the Athletic Association at the U of I. Back then, coaching was considered a viable curriculum for students at the UI, and the UI coaching staff included some great names and attracted great athletes to participate not only in sports but in the coaching curriculum.

George Huff was Director of Athletics and led the curriculum. Huff's staff included football legend Robert Zuppke, former Illini baseball star and captain Carl Lundgren (the Chicago Cub pitcher was called by Huff "the greatest college baseball coach in the country), famous track coach Harry Gill, and basketball coach J. Craig Ruby, considered a leader in his field. The beauty of the coaching booklet to me was the 133 photos of sports in action at Illinois. The quality of the photos was so outstanding, they made the images almost come alive for me.

There was a photo of Chuck Carney, an All-American football and basketball star in 1920, leaping high to snatch a long pass. Brandon Lloyd could not have done a better job, and this photo caught Carney at the peak of his leap, just as the ball nestled into his hands. Given the rounder ball used at the time, I didn't realize that passes that long were even attempted. It shows how wrong it is to judge the athletes from the past as inferior just because we haven't seen them play.

There was a whole series of photos of Harold Osborne doing the "Western Role" technique over the high jump bar. Osborne won a gold medal in the Olympics, and his form, shown in sequential stop action, was immaculate. He also had to have great courage because only a couple of inches of saw dust cushioned his fall to the ground.

Speaking of courage, you should have seen the pole vault pits of the time. Basically, there were none. Only the same sawdust described before, in no more than a few inches of depth, was used to protect the athletes. The pole vaulters were not going 19 feet, but 13-14 feet was not uncommon at the time. How many of our current athletes would wish to jump 14 feet into a used pile of saw dust in this day and age?

Illinois had many years of football and track success, but they also had much success in baseball, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming, boxing, fencing and basketball. Trophy cases were photographed filled with the balls used for each football, baseball and basketball victory, all painted with the winning scores. I wonder where all those balls are today? For that matter, I wonder whether all the memories of that success have been lost simply because those early fields are no longer in use for sports.

By the way, another sport participated in by Illinois at the time was Circus. We actually had athletes who were clowns, high wire walkers, trapeze artists, sword swallowers, fire eaters, and high divers. And there were competitions between different schools. If you thought the description of the high jump and pole vault pits was bad, you should have seen the "pool" used for the landing of the high divers. In the photo I saw, it looked about as deep as one of those inflatable children's wading pools. Sure, part of the "act" was the danger and the ability to avoid injury, but I bet the UI didn't have to pay large insurance premiums back then either.

Besides the quality of athleticism I saw in those wonderful photos from the coaching booklet, there was one more factor worth mentioning because of how it continues to affect us even today. Namely, it has been many years since the U of I has willingly trained students to become coaches. Yes, we have "Sports Management" and "Kinesiology" course work, as well as a curriculum for athletic trainers. But something changed after the 1920's.

By the time I attended school in the 1960's, the U of Illinois had a prejudice against athletes becoming coaches. Originally, students enrolled in the College of Physical Education to learn coaching. And the various coaching staffs were instructors in those programs. But by the 1960's, and probably much earlier, all that was eliminated. In fact, student athletes who entered the UI with a desire to participate in the College of Physical Education were actually flunked in high numbers by a set of professors hell bent on discriminating against athletes.

It seems there was a bias toward theory and a bias against practical application. College of Physical Education professors were researchers who dealt only on the theoretical (by the way, there are a few other colleges within the UI who have this exact same attitude, even today). Coaching was considered inferior to the theoretical, and anyone showing an interest in applying the results of research to athletic participation was immediately punished. It was as if the professors themselves were incapable of applying the findings personally, so they were somehow jealous of anyone else who could. I cannot begin to tell you how many recruited UI athletes were lost along the way by the draconian policies of the College of Physical Education.

Schools such as Michigan, Ohio State and numerous others continued to have coaching curricula into the 1980's at least, and they may still exist in one form or another. Of course, it must be understood that the NCAA has placed some restrictions on these courses in recent times because of the obvious advantage athletes might have retaining their eligibility if their coaches are making those determinations.

But a recent public disclosure regarding Jim Herrick's assistant coach son at the U of Georgia showed that he was teaching a course in basketball to his own players just last year and asking the most remedial questions possible. Illinois has not had the benefit of these "advantages" for half a century at least, so it put us behind numerous other schools in this regard.

When coaching openings occur at Illinois these days, some fans ask why the UI doesn't hire graduates of Illinois to fill the positions. Certainly, there are UI grads who are coaching elsewhere and might have the qualifications to become coaches at Illinois. But we lack the numbers, in part due to the policies of a reactionary Phys Ed department from the mid and late 1900's.

This long-standing policy pushed prospective coaches away from Illinois and toward our competitors, as they wanted to study their chosen profession while in college. Thus, it hurt recruiting as well as the total number of coaches available to us for future hirings. And realize that, by producing so few coaches at the UI, the state high schools had to hire coaches who attended colleges other than the UI. And these coaches wished to steer their top athletes to their own colleges rather than to the UI. This became a real vicious circle, and its impact is still felt today.

Perhaps this bit of nostalgia means nothing to my readers. But to me, it tells me to study the past and learn from it. And it tells me to value the quality of Illini athletes and coaches who preceded our present heroes. After all, they had to overcome much adversity to place our university in the position to compete at the highest levels now. Without their successes, we might be a Division II or Division III school right now.

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