Through the Trifocals

We go to games at Memorial Stadium. We drive or walk by it all the time. But do you know how it all began? Illinisports shares in this column the history of Memorial Stadium and all the work and inspiration that went into its creation.

This year is the 80th anniversary of the dedication game for Memorial Stadium, the game in which Red Grange ran wild while destroying Michigan. Everyone remembers details of that game, and everyone remembers the "Galloping Ghost". But most of us know little if anything about the Stadium itself.

Have you ever looked at the Stadium? I mean, really looked at it? Memorial Stadium has been around so long it is easy to take it for granted. But it is still one of the most majestic and famous of all major university football stadia in the country. Perhaps we can rekindle our respect and reverence for our cherished possession by examining its origins.

The first ever Illinois football game, as well as the first baseball game and track meet, all occurred in 1888 on a field called "the old fair grounds". This field was in Champaign and bordered by Armory, John, First and Fourth streets. Shortly afterward, these events were transferred to a field just east of Wright street between University and Springfield avenues. The first baseball diamond was built 150 feet south of University Avenue on top of the ruins of the first ever University of Illinois building, and stones from that building were buried under six inches of dirt as a memorial to that first building. Of course, all remnants of the field and the building that preceded it were discarded unceremoniously when the Beckman institute was built.

By 1905, Illinois Field included a new baseball diamond on the southeast corner of University and Wright streets, and a large track/football facility just south of it and extending all the way to the Men's Old Gym and its adjacent Gym Annex. Starting with a wooden bleacher that held 300 people and subsequently growing to a facility that could hold 4,000 by 1914 and 17,000 people (20,000 with standing room) by 1920, the football field saw three national championships. In addition, the baseball team became one of the finest in the country, and no less than three athletes, Harry Gill, Avery Brundage, and Harold Osborne, became all-around national track champions (equivalent to the decathalon) after developing their skills on Illinois Field.

Illinois became famous for its outstanding athletic teams, but it was also famous for its excellent programs for the physical development of all students. Its success created popularity that outgrew its ability to accommodate its fans and students. Illini leaders wanted to continue that success by creating facilities that could be comparable to any in the country. Thus, a stadium was desired that could not only support varsity football and track but also provide indoor facilities in its two Great Halls for intramural basketball, handball, etc., and outdoor fields for intramural football, baseball, tennis, hockey and polo.

George Huff was by every description a special human being. He was considered one of the nation's finest baseball coaches, having unprecedented success by winning 220 out of 299 games. But he was so respected that he was needed for greater leadership. Huff was named Athletic Director at Illinois, and he also became the primary inspiration and instigator for the development of Memorial Stadium. There were many people involved in this grand project, but it was George Huff who was best remembered for his efforts.

As a testimonial, a special December 1923 edition of the "Memorial Stadium Notes" newsletter describes him thusly: "In the minds of all true Illini the name of George Huff will be linked to the Memorial Stadium by a double bond. It is to George Huff that Illinois largely owes the idea of the Stadium; and it is to him that Illinois owes the greater debt: the spirit which the Stadium will commemorate, the spirit of loyalty, and of fair play and enduring courage."

The creation of Memorial Stadium was a mammoth undertaking. This is especially true because it was to be a gift from students and alumni to the University of Illinois, and not some corporate or private donation as occurs frequently today. Thus, many thousands of individuals had to be solicited to pledge small amounts of money each in order to pay for the facility. And they had to fulfill their promises by actually donating the money at the proper times and in the proper amounts.

There was a "Great Mass Meeting" held on April 25, 1921 in two locations: the Auditorium and the Gym Annex. Dignitaries such as president David Kinley, George Huff, football coach Bob Zuppke and others spoke at each location, and both facilities were filled to the brim with students. Some described the meetings as looking like presidential political conventions, with bodies everywhere there was space. Bands played and cheerleaders cheered, all to rev up the excitement for the new Stadium.

Huff was quoted as this meeting as saying, "I want to see a great Stadium at the University of Illinois ...I believe that you will get it. I believe there is a great spirit at this university. The Stadium will be many things--a memorial to Illini who have died in war, a recreational field, and an imposing place for our varsity games. But it will also be an unprecedented expression of Illinois spirit. The Athletic Association, out of its own funds, is paying the expenses of this campaign. The money you pledge will be devoted solely to the Stadium. What you have started, our alumni will finish."

Thousands of students signed up. The usual monetary pledges were for $100.00, to be paid in five installments of $20.00 each every six months for 2 and 1/2 years, and $200.00, to be paid in $20.00 increments every six months for five years. Those who made these pledges were promised preferential treatment in seat assignment at home games. Those who were current in their payments by the dedication game were given buttons to wear stating, "I helped build the stadium paid to date Oct. 18, 1924."

Huff, Zuppke and other Illini dignitaries travelled all over the country, from East coast to West coast, to inspire alumni to make contributions. Alumni who promised contributions of $1000.00 were given plaques dedicated to a particular column commemorating an Illini who died in World War I. And they were given an option of 20 seats to home football games for 10 years or 40 seats for 5 years.

The Athletic Association published several editions of "Memorial Stadium Notes" every year from 1921 through at least 1927 and sent them to all contributors to update them on the progress of the stadium. Again from the December 1923 edition, "It is certain that the Stadium will surpass in utility and beauty even the dreams of the men who conceived it. Nothing that Illinois has done has gained it such national fame as the building of the great memorial. It will be the first great gift of Illinois men and women to their University. They give it that the men who sacrificed their lives for their country shall be nobly commemorated and that the Illini of all time to come shall have an appropriate and inspiring arena for their athletic battles."

A special hardcover book called "The Story of the Stadium" was also prepared to help solicit support for the project. It showed an artist's conception of how the Stadium would appear, photographs from around the campus, an area where pledge coupons could be affixed once the promised installment payments had been paid, and of course the story of the project. In addition, it provided photos and quotes from a large number of alumni and students who provided testimony and support for the grand project. Among them are the following:

George Halas, class of 1918 and later owner of the Chicago Bears and founder of the National Football League: "I think the stadium drive is the greatest undertaking in the history of the university, and that its success or failure will determine whether Illinois will be greater than ever or will fall back.

Ralph Fletcher, three-time football letterman class of 1921 and later assistant football coach at Illinois: "All live alumni have a just pride about their alma mater. The Stadium will back such a pride more substantially than any other single thing in the history of the university."

Fred (Louie) Lowenthal, four-time football letterman class of 1901: What good member of the Tribe can see in the Stadium anything but a visible sign of and a sacred shrine to an invisible thing--the spirit of the Illini?"

Avery Brundage, class of 1909, three time all-around national track champion, Olympic star and later head of the Olympic movement: "Some day physical training in its broadest sense will be as much and as important a part of our educational program as mental training. We have the best athletic department in the United States today at the University of Illinois. We must have the best athletic plant as a monument to past and an inspiration to present and future teams. I am glad to contribute to the building of the most imposing stadium in the country."

Illini leaders created so much initial momentum and support that the building of the Stadium began immediately after that April, 1921 meeting. The first actual game held within Memorial Stadium occurred on November 3, 1923, a 7-0 victory over Chicago with 60,000 in attendance. However, the Stadium was far from complete at that time. Ramps leading to the upper decks were complete in the North ends, but they did not yet exist in the South ends. And there was little if any brick work. All that needed completion before the Stadium could be dedicated formally.

Unfortunately, not all those who pledged monetary support were consistent with their payments. By the end of January, 1924, subscriptions of support totalled $2,139,151.16, but only $1,053, 884.52 had been paid. In fact, 11.59% of the people were still delinquent with their first installments that had been due since January, 1922; 21.66% were delinquent in their July, 1922 installment; 25.54% were delinquent in their January, 1923 installment; 30.56% were delinquent in their July, 1923 installment, and a whopping 47.16% were delinquent in their January, 1924 payment. Not surprisingly, Illini leaders were alarmed and needed a more direct, insistent approach to finish the Stadium in time.

As part of the March 1924 edition of "Memorial Stadium Notes", Bob Zuppke became specific. Referring to a photograph of an incomplete Stadium, Zuppke remarks, "I remember how proud I was when Tad Jones, football coach at Yale, told me that nothing had ever impressed him so much as the demonstration of loyalty by the students of Illinois in the big mass meeting which launched the drive for the Memorial Stadium. That is an example of the favorable opinion and comment on the great project.

"There will be another kind of comment if Illinois, through the dereliction of some of the subscribers to the Stadium is unable to complete it this year as planned. There will be those who will point to the unfinished structure as evidence of the hollowness of the spirit of fighting Illini, even if the situation is due to the remissness of a minority and discounts the loyal record of the majority.

"Illinois alumni and students would have nothing but scorn for a football team which "quit". They would feel outraged, they would feel betrayed...

"Show the same kind of spirit that you expect from your athletes, you subscribers whose delay in meeting your obligations today places in doubt the completion of the Stadium in 1924. Don't let some of Illinois' prestige fly away. Fight to make good your pledge. There is no achievement in the world that amounts to anything that does not require fight and sacrifice.

"It will be judged by the finish, not by the start. Fight for a symbol of accomplishment--of a realized goal--a completed stadium by October 18, 1924."

Redoubling their efforts, enough money was accumulated, in combination with extra loans, to finish the stadium in time for the dedication game with Michigan on October 18. But just barely. The 200 columns, 100 on each side, were still being installed in August of that year. Walkways leading to the Stadium were completed just in time for the game. And the Great Halls were not yet ready for intramurals but could accommodate the fans.

183 of the columns are dedicated to Illinois war dead. If you have never done so, go to the top of the main stands and walk onto one of the colonnades. From there, strolling between two rows of majestic columns, one cannot help but feel some of the energy imparted into the Stadium, by its creators, by those who have shown reverence for departed loved ones, and those who have shared some of their love for the Illini by travelling this special path.

Yes, the University of Illinois accomplished its goal and created a masterpiece that has stood the test of time. And Red Grange added immeasurable fame with his exceptional effort against Michigan in the dedication game. A new Stadium could never have had a better beginning.

It has seen many ups since then, including a National Championship in 1927, Rose Bowl bound teams of 1946, 1951, 1963, and 1983, a BCS Sugar Bowl team of 2001, and numerous other fine teams and players. Of course, it has had a few bad times as well. Throughout all the ups and downs, one consistent fact of life at the University of Illinois is the immovable existence of a grand and glorious structure that is still magnificent 80 years after its creation.

Have you ever read the inscriptions carved into the outer walls of Memorial Stadium? You may have walked past these messages dozens or even hundreds of times without reading them. But you might just find strength, enlightenment and inspiration by doing so. If nothing else, you can learn what the Illini who created the Stadium wanted all future generations to understand regarding what the Stadium meant to them. The message on the Northeast and Southwest corners of the Stadium reminds us that the Stadium is dedicated to our war dead. On the Southeast and Northwest corners, the following message is shared:

"May this Stadium ever be a temple of sportsmanship inspiring the athletes of the University of Illinois & those who cheer them as they play always to uphold the spirit and tradition of Illinois athletics & to play manfully and courageously to the last no matter what the odds. To play fairly within the spirit and the letter of the rules to win without boasting and to lose without excuses. May these ideals of manliness, courage & true sportsmanship find expression not only within the Stadium but throughout the life of the university. Above all may the Stadium be the symbol of a great united university drawing closer together in common bond and spirit all the men & women of Illinois."

These are great words to live by. Let us all continue to strive to live up to this legacy. Let us always revere the Stadium and never take it for granted. And let us all help to take care of the Stadium so it can be as majestic and functional 80 years from now as it is today.

Go Illini: past, present and future!!!
Illinisports
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