Most of us are frustrated by the last couple of Illini football seasons. So perhaps now is a good time to remind of a special season that was as surprising as it was successful.
How would you feel if your coach's first description about the upcoming football team was, "Heavy and slow but willing?" This doesn't conjure up much hope, does it? But that is how Bob Zuppke described his Illini football team in the 1927 preview issue of "Memorial Stadium Notes" from August of that year. It is true that Zuppke was a master of manipulating public perception, and he likely used understatement to affect opponents' knowledge of our team. But that 1927 team was later called "...the team of nobodies, from nowhere" because no one gave them a chance of winning a championship of any kind.
The Illini had been 6-2 in 1926, but they were only 2-2 in the Big Ten. In fact, they scored only three touchdowns in Big 10 play, and the person who scored all three graduated after that year. The preseason prospectus on the 1927 Illini team insisted they needed a much better backfield and an improved line. There was hope that some "fast-moving, shifty freshmen" could strengthen the line if they developed as hoped for their sophomore year. But there was legitimate concern whether the Illini could improve backfield power.
Players in that era were smaller than today, but listen to the weights of the Illini backfield performers that year, taken from the book "Zuppke" by Red Grange: Quarterback Dwight Steussy, 156 pounds; Quarterback Blair French, 148; Jud Timm, "who runs low, hits hard and is fast in the open", 164; Frank Walker, an Urbana runner who was hard to bring down, 154; Doug Mills, "fairly fast and a good punter", 148; and fullback Fritz Humbert, 166. Timm was not a certain performer because he had hurt his arm the previous year.
There were only 13 total lettermen from the 1926 team. And a few players had to attend summer school to be eligible, their status unknown until just before the start of the season. Frosty Peters, an excellent drop-kicker, had been moved to end after being "over-touted" as a running back previously. It was hoped his speed could be used more effectively there, but then he was required to sit out the season. And Garland Grange, Red Grange's 171 pound brother, was an end candidate after having a bad shoulder the two previous years.
Butch Nowack, a 209 pound Pana coal miner who paid his own way through school, was a leader in the line even though we was not included in the preseason prospectus. "Fighting Bob" Reitsch, a 181 pounder, was an outstanding center and captain, and 164 pound sophomore Russ Crane evolved into such an outstanding guard that he was ultimately named an All-American by Grantland Rice. Lou Gordon was among others who contributed in the line that year. But he was a surprising contributor since he had failed to make the freshman team. A 6'-4", 197 pounder, Gordon was said to be the best Jewish athlete ever to play for Zuppke. He later played many years in the NFL.
Another "nobody" who materialized during the 1927 season was 193 pound Lou Muegge. Nicknamed "Step-And-A-Half", Muegge had a deformity that prevented him from walking with a normal gait. And yet, Muegge loved combat and succeeded beyond most everyone's aspirations due to his strong belief in his body and fierce determination. Perhaps his efforts were typical of that squad.
Muegge, Nowack and Gordon were the heavyweights of the line. Besides them, Reitsch and Crane, other main line performers that year included William McClure, 174 pounds; Ernest Schultz, 176; Arnold Wolgast, 160; and Robert Hickman, 147. Needless to say, most of our opponents had linemen at least this large. As a side note, we have access to these weights because Coach Zuppke could remember weights of all of his players, even when he couldn't remember their names.
If ever there was a team in which everything fell perfectly into place, it was that 1927 team. But even the fans were not expecting much success as the season unfolded. Only 17,000 trickled into Memorial Stadium to watch the Illini shutout Bradley, 19-0. Less than 11,000 sought the enjoyment of a 58-0 shellacking of an outmanned Butler team. And barely over 11,000 attended the hard-fought 12-12 tie with Iowa State.
It wasn't until the fourth game when the Illini began to impress the naysayers. Playing at Evanston against a Northwestern team favored to defeat them, the Illini fought to a 7-6 victory. Afterwards, Wildcats coach Dick Hanley said the Illini had the greatest team speed he had ever seen. Obviously, Zuppke's preseason protestations of being a slow team were merely propaganda. The Illini were showing the fire, hustle and teamwork that was overcoming the odds against them.
The University of Michigan always attracted big crowds, and Homecoming 1927 was no exception. Michigan was a powerhouse in nearly all Big 10 sports, and they had won the Big 10 football title in 1925 and 1926. Over 63,000 filled Memorial Stadium on October 29, 1927, hoping their beloved Illini could overcome the odds and defeat their hated rival. And after a defensive struggle, the Illini prevailed, 14-0.
The Illini followed up this big win with another impressive effort, shutting out Iowa at Iowa, 14-0. They then came home and beat up on old nemesis Chicago 15-6 before 48,000 fans. Suddenly, the Illini were one win from something special.
That one final game was November 19, 1927, at Ohio State. OSU was considered by some to have the most talent in the conference that year. But they had only a 2-2 conference record going into the Illini game. They were especially known for their outstanding passing game, and 70,043 showed up to cheer on the Buckeyes for their annual Homecoming.
W. C. Ropiequet, class of '14, speaking in the "Illinois Alumni News", 11/23/1927, said, "...the Ohio team was by far the best team of the season and, in our humble opinion, the best team to take the field against the Indians this year. With Columbus shrieking for the scalp of Doc Wilce, it is only fair to say that Ohio played as only a superbly-coached team can play. We are willing to accord the doctor second place as a coach in any All-American selection; there is, of course, no dispute as to the occupant of first place (editor's note: Bob Zuppke). Ohio may have had its faults this year but they were due to internal discord and over-advertising and not to coaching--all of Columbus to the contrary notwithstanding."
There was concern before the game the Illini might crack from the constant tension of the four previous nerve-wracking conference games. And there was definitely concern the maligned Buckeyes would play with a desperate style, the result of having nothing to lose and a coach's job to gain. But as was true of all previous games, the outcome was decided by the Illini's superb teamwork rather than individual heroics.
The Illini outgained OSU 226 yards to 83 on the ground. The Buckeyes' 111-98 yard passing advantage was neutralized by three Illini interceptions. And the Illini used the pass to score both their touchdowns. A 23-yard touchdown pass from Stuessy to Hulbert late in the first quarter followed closely a leaping grab of a Stuessy pass by Garland Grange. And then early in the third period, following some good running by Timm, Walker and Hulbert, French passed to Timm for the short touchdown that helped seal the victory.
On the day, Jud Timm gained 93 yards in seventeen carries, Frank Walker gained 66 in eleven carries, and Fritz Hulbert added 50 yards in 15 tough carries. Blair French and Dwight Stuessy combined to complete 6 of 16 passes for their 98 yards. And Doug Mills, who was suffering from the death of his father, still managed some timely punting and had a key interception.
Transportation was more difficult in those days, so the victorious Illini didn't make it back to Champaign until their train pulled into the station at 8:00am Sunday morning. But there to great them were hundreds of enthusiastic Illini fans and a pep band. Indeed, championships were becoming the norm, as Bob Zuppke now had his sixth Western Conference (Big 10) title in 14 years of coaching.
For their efforts, the 1927 Fighting Illini, the team of "nobodys", were declared National Champions. Certainly, this was a mythical championship as they were voted the honor rather than earning it by defeating all comers. And it is probably true that the Big 10 Champ each year was a likely candidate for National honors due to widespread respect for the Big 10 at that time.
But our 5-0 conference record came at the expense of five outstanding opponents, all the top contenders except Minnesota, so this was a legitimate honor at the time. It was our fourth National Championship in our 37 years of existence as a football program. Unfortunately, it was also to be our last, to this date.
Four Illini earned All-American honors in 1927: Russ Crane, Robert Reitsch, Butch Nowack, and Jud Timm. They were joined by Garland Grange and Fritz Humbert in making at least one of the three All-Big 10 teams. And Arnold Wolgast, Dwight Stuessy, and Frank Walker all made Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. Walker led the conference in average yards per rush, and Timm was second. Not bad for a team of nobodys!
Perhaps we cannot appreciate or even relate to efforts from the distant past, no matter how herculean. Perhaps we cannot draw strength from that success to help us gather hope for the future. Perhaps the stars of Illinois' past are just ghosts, to be ignored and forgotten.
But our most famous teams, from any era, are those who rise above mediocrity to achieve far beyond what is expected of them. And personally, I would like to believe the energies and memories, and maybe even some of the ghosts, of all those who came before are still there in Memorial Stadium to assist the new Illini in their efforts. We come from good stock, too good to remain mired in mediocrity for long.
One thing is for sure. Our next National Championship, and there will be one if we are given enough years to compete for it, will be equally unexpected. And when it happens, we will be as amazed and grateful as the alumni, students and fans were during that truly amazing season of 1927.
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