Understanding the history of Memorial Stadium, Illinois football

There was a time when fans flocked to Illinois football games.

A century ago, coach Robert C. Zuppke spearheaded the Illini, leading to an undefeated 1914 season, and the first of four national championships under Zuppke. Four thousand fans crammed into Illinois Field, which was located on Wright Street between University and Springfield Avenues.

As the popularity of the team grew, the stadium was increased to a capacity of 17,000, but by the end of World War I, fans were still being turned away from games.

And thus, the plans for Memorial Stadium were born.

It was decided that a football stadium would best serve the University — and it would not be just a stadium, but a grand structure that would memorialize the fallen soldiers of WWI with their names inscribed on the 200 columns that support the stadium on its east and west sides. Students willingly forked over donations for the construction of the stadium — amounting to $700,000 from the undergraduate body alone.

Nov. 3 will mark the 90th anniversary of the first game played in Memorial Stadium, in which Illinois defeated the University of Chicago, 7-0.

And so much history has taken place in Memorial Stadium since then.

A year later, on Oct. 18, 1924, which was the official dedication of the stadium, Memorial Stadium saw an amazing performance, which remains the greatest of its history: Harold E. “Red” Grange ran for five touchdowns and assisted in a sixth, leading Illinois to a 39-14 win over Michigan.

He went on to play for the Chicago Bears, and his legacy led to a 12-foot statue of himself located in front of the west entrance of the stadium, along with the “The Grange Rock.”As of the current season, a tradition has emerged in which every player touches the rock before running onto the field.

Chief Illiniwek made his first appearance on Oct. 30, 1926. He danced during halftime to the newly-written “March of the Illini,” and later two additional songs were added to create the “Three-In-One” drill, which Chief Illiniwek danced to with the Marching Illini.

My parents tell tales of the ‘80s when Illini football was the talk of campus, the community and the state.

Under coach Mike White, the team saw the largest crowds in Memorial Stadium history — reaching an all-time high of 78,297 on Sept. 8, 1984, when Illinois beat Missouri 30-24.

Then, the stadium capacity was approximately 20,000 more than what it is now. Before the premium seating in the west stands was added in the 2008 renovations, the west stands mirrored the east upper balcony.

My parents recalled the stadium roaring as the announcer revealed the attendance numbers to the crowd. Block-I was housed on the 40-yard line of the east stands, with the Marching Illini standing just south of them. The student section crowded into the east upper balcony.

My dad recalls a time when a mini keg was snuck into the stadium and my mom remembers the students swaying back and forth, not just during “Hail to the Orange,” but to make the entire balcony sway, such that water (or more likely, beer) would slosh back and forth on the floor. Safety obviously wasn’t as much of a concern back then.

In 2002, the Chicago Bears (whose colors were chosen by Bears founder and University alumnus George Halas), played all their home games in Memorial Stadium while Soldier Field was being renovated.

A $121 million renovation completed in 2008 brought many additions to the stadium, including the north end zone stands, which now hold the Marching Illini and Block-I.

In the current season, the largest crowd was 46,890 during the Illinois vs. Miami of Ohio game. The capacity of Memorial Stadium is 60,670.

Illinois lost to Nebraska on Saturday in a stadium that had its 330th consecutive sell out — a streak that started in 1962. And the capacity of that stadium: 81,067.

But I’d love to see a sold-out Memorial Stadium.

Students, faculty, staff, families in the community — go to the Illinois football games. Don’t make Illinois’ record a reason not to go (however, our current record is already better than last season’s — something to be proud of). There is so much more than just football to experience at the games.

Fill the seats and understand all that came before this time. Because when you understand, you truly become an Illini.

Kirsten is a junior in Media. She can be reached at [email protected]