UI’s historical football legacy among the best


Football as we know it was invented at the University of Illinois, though you may not know it if you went to Memorial Stadium on Game Day.

In 1913, Robert Zuppke took over as head coach of the Illinois football team. When he left in 1941 — 28 years and four national championships later — the game looked drastically different. Football players huddled to call plays and the flea flicker became a playground favorite because of Zuppke.

Even with his inventions to the game, Zuppke’s greatest contribution may have been his influence on some of the most important football players of all time. Zuppke coached the consensus greatest college football player of all time: Red Grange.

The Galloping Ghost, commemorated by a statue at the west entrance of Memorial Stadium, did things no other football player had ever done — dominating as a rusher, receiver, returner and pass-thrower. Later, he — a pro football hall of famer — and another Illinois football player, George Halas — the future coach, founder and owner of the Chicago Bears — helped legitimize the NFL.

The greatest linebacker of all time, Dick Butkus, also went to Illinois, dominating for the Illini and later for the Bears before becoming a member of the pro football Hall of Fame and being named the most feared tackler of all time by the NFL. Butkus and Grange are the only football players to have their numbers retired by the University of Illinois.

In the 1980s, Illinois became a feared football program again. The top overall draft pick in 1990 was Illinois quarterback Jeff George.

In the 2000s, Illinois made two BCS bowls — the 2002 Sugar Bowl and 2008 Rose Bowl. Illinois had more first round draft picks in the late 2000s than any other Big Ten school.

Today, the product on the field doesn’t match the legacies of Butkus and Grange, but the side of the pressbox still commemorates their successes, listing the national and conference championships, as well as their retired numbers. While Illinois may not have the best football team, its historical legacy is among the best.

Johnathan is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jhett93.