Sign up for our daily Illini football newsletter here
It was a pipe dream built atop a pipe dream.
When the first shovel of dirt was turned Sept. 11, 1922, at what would be the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium, the most outlandish hope was to have the entire structure completed in time for Illinois’ 1923 homecoming game.
In a December 1922 request to students and alumni for more money to build the $2 million stadium, athletic director George Huff wrote that “upon the response to these appeals depends the kind of stadium that will be ready for the Homecoming game with Chicago on November 3, 1923.”
Huff’s great vision was not only a 60,000-seat-plus stadium built at a campus of 9,084 students in a community with some 30,000 souls but also to have it ready in 14 months, a dubious timeline six months shorter than the construction schedule for Chicago’s 75,000-seat Soldier Field, which was being built almost concurrently.
Huff fudged, however, on the condition of the stadium at the time of the inaugural game.
“The stadium committee has contracted merely for the completion of the SEATS by that time,” he explained in a publication sent to stadium supporters. “Our contract does not call for the completion of the entire stadium with outside walls and memorial columns — and other features — until the summer of 1924.”
Thus, fundraising permitting, the UI hoped to have two distinct homecoming opening days at Memorial Stadium, one an inaugural game on Nov. 3, 1923, and the second a Dedication Day game with Michigan on Oct. 18, 1924. Both would be sellouts, but with 7,000 more people at the 1924 game in a fully completed stadium.
Those unable to attend the homecoming game — which one Chicago writer called “the game of the century” — could listen to it on the radio. (It would be the only loss that year for Chicago; Illinois went undefeated and claimed a national championship). The relatively new Chicago station KYW, among a handful of Westinghouse-owned radio stations in the United States, said it would have a crew of 35 men broadcast the game from Champaign. Marshall Field’s downtown department store said it would carry the broadcast in its men’s department that day. Commonwealth Edison had six loudspeakers outside its downtown Chicago offices to blare the play-by-play. In Danville, the Commercial News staff called out the action using wire service accounts.
Quite a trek
Downstate roads at the time were few, far between and crude. The Chicago Tribune advised motorists to take the following route: Michigan Avenue south to Garfield Boulevard, west to Western Avenue, then south through Blue Island, Posen, Hazel Crest and Homewood to Illinois 1 (the Dixie Highway) to Danville. Then go west on Illinois 10 to Urbana.
UI officials assured fans that there would be parking near the stadium for as many as 13,000 automobiles. That assumed dry conditions because few streets near the stadium were paved and all the parking lots were dirt or grass.
Most fans, however, would take a train to the game. The Illinois Central Railroad estimated it would carry at least 15,000 fans from Chicago to the game, starting with two extra trains Friday and concluding with eight special trains, in addition to regular service, leaving the 12th Street Station between 7 and 8:45 a.m. Saturday.
“Next to the crowd that attended the opening of Ohio State’s field last year (reputed to be 72,000 in a stadium with a capacity of 66,210), the event tomorrow will draw the biggest crowd that has ever turned out for a grid battle in the middle west,” the Tribune predicted.
The Chicago Evening Post wondered if tiny Urbana and Champaign would be able to accommodate so many people.
“The advance guard of 60,000 fans that are expected to watch the struggle are moving on to Urbana today and the little town and its twin sister, Champaign, are all aflutter,” the Evening Post wrote. The mob, it reported, will be “twice as big as anything that turned out to watch a football game in Urbana before.”
That was true, and the Chicago Daily News noted that Champaign and Urbana were like New Haven, Conn.: “big in football accommodations but poor in hotel accommodations. At the time of a big game, there ain’t more.”
The Illinois Central station in Champaign published a list of 500 homeowners with extra rooms to rent for fans. A squadron of 22 Chicago police officers hired to direct traffic in Champaign on game day had to bed down on cots at the Champaign firehouse.
The limited number of local restaurants was also a problem, the newspapers said.
“Army rolling kitchens, the kind that served beans and hot beef stew to American troops during the war, are being brought up from Chanute Field in Rantoul to provide hot food for the thousands who will be unable to jam themselves into Champaign restaurants,” the Daily News.
The condition of the stadium for its first game 100 years ago this weekend was almost laughable. Streets adjacent to the stadium were largely nonexistent or primitive — a condition made worse by the steady rain that pelted fans for four hours before the game’s 2 p.m. start. (Weather records show that about half an inch of rain fell on that day, with temperatures in the mid-40s).
The Tribune story claimed that Huff had spent $1,000 (close to $18,000 in today’s dollars) to build walks of crushed stone up to the stadium entrance, but as the game began, “thousands still struggled through the mud to gain entrance to the huge double-decked stands.”
The Chicago Herald and Examiner wrote that approaches to the stadium “were a sticky mess of wet mud.”
Most of the stores in Champaign-Urbana were closed that day, and the few that were open quickly sold out of umbrellas, raincoats and other bad-weather gear. Inventive fans used oilcloth and newspapers to shield themselves from the rain.
True to Huff’s promise, there were plenty of seats in the stadium — 55,524 permanent ones and about 5,000 temporary bleachers in the south and north end zones, for a total attendance of 60,632 — but the rest of the building was largely unfinished.
The “great halls” on the east and west sides of the building had no exterior walls. The four towers at the stadium’s corners, containing the ramps that zigzag to the balconies, were unfinished. The distinctive colonnades containing the names of Illini killed in the world war hadn’t arrived yet.
There were no locker rooms for the players. Members of the Chicago team dressed and met in two Pullman train coaches pulled up to the stadium on a temporary siding. Illinois players spent the night at and dressed at the Champaign Country Club and traveled to the game in trucks, the Tribune wrote.
There was, at least, a scoreboard at the south end zone that recorded not only the score but also the players as they shuttled in and out of the game. And the newly sodded field held up. Illinois won, 7-0, with star running back Red Grange gaining 173 yards, scoring the only touchdown and intercepting one pass.
A Tribune story said that the stadium construction site included “huge masses of concrete sticking out of the ground on either side of the gridiron that were cold and forbidding looking.”
A writer for the Herald and Examiner was impressed with the unfinished but mammoth structure.
“Though the scaffolding of workmen were still to be seen at the top of the concrete stands and spectators on their way to their seats had to pass through a maze of temporary wooden passageways — and none too high, either, as various 6-footers discovered to their dismay — the effect of the stadium as a whole was pleasing,” he wrote. “Not even the cold blasts of winds that swept the place nor the steady fall of dismal rain could change the final impression that the Illini have quite a plan to offer.”
An editorial in The News-Gazette the day after the game — obviously written before it had been played — praised the community for successfully hosting the throng.
“A year or two ago, the community was filled with those who said it couldn’t be done,” the editorial read. “How would enough people come here to see a football game, they said. But out in the middle western cornfields, the stadium was built, with an eye toward the future. Illinois is one of the foremost in the Big Ten in athletics, but she has not a great city around her like Chicago, Northwestern or Ohio State. Yet the stadium will be filled and overflowing.”
In reality, there was much more work to do, both by the university and the cities of Champaign and Urbana, before the 1924 football season.
In a letter to UI President David Kinley, the secretary of the Memorial Stadium Fund said that paving First and Fourth streets adjacent to the stadium was an absolute necessity.
“It is felt that if we should have a repetition of the unfortunate weather which prevailed in the inaugural game last fall, the Stadium could not live down the reputation for many years to come, and therefore, the paving seems to us imperative,” wrote C.J. Rosebery, secretary of the stadium fund and its collection manager.