“The honor of playing for Illinois”

Red Grange and Robert Zuppke. 
Photo from the Illinois Distributed Museum.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the sports world nears the peak of its annual debate about who should qualify for the college football playoff.

The playoff is relatively new creation, just arriving on the scene with the 2014 season, and coming after a few other attempts to develop a system for crowning a national champion. Before the advent of a genuine national championship game there were seasons in which the debate raged over who was truly the best college football team in the nation. President Richard Nixon even intervened in the argument to use the power and prestige of the White House to declare the Texas Longhorns as national champions in 1969.

While there were many seasons in which the identity of the best team in the country was up for grabs, there have been other seasons in which there was no debate. One of these was all the way back in 1914 when the gridiron squad from the University of Illinois dominated opponents on their way to an undefeated season and Coach Robert Zuppke’s first national championship.

Zuppke was born in Germany and came to the United States at the age of two. He played college football at Wisconsin and then became a high school coach in Michigan and in Oak Park, Illinois, where he led his teams to a pair of undefeated seasons in 1911 and 1912. The next year he was hired at the University of Illinois for $2700 a year. His first season at Illinois was unremarkable as the Illini finished 4-2-1 and came in fifth in the Big Ten (then commonly known as the Western Conference). But things were about to change.

The 1914 squad roared out of the gate on opening day, October 3, by crushing Christian Brothers 37-0. A week later they put on an even more dominating performance in the conference opener against Indiana, winning 51-0. The Illini employed a new 5-4-2 defense which stymied opponents and held them scoreless in game after game. A key element was the placement of defenders far back from the line of scrimmage to give them an extra second to react to plays, the position which came to be known as a “linebacker.”

The Illini were led in scoring by halfback Bart Macomber. Guard and team Captain Ralph Chapman and end Perry Graves were consensus first-team All-Americans that season and halfback Harold Pogue was a second-team All American. A hallmark of Zuppke’s teams was creativity and innovation. The coach once said that “the greatest athlete is one who can carry a nimble brain to the place of action,” and Zuppke’s teams were known for being led by players with nimble brains.

“The agile brain of Bob Zuppke gave more to the game of football than most could ever hope to donate,” begins his biography from the College Football Hall of Fame. Zuppke developed creative passing plays such as the screen pass and the use of the pocket. He also unveiled a strange play in which the quarterback would hand off the ball to a running back who would take a few steps and toss it back to the QB who would then throw a long pass. This dazzling misdirection play is known today as the “flea-flicker.”

Robert Zuppke. 
Zuppke’s squad kept up their dominance all through October, not even giving up a point until the final day of the month. They blew out Ohio State 37-0 then took their show on the road with a 33-0 shellacking of Northwestern. The conference’s second-best team that year, Minnesota, managed to put six points on the board on October 31 in front of their home fans, but the Illini found the end zone three times for a 21-6 victory. Two weeks later Zuppke bested another Illinois football legend, the University of Chicago’s Amos Alonzo Stagg, 21-7 in Champaign.

The final game of the season was played the Saturday before Thanksgiving at Wisconsin, Zuppke’s alma mater. That day the Badgers scored more points against Illinois than anyone else that season (nine) but once again the Illini dominated the game, winning 24-9 to complete the perfect season.

Illinois’ 1914 team finished 7-0 and won the conference title by a wide margin over Minnesota and Chicago. But Illinois would have to wait almost a half century for its national title, as a national champion was not crowned in those early days of college football. In the 1960s a publication called the Billingsley Report began analyzing past college football seasons to retroactively determine a national champion. Using a formula devised by its founder, Richard Billingsley, the report established a national champion for every season going back to the beginning of college football in 1869.

The Billingsley formula caught on and became a key part of the NCAA’s efforts to reconstruct the history of college football and its past national champions. It was also included as part of the ill-fated Bowl Championship Series mathematical formula used to pick a champion in the years before the college football playoff. Billingsley’s study determined that the 1914 Illinois squad was the best in the country, and thus awarded the Illini their first national championship.

Even though a national champion banner would not fly over the field for the 1915 season, Illinois fans greeted the new season in record numbers. Where attendance in years past had come in at around 4500, fans now filled the stands at 17,000-seat Illinois Field for a look at the Illini. In 1915 Illinois again put together an undefeated season, but Minnesota battled them to a 6-6 tie to end up as co-champions of the conference.

A couple of down years followed for Zuppke, but in 1918 Illinois took another conference title and in 1919 (once again retroactively) clinched its second national championship with a 6-1 season. Notably Zuppke did all this without offering scholarships to players. “The honor of playing for Illinois is payment enough,” he said.

Attendance continued to surge with the Illini’s success, and Zuppke pushed for construction of a new stadium with much larger capacity. It was out of these efforts that Memorial Stadium was born, opening its doors for the Homecoming game in November 1923 on the south end of the U of I campus. Zuppke and athletic director George Huff led the fundraising drive that helped build the new stadium. It was dedicated in honor of Illinois students who lost their lives in World War I.

With the new stadium, attendance soared. Illinois games routinely drew as many as 60,000 fans and they did not often leave disappointed. During that inaugural 1923 season at Memorial Stadium a new star, Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost” would lead Illinois to another undefeated season and what would later become its third national title. A fourth followed in 1927.

1927 U of I Championship Football Team.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
In all Coach Zuppke would win Illinois’ first four national championships and would collect seven conference titles before he retired after the 1941 season. His record of 131-81-12 still ranks him as the all-time winningest coach in Illinois football history. The playing field at Memorial Stadium was named “Zuppke Field” in his honor in 1966.

He was one of the inaugural members of the college football hall of fame when it was created in 1951. Coach Zuppke died in 1957.