100 Years of Memorial Stadium: The House That Illini Built

Red Grange may have made Memorial Stadium a household name, but it was the thousands of Illini students and alumni—inspired by legendary Athletics Director George Huff and football coach Robert Zuppke—who funded its construction

Red Grange may have made Memorial Stadium a household name, but it was the thousands of Illini students and alumni—inspired by legendary Athletics Director George Huff and football coach Robert Zuppke—who funded its construction

profile of Robert Zuppke

Head Coach Robert Zuppke led the Fighting Illini to four national championships. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

When charismatic Illinois football Head Coach Robert Zuppke talked, people listened.

Perched on a platform in the Gym Annex, the diminutive Zuppke, his arms gesticulating wildly, pitched the idea of a Memorial Stadium to 4,000 captivated students, his words “zigzagging” like “lightning” across the cavernous Annex on that unseasonably warm April day in 1921. He closed his remarks by asking for voluntary donations of $1,000 for the proposed stadium, and the buzzing throng of students fell silent. Painfully silent. Roughly $16,800 in today’s dollars, such a sum was well beyond the means of most students of that era.

Finally, a shy voice piped up from the international-student section behind the speakers’ platform. “I will give, sir!” a handsome brown-eyed, black-haired young man said. His name was Ruy de Lima Cavalcanti, a freshman from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. The logjam had been broken, and a flood of pledges ensued—nearly $18,000 came from the international students alone. When the student campaign ended on May 1, approximately $665,000 had been pledged. The alumni also vowed to do their part in turn to finance the $1.7 million structure.

“Yesterday everything was forgotten but [the] Stadium, and to say ‘[the] Stadium’ now means much,” The Daily Illini remarked the day after the rally. “It means sterling loyalty, noble sacrifice, fervent devotion, character strength, fearless spirit, undying fortitude, inspiring vision and splendid ideals. It means Illinois.”

Celebrating its centennial this fall, Memorial Stadium was the brainchild of George Huff, 1892 LAS, the U of I’s beloved, longtime athletic director. As early as 1914, Huff had called for a “great new stadium” for Illini football. He recognized only too well that the tiny Illinois Field, aka “The Lumberyard,” with its 18,000-seat capacity, was incapable of accommodating the growing legions of college football fans. That had been dramatically demonstrated in November 1920 when more than 30,000 Ohio State University fans, unable to obtain seats, were forced to watch the Big Ten championship game from behind the Illinois Field fences. After Ohio State triumphed in the final seconds of the game, the Buckeye faithful stampeded through the barriers.

Aerial view of Memorial Stadium from 1925

Homecoming 1925. The Fighting Illini take on the Michigan Wolverines in front of a packed crowd at the two-year-old Memorial Stadium. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

“If our students expect to see Illinois in competition with the big teams on Illinois Field, they must provide a place for all the spectators who will come,” Zuppke argued.

Harvard, Princeton and Yale already possessed big stadiums, and Ohio State itself was in the middle of a million-dollar stadium campaign. Why shouldn’t Illinois jump on the bandwagon? Huff and Zuppke spearheaded an ambitious campaign to build a stadium that would be both a football arena and a memorial to those Illini who had perished in World War I. “A tribute to the dead, an inspiration to the living” became one of the stadium’s fundraising slogans.

Organized in early 1921, the Stadium Fund Drive initially targeted students’ purses and wallets. The 2,500 members of the drive’s fundraising committees “lived and breathed Stadium” day and night. They hosted picnics, orchestrated parades, put up posters and distributed publications to persuade students to help “build that Stadium for Fighting Illini.” Their efforts culminated with the “monster mass meeting” in the Gym Annex on April 25, 1921, where Ruy de Lima Cavalcanti saved the day.

“What you have started, our alumni will finish,” Huff told the students at that rally. And they did. Huff and Zuppke barnstormed the country during the spring and summer of 1921, speaking to alumni clubs from Seattle to New York City. Their “oratorical fireworks” paid off. In late December 1921, Huff reported that a total of $1,642,000 in stadium pledges had been received. Approximately 8,000 alumni and a similar number of students had made pledges. Ultimately, some 21,000 people contributed to the Memorial Stadium fund.


Horses and machines working to build the Memorial Stadium

Champaign-based construction firm English Brothers Company begins work on the Memorial Stadium during spring 1922. A spur line is built off the Illinois Central tracks to deliver 3,200 tons of steel, 45,000 tons of sand and gravel, and 12 million pounds of cement to the construction site. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

In spring 1922, a swampy south campus hayfield was chosen as the site for Memorial Stadium, and construction began the following autumn. Champaign’s very own English Brothers Company oversaw the colossal project, managing an army of 3,600 workers. Building materials, including steel, cement, brick and limestone, were delivered to the site via a spur off the nearby Illinois Central Railroad tracks. Altogether, more than 3,200 tons of steel, 45,000 tons of sand and gravel, 12 million pounds of cement, and 1.2 million bricks (all from Western Brick Company of Danville, Ill.) were used to construct Memorial Stadium.

Holabird and Roche, a well-known Chicago architecture firm, designed Memorial Stadium to evoke the glory of ancient Greece and Rome. The firm was a logical choice for such a commission: John Holabird had just designed Chicago’s Municipal Grant Park Stadium (renamed Soldier Field in 1925).

Image of the stadium mid construction and newspaper clipping from opening day

Chicago-based architecture firm Holabird and Roche designs Memorial Stadium, which hosts its first football game on Nov. 3, 1923, during Homecoming. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

Architectural historian Allen Weller, HON ’93, approved of the design: In his words, the stadium’s exterior was “an imposing shell which cleverly introduces a majestic colonnade in harmony with the Georgian buildings designed and erected at the same time.”

Running a total length of 546 feet and towering 112 feet high, the stadium could comfortably seat 55,524 spectators—a capacity then exceeded in the Big Ten only by “the Horseshoe” at Ohio State. True to its memorial purpose, 187 of the 200 Doric columns lining the stadium’s east and west sides were engraved with the names of Illini—one name per column—who gave their lives during World War I. (Gladys Gilpatrick was the sole woman commemorated on the colonnade; in 1918, she died of influenza while working as a student nurse in a Philadelphia hospital.) Additional columns honored the unknown Illini dead, two doughboys from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, respectively, and the World War I Students’ Army Training Corps.

Football players crouched at the line of scrimmage

Memorial Stadium opens on a cold and drizzly Nov. 3, 1923, with the Fighting Illini taking on their arch rival, the University of Chicago Maroons, and beating them, 7-0. More than 62,000 people attend the “Mud Bowl.” (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

But it was an unfinished, skeletal Memorial Stadium that hosted its first football game on Nov. 3, 1923, a drizzly, raw Homecoming Saturday. Senior Logan Peirce was an awestruck witness to the edifice’s “baptism of rain,” which featured the Illini in a muddy match-up against their bitter rival, the University of Chicago. “Dear, the spectacle here Saturday was beyond my powers of description,” Peirce marveled in a letter to his girlfriend. “It was wonderful! 62,000 people jammed into the stadium. Chicago, with their maroon colors, formed an enormous C in the east bleachers. The players looked like midgets–but you could see wonderfully well.” The Illini eked out a win against Chicago in the “Mud Bowl”—and the campus went wild.

It was an auspicious beginning, and the Fighting Illini made Memorial Stadium’s official dedication game even better. On Oct. 18, 1924, Illinois trounced the Michigan Wolverines 39-14 before a boisterous crowd of 67,000. On that balmy Homecoming afternoon, Harold “Red” Grange galloped into the history books, scoring five touchdowns on the ground (and throwing a pass for a sixth) against the heavily favored Michigan team. Grange’s phenomenal performance that day helped put college football on the national map and instantly turned the new Memorial Stadium into a historic landmark.

“Harold is a red-haired god,” the Chicago Tribune gushed.

Memorial Stadium helped usher in a golden age of Illinois football. Between 1923 and 1929, Zuppke-led teams won three Big Ten and two national championships. “A gift of the alumni and people of Illinois, the stadium was the key factor in the ‘golden’ era of Illinois football,” archivist and historian Maynard Brichford wrote. “From 1923 to 1930, football began producing substantial profits on the field, in the grandstands and in the accounting office.”

During the near-century since Grange’s historic game day, Memorial Stadium has witnessed both Illini football triumphs (such as the 1983 Homecoming upset win over Ohio State) and tragedies (like the 2005 Homecoming drubbing by Penn State). Great teams have graced the field (christened Zuppke Field in 1966): the 1923 and 1927 national collegiate champions; the 1946, 1951 and 1963 Rose Bowl-winning teams; and the honorable-mention 1983, 2001 and 2007 squads. And there have been scores of star players over the decades, including Claude “Buddy” Young; Alex Agase, ’47 AHS; Johnny Karras; J. C. Caroline; Ray Nitschke; Jim Grabowski; Dick Butkus, ’65 AHS; Tony Eason, ’83 AHS; David Williams, ’96 LAS; Howard Griffith, ’91 LAS; Moe Gardner, ’91 LAS; Jeff George, ’91 LAS; Dana Howard, ’94 LAS; Simeon Rice, ’96 LAS; Kurt Kittner, ’02 BUS; J Leman, ’06 LAS, EDM ’08; and Rashard Mendenhall.

Memorial Stadium also has served as “a home away from home” of sorts for the Chicago Bears. Founded by Illini George Halas, 1918 ENG, as the Decatur Staleys in 1920 and uniformed in the orange and blue of his Alma Mater, the Bears have always enjoyed a strong connection to the U of I. In 1974 and 1975, the Monsters of the Midway battled the St. Louis Cardinals in exhibition games at Memorial Stadium, and in 1985, the Bears scrimmaged under “the Bubble”—an inflatable practice dome installed over Zuppke Field—on the way to their 1986 Super Bowl victory.

Then, in 2002, while Soldier Field was being renovated, the Bears played their home games in Champaign, where they went 3-5. Perhaps the highlight of that strange season was ABC’s Monday Night Football match-up between the Bears and the Green Bay Packers before a crowd of 61,000. John Madden and Al Michaels in Champaign!

Monday Night Football at Memorial Stadium, baby; it’s too bizarre,” quipped Daily Illini columnist Jon Kinkley, ’03 FAA, MA ’09 ACES.

Memorial Stadium has been more than a temple of football over the years. It’s hosted track and field championships, the Illini Marching Band Festival, the Illinois High School Association football state finals, Fourth of July fireworks displays, the Illinois Marathon, and the U of I’s Commencement ceremonies. During World War II, the stadium’s West Hall was used as a classroom for the U.S. Navy’s Diesel Engine Operators School, and in 1946, the West Hall was pressed into service as a dormitory. The stadium even housed the University Television Studio in the 1950s.

Jon Bon Jovi on stage at Memorial Stadium

Memorial Stadium plays host to the first-ever Farm-Aid concert, which draws artists ranging from Bon Jovi (shown) to B.B. King, Lorretta Lynn and Willie Nelson. (Image courtesy of Art Meripol)

But for this writer, Memorial Stadium’s most notable non-football event occurred on Sept. 22, 1985, when it hosted the first Farm Aid concert. A raucous crowd of 80,000 watched a glittering constellation of rock, blues and country music superstars—the Beach Boys, Bon Jovi, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, Tanya Tucker, Neil Young and others—perform their hearts out in support of struggling family farmers. I recall sneaking into Memorial Stadium as the last chords of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ set faded, only to discover that the show was over. At least I was able to enjoy the most spectacular fireworks display I’ve ever seen!

All the same, as Memorial Stadium has aged, it has required its share of upgrades and renovations. In 1928, the West Hall was built, followed by the addition of the South Stands in 1929, which increased the stadium’s capacity to 71,119. A press box was built atop the west balcony in 1967, artificial turf installed on Zuppke Field in 1975, and major repairs undertaken to remedy the sagging structure in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. During 1991 and 1992, an $18-million renovation replaced all of the upper-deck concrete bleachers and the top 25 rows of the main stands. New restrooms also were constructed.

The biggest rebuilding effort in the arena’s history, however, occurred in 2008, when the $121-million “Illinois Renaissance” project transformed the face of Memorial Stadium. A triple deck of skyboxes (including a new, more spacious press box) was installed over the west stands, the concourse areas extended and upgraded, and the Block I relocated from the 40-yard line of the east stands to a new 5,000-seat structure on the stadium’s north end.

“I’ll miss my beloved 40-yard line,” lamented Daily Illini writer Daniel Johnson, ’97 LAS, ’97 LAS. The Illinois Renaissance renovation concluded in 2009 with the dedication of a 12-foot-tall bronze statue of Red Grange in mid-gallop on the stadium’s west side.

Illini offensive lineman Jon Asamoah, ’09 AHS, for one, loved the face-lift. “You look back at some of the old film from a couple years ago and [Memorial Stadium] was not looking hot back in the day,” he told a reporter in 2008. “I’m proud of this place now, and hopefully, it will be intimidating for the opponents.”

Regardless of the ravages of time, Memorial Stadium has nobly endured for a century. Journalists have dubbed it “the house that Grange built.” Perhaps. But let’s not forget the thousands of students (like Ruy de Lima Cavalcanti) and alumni who funded the stadium’s construction, sometimes giving even when it hurt. No statues commemorate those unsung heroes. Nevertheless, Memorial Stadium is a monument to them as well as to the Illini war dead. It remains “a tribute to the dead, an inspiration to the living.”

To read about Red Grange, the man who made Memorial Stadium a household name, click here.



In Honor of Their Service

UIAA spearheads an effort at Memorial Stadium to recognize those service members who gave their lives post World War I

Closeup of names engraved in stone

More than 900 names were engraved on four towering limestone tablets to honor service personnel who had died in service to their country since 1918. (Image courtesy of UIAA)

Although Memorial Stadium was originally dedicated in 1924 to U.S. Armed Forces members from the University of Illinois who gave their lives in the “war to end all wars,” its founders acknowledged the probability that future generations would have to make the same ultimate sacrifice. Tragically, their prediction repeatedly proved true, as hundreds of Illini were killed in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and subsequent international conflicts.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. “9/11 stimulated an incredible wave of patriotism and pro-military sentiment,” says Joe Rank, ’69 MEDIA, MS ’73 MEDIA, former vice president of the University of Illinois Alumni Association and a retired U.S. Navy commander. Although inquiries had been made over the years about building an additional memorial to honor Illini service members killed in battle since the Great War, Rank says that after the Sept. 11 attacks, “We got renewed calls for a monument, and people said, ‘There’s no better time than this.’”

Rank immediately organized the Veterans’ Memorial Project, a blue-ribbon committee comprising of U of I faculty, alumni and ROTC cadets who had served in various branches of the military to brainstorm ideas for the new tribute.
“We looked at all kinds of ideas, but then we realized we already had our monument—we just needed to incorporate the names of those who had died since World War I [into Memorial Stadium],” he says.

Between September 2001 and November 2002, UIAA staff spent hundreds of hours scouring The Illio, The Daily Illini and other sources for military obituaries, including a call for names through Illinois Alumni. At the same time, they raised $100,000 to fund four towering limestone tablets that were engraved with the names of the 948 Illinois alumni, students, faculty and staff who had died in service to their country since 1918.

On Nov. 16, 2002, the Fighting Illini hosted Ohio State on its Military Appreciation Day, providing free tickets to all Illini veterans and active-duty attendees, as well as pre-game and halftime honors, including a military flyover. But the centerpiece of the day’s events was the unveiling of the limestone tablets, marking the official expansion of Memorial Stadium’s original dedication. The ceremony was projected on a giant stadium screen as the UIAA revealed the tablets, newly installed in the vestibules leading to the colonnades that bear the names of the 189 Illini slain during WWI. Even more impressive than that unveiling, however, was the research it required—and the exhaustive database UIAA staff produced as a result.

“The veterans’ memorial at Memorial Stadium is an enduring brick-and-mortar honor,” Rank says. “But this interactive, virtual veterans’ memorial has all of the history, the background and the thousands of individual stories about personal sacrifice—and that is the lasting legacy of this memorial.” —Laurie Larson

To view the virtual veterans’ memorial, click here.