College football during a global pandemic: What can we learn from the B1G’s Spanish flu-altered 1918 season?
College football, believe it or not, has been here before.
The year was 1918, and a global pandemic combined with a world war ravaged American society and threatened to outright cancel many communities’ cultural pastime. In some cases, it did.
One hundred and two years later, the Big Ten and the rest of the sport’s most powerful programs are barreling toward the abyss of what’s supposed to be the 2020 season with another worldwide health crisis threatening to alter if not outright demolish it. While not compounded by violence at the scale of World War I, COVID-19 and simultaneous social unrest around the country have woven a tapestry of fear, anger, confusion and near anarchy in some locales.
Of course, comparing a World War era to today’s modern comforts is an apples-to-oranges conversation on many levels. Likewise, the current times are unprecedented in their own way — polarized societal tribalism, a social media outlet to rage against it, a 24-hour news cycle to share information and disinformation, and a disease even the smartest health experts on the planet can’t seem to get a grip on. There’s a reason they call it the novel coronavirus.
But there was chaos then. And there’s chaos now.
Co-national champion Michigan played 5 games in 1918. Illinois, the co-B1G champion that year, played 7. The Missouri Valley Conference didn’t play at all. Former players fighting and dying in Europe caused roster upheaval. The movement of prospective troops, many of whom doubled as varsity college football players, and the spread of the Spanish flu caused dozens of cancellations and postponements. Travel restrictions by the U.S government placed further hurdles in front of college football.
Two of Ohio State’s top players were sent into combat. So were athletes from all over the conference and the country. Nebraska, then a member of the Missouri Valley, played its own makeshift schedule that included 5 cancellations, 2 postponements of an eventual scoreless tie against Notre Dame, and a 19-0 victory over something called Omaha Balloon.
The war claimed 20 million military and civilian deaths. The H1N1 influenza A virus accounted for an estimated 500 million infections, 50 million deaths and 675,000 American lives lost, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Then, as now, the importance of college football seemed to pale in comparison to the world’s tragic developments. Before it began, rumors of an entirely canceled season ran rampant.
But even with the military planning a heavy offensive for the spring of 1919 and drafting every able-bodied 18-20-year-old male, college football happened. Men were offered an opportunity to take part in the Student Army Training Corps as an alternative to being drafted. Colleges trained the soldiers — allowing schools to stay open amid the pandemic — and it was eventually ruled that athletic practices and games were a suitable portion of military preparation. Military academies themselves fielded teams to improve troop morale.
“It would be difficult to over-estimate the value of football experience as a part of a soldier’s training,” President Woodrow Wilson said in a letter published in the 1918 Spalding Football Guide. “The army athletic directors and the officers in charge of special training schools in the cantonments have derived excellent results from the use of elementary football and other personal contact games as an aid in developing the aggressiveness, initiative and determination of recruits, and the ability to carry on in spite of bodily hurts or physical discomforts. These qualities, as you well know, were the outstanding characteristics of the American soldier.”
Some games featured zero fans, others thousands.
En route to 1 of its 42 B1G titles, Michigan outscored Case, Chicago, Syracuse, Michigan Agricultural and Ohio State by a combined score of 96-6. Led by All-American fullback/kicker Frank Steketee and legendary coach Fielding H. Yost, the Wolverines were retroactively named a national champ by the Billingsley Report and a co-national champion with Pittsburgh by the National Championship Foundation.
Fellow conference winner Illinois, with All-American center Jack Depler and coach Robert Zuppke, finished 5-2-0 with an identical 4-0 conference record. Like teams around the country, B1G squads patched schedules together with league and regional opponents. Iowa played nine games. Indiana had just four.
The Rose Bowl was the only bowl back then, and the 1918 season’s version featured the Mare Island Marines of California and Illinois’ Great Lakes Navy. Twenty-five thousand fans braved the Spanish flu to attend that game Jan. 1, 1919 in Pasadena’s Tournament Park.
By then, the war was over. But the pandemic would go on until the following April. The Spanish flu killed an estimated 3-5% of the world’s population.
So what can the sport learn from those harrowing days more than a century ago? Perspective, for one.
And two, expectations. Or lack thereof. Planned schedules gave way to weekly assessments. “Who’s available and healthy to play this week?” Find an opponent, put together a quick game plan, get on a bus, strap ‘em up, and here we go.
Conference-only schedules like the B1G’s are a start. But flexibility is more important.
“The biggest thing is that this affords us an opportunity to be nimble and agile in an uncertain time,” B1G commissioner Kevin Warren told Yahoo! Sports last month. “It all ties back to the health and safety of our student-athletes. It’s easy for us to manage operations, the schedule and logistics when we’re focused on the B1G conference.”
Flexibility out of necessity. If college football’s going to happen during this current melee, it’ll need to draw on its long-gone history of resolve among ambiguity, all while putting its country and countrymen ahead of the sport, no matter how much they love it.
Then, when this is all over, its athletes, coaches, administrators and fans can party like it’s 1920.