Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois Fighting Illini Football History

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In 1889, University of Illinois student Scott Williams noticed a bulletin board card announcing that anyone interested in playing football should report to campus that afternoon.

That day he arrived to see a group of students chasing and kicking a ball in a manner that barely resembled the game of football
Illinois football historythat he played at State Normal University, more than 50 miles west of Champaign.

After the boys’ workout, Williams assembled the group and gave it instruction on how the ball should be passed and kicked. He also explained the scoring system and other points of strategy. The gang reassembled and played a little while longer with Williams as their leader.

The following year Williams and some teammates approached the heads of the athletic department with the hopes that they could represent the UI in a game of football against Illinois Wesleyan at Bloomington. Anticipating little enthusiasm, Williams suggested that the team pay its own expenses, provide uniforms and pay its own train fare. Permission was granted. The first University of Illinois football team boarded a train Thursday, Oct. 2, 1890, to compete in the Illinois Oratorical Association meeting in Bloomington, an athletic competition featuring contests in track, tennis, baseball and football.
 
   

With Williams serving as coach, captain and quarterback, Illinois lost to Wesleyan, 16-0. Although Illinois lost its first football game, it did win the championship cup for the weekend’s activities.

Illinois’ second game of the season was against Purdue, a team which had been under great preparation for the game. The Boilers defeated Illinois, 62-0, but the young UI 11 had learned a few lessons from the advanced Purdue team before entering the last game of its first season, a rematch against Wesleyan.

Illinois hosted its first-ever home game Nov. 26, 1890. The contest was met with great anticipation in the community. Nearly 300 fans arrived at the Champaign fair grounds to see W.F. Slater score two touchdowns in a 12-6 Illinois victory, which ended its first season with a 1-2 record.

Scott Williams stepped down as captain and coach after the 1890 season, but remained on the roster as a player on the 1891 Illinois team, winners of all six games and champions of the Illinois Intercollegiate Football League.

Chief Illiniwek

One of the most dramatic and dignified traditions in college athletics is the performance of Chief Illiniwek at the University of Illinois. Since 1926, this symbol has stirred pride and respect in audiences at Memorial Stadium, the Assembly Hall and Huff Hall.

Illiniwek (pronounced “ill-EYE-nih-wek”) was the name of the loose confederation of Algonquin tribes that once lived in the region. The French changed the ending to “ois” in naming what became the state of Illinois. Illiniwek means “they are men” and former Illinois football coach Robert Zuppke is believed to have suggested calling the UI symbol Chief Illiniwek.

In 1926, Assistant Band Director Ray Dvorak conceived the idea of performing an American Indian dance during halftime of the Illinois vs. Pennsylvania football game in Philadelphia. Lester Leutwiler, a student interested in Indian lore, was chosen for the role. Leutwiler’s performance, done in a homemade costume, was received so well that he was asked to continue his dance through the 1928 season.

Webber Borchers, the second Chief Illiniwek, was the first to appear in authentic American Indian regalia. He initiated a campaign to raise money to replace his homemade outfit with an authentic one, but with the Depression on, he received just $15 dollars. However, a Champaign merchant stepped in to fund the rest and Borchers was off.

He recalled: “In the summer of 1930, I went, at my own expense, to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. I hitchhiked out, called an Indian agent and explained my mission. He and an Indian trader called in an older Sioux woman. She and two younger women made the suit.”

On Nov. 8, 1930, in New York’s Yankee Stadium, Illinois faced Army in the seventh game of the season. It was there that Borchers made the first appearance of Chief Illiniwek in that outfit. Since then, five different authentic outfits have been used by Chief Illiniwek. The one used in performances now was purchased in 1983 from Sioux Chief Frank Fools Crow, and is topped by a headdress of turkey feathers.

Marching Illini

In the 1920s, John Philip Sousa called the Illinois band the “world’s greatest college band.” Superlatives like this have come to be expected during the long and illustrious history of the University of Illinois bands.

Shortly after the University opened in 1868, a military band was organized. The military band became the Concert Band, and gave its first formal concert in 1890. The University of Illinois Bands of today are the top of a pyramid of university band organizations, both concert and marching, which regularly enroll more than 700 students.

This year’s Marching Illini numbers nearly 360 participants, which includes musicians, flag corps, Illinettes (a precision dance corps), drum majors, feature twirlers and staff members.

The unique style of the Marching Illini has become famous, representing a combination of past traditions and exciting innovations. The Marching Illini is at the forefront of great university bands, having received the Louis Sudler Intercollegiate Marching Band Trophy in recognition of outstanding achievement in 1983. The Marching Illini also have performed at the Rose, All American, Peach, Liberty, Citrus, Hall of Fame, John Hancock and Holiday Bowl games.

The Marching Band will perform pregame and halftime shows at all six home football games this year, as well as selected road games.

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