The "Victory Homecoming" of 1919 ushered in the decade of the 1920s – perhaps the heyday of Homecoming at the University of Illinois. One great Homecoming followed another: In 1920 the Library (now Altgeld Hall) chimes were dedicated; in 1922 a dedication ceremony occurred on the site of what would eventually become Memorial Stadium; and in 1923, a year before Grange’s legendary run, the first game was played there.
Costing nearly $2 million (the money having been raised from alumni and students), Memorial Stadium forever changed the scale of Homecoming. That fact became evident on Homecoming Saturday, Nov. 3, 1923, when the partially completed Memorial Stadium first opened its gates and received “a baptism of rain” as the Illini faced off against Chicago.
Logan Fletcher Peirce ’24 BUS, a senior, witnessed the historic contest that raw and drizzly day, sitting in the stands of the vast stadium, the exposed steel framework of which he likened to a “spider webb” (sic). “Dear, the spectacle here Saturday was beyond my powers of description,” Peirce raved 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. Railroad trains were backed right up to the Stadium gates and 19 special trains unloaded their mass of seething humanity between 8 A.M. and noon Saturday.”
Peirce thought that the massive stadium formed an appropriately dramatic stage for the grand performances of the University Band, a longtime highlight of Homecoming games. “The Illinois band was out in full force and it was a wonderful sight to look down from such a gigantic structure and see the band playing ‘Loyalty’ and spelling out a perfect ‘Illini’ below us,” Peirce wrote.
And then there was a sophomore halfback by the name of Harold “Red” Grange. “When Red Grange broke loose with his long end runs – you undoubtedly heard the deafening roar in St. Louis,” Peirce kidded his girlfriend.
Grange “broke loose” into the end zone only once on that rain-drenched day, but the one touchdown was enough to defeat a scoreless Chicago. That night “the campus was nothing but a howling mob of half crazy homecomers,” Peirce reported.
Red Grange ran wild the next year with his four famous touchdowns, but after the 1925 season, he signed a pro contract with the Chicago Bears. Only 42,555 attended the 1926 Homecoming game against Iowa, but big crowds returned in 1927 to watch Illinois triumph over Michigan by a score of 14-0. This game would mark the first Homecoming appearance of the Chief Illiniwek symbol, which had been introduced late in the previous season.