The first football game in a still far-from-completed Memorial Stadium took place November 3, 1923, when the stands overflowed with more than sixty thousand lllini enthusiasts who cheered their team on to a 7-0 triumph over the University of Chicago.
Holabird and Roche designed the structure, built in 1922-1924 on eight acres of land on the south campus with monies contributed "to provide a fitting memorial to the sons of the University who gave their lives in the recent war." Inscribed on 183 of its 200 columns are the names of Illinois heroes who died in World War I. One honors a woman. While initial plans called for extravagant landscaping, a fountain, and a campanile, those ideas had to be dropped for lack of funds. But decorating the four towers are eighty-four dignified low-relief sculptures, repetitions of nine basic designs. Themes are ancient Greek; significance is contemporary.
Just above the entrance doors are groups of three panels, each about four by nine feet. The Presentation of the Victory Wreath depicts six heavily draped old men handing the symbolic wreath to six virile, nude athletes, a pastiche of figures nearly identical in drapery, pose, and gesture to the eponymous heroes on the east frieze of the Parthenon. The placing of their feet outside the rectangular frame (which gives a greater sense of space) is closer to a Roman compositional device than that of a Greek relief, where it was never employed. In Athletes and the University Seal, the figure to the left shown fastening his sandal is an absolute copy of the hoplite warrior on the west Parthenon frieze. The other athlete is nearly identical to a figure on the north frieze. In the third panel, The Welcome of the American Soldiers in France, the artist equates ancient and twentieth-century heroes and preserves the symmetry of decorations through pendant compositions. The angel in the center is carved in extremely faint, low relief and seems ethereal, more distant in space.
Centered high over large windows at the north and south ends of the stadium are other panels, measuring three by four feet. These symbolize, in free interpretations of classical Greek sources, War, a typical Victory motif of a charioteer overcoming an opponent on foot; Education, an orator flanked by listeners; and Athletes, a traditional arrangement of athletes flanked by coaches and a judge.
At the same upper level are three alternating medallions, each about four feet in diameter. War is represented here by the helmeted head of Athena, with the words "World War 1917-1918." The Discus Thrower has the inscription "Athletes" spelled out in Greek letters. The Owl of Athena, signifying wisdom, is shown with the university motto, Learning and Labor.