The Midwest, from Ohio and Michigan to Colorado, accounts for an awful lot of this country's football. It is the home of the Big Ten and the Big Eight, and invariably the very good Mid-American Conference is ignored simply because there are already too many good teams to pay attention to. But, like the MidAmerican, the bigs may be living in a shadow soon. There is a growing suspicion that Illinois is quietly but efficiently building a football dynasty. Oklahoma and Ohio State, among others, may argue the point strenuously. The fact remains that after years of depression, the Illini quite unexpectedly bloomed last season into what may be a prairie perennial. They are well equipped to repeat as the best in the Midwest.
But this at conservative Illinois? The prospect seems strange. The campus, for instance, is huge and, like the Midwest itself, sprawling. One city cannot contain it, so it is in two, Urbana and Champaign, and no less than 27,000 students wander about buildings that vary from early 20th century boiler factory to Colonial to modern boiler factory.
Illinois is not, to be precise, the sort of place that inspires students to set fires in the streets the night before the big game. Freshman talk less of football than their chances of getting through Rhetoric 101, the English course that separates new students from the university in alarming numbers. Upperclassmen work earnestly at becoming chemists or engineers during the week and until recently, even though Saturday's game was at home, queued up for a place on the Illinois Central's Friday Night Special that headed straight out of town.
There is a three-figure statue (above) sitting astride the corner of Green and Wright Streets in Urbana that reflects the mood of Illinois. Hard to miss on the way to Memorial Stadium, the statue holds a revered position at the university and is never painted garish colors or dressed up in silly costumes before or after football games. The figure in the middle, a handsome woman in flowing robes, her arms outstretched, is known as Alma Mater. To her left is a younger woman, also in flowing robes, who represents Learning. On Alma Mater's right is a brawny fellow in a leather apron, and he is commonly referred to as Labor. But cynics insist Labor looks suspiciously like Red Grange and, while the more serious-minded disclaim it, Learning is shaking his hand.
The point, of course, is that Illinois, in its muted way, has always been able to lift its collective eyes from the pages of books when the noise from the stadium was compelling enough. But there was never undue pressure on football, as evidenced in the tenure of coaches. Only three men have led Illinois's football teams in the last 51 years and the first of that reign, Bob Zuppke, is spoken of in hallowed whispers. Zuppke turned out tough teams, no doubt about that. Once, just before a game with unbeaten Ohio State, he told his players: "Nobody but a dead man comes out." Late in the game an end was hurt, and Zuppke sent in a new man. The substitute took one look at the end lying on the grass, trotted back to the bench and said: "He's still breathing."
Besides the seven Big Ten championships he won and the numerous selected upsets he perpetrated against vastly superior teams, Zuppke invented the huddle. This seemed appropriate enough for a university that had already invented another sort of huddle (the homecoming game) in 1910. Today, virtually every college in the country is stuck with red-faced, overweight, teary-eyed old grads who make it a point to belabor somebody's campus at least once each year.
As with any team that plays football long enough, Illinois has had its bad years. Part of the reason for that Friday Night Special, in fact, was a recent history of absolutely terrible football teams that managed to lose 50 games in the last 10 years. When the Illini turned up their old winning tricks last year, the change came as a distinct surprise and it explains, in part, the 5,000 instant fans who backed up traffic three miles on Route 45 in their rush to greet the team at the airport. Conservative Illinois had just tied Ohio State. Conservatism, as even the bookish had suspected, was only game-deep.
For Illinois there will be more traffic jams this year, and Coach Pete Elliott accepts his sudden prosperity graciously. "My coaching," he says, "improved 100% last season." What really improved Pete's coaching was the presence of such edifying specimens as Dick Butkus, the 237-pound linebacker who was on everybody's All-America at the end of last season, and Archie Sutton, a fierce 249-pound tackle. Butkus, amazingly agile for a man his size, tossed opposing blockers and ballcarriers around like duckpins in a big-pin alley, and made an astounding number of tackles—148. It is no wonder the pros are drooly over him. Two bold sophomores—Fullback Jim Grabowski and Halfback Sam Price—helped, too, and all four are back, along with 20 other members of the team that won the Big Ten championship and beat Washington in the Rose Bowl in January.