A lot of years ago, just before World War I crossed the Atlantic, a football upset took place—perhaps the most upsetting upset in American college gridiron history. It was in the Minnesota- Illinois game on November 4, 1916, and it marked a high point in the career of Bob Zuppke, Illinois' coach. Bart Macomber, the Illinois captain and quarterback that day, had by then worn Zup's colors for more seasons and games than any other player.
Minnesota had a powerful team. Hal Hanson was at right half; Bert Baston, All-America end (and captain); Fullback A.D. Wyman and Quarterback C.T. Long. They had defeated South Dakota, 81-0; Wisconsin, 54-0; Chicago, 49-0; Iowa, 67-0; North Dakota, 47-7. The Gopher coach, Dr. Henry Williams, truly had assembled a steamroller.
The Illini were nursing a bruised pride from a disappointing season. They had lost to Colgate, 15-3; to Ohio State, 7-6: had got past Purdue, 14-7; but had been trimmed by Chicago, 20-7. Wisconsin, one of the Minnesota maulees, had held them to a scoreless tie. Much of the betting money was asserting the Gophers would score 40, 50 and even 60 points. If you had wanted to wager that Illinois would at least score, you would have found some long odds there as well. Ring Lardner wrote a humorous letter, pregame, to Zup and the Illini in his newspaper column. In it he urged them, as a friend, to forget the trip to Minneapolis and just stay in Chicago and see a play. The lucky players, he said, were those on crutches, since they would not have to face the northern monster.
The Illinois team took the train from Champaign a little after noon on Thursday. They dozed, played cards or viewed the passing scenery. There was no steam, no fire, no win-this-one-for-sure. The notion itself was insane. Bob Zuppke puffed on his cigar and looked moodily out the window.
"Zup was a near-martinet on the practice field," Bart Macomber recalls, "and wanted it strictly understood he was boss there at all times. He believed in thorough practice, monotonous drill, with perfection the goal. He was quick to criticize errors, but rarely given to praise. Off the field he was a mild, almost bland individual, about 5 feet 7, 165 pounds, light hair and complexion. Rather of the professor type, if you know what I mean.
"He earned a basketball letter at Wisconsin; football there amounted to four years of scrub. He taught history and coached football at Oak Park High, near Chicago. I believe he made about $2,500 at that job while I played for him there. We had three years undefeated, then he was offered the Illinois coaching post—at an increase in salary, of course. Our last year at Oak Park, the class of 1912, two on that team went on to All-America. They were Milton Ghee at Dartmouth and myself at Illinois. A third member of our team, Pete Russell, made All-Western at Chicago U."
The train got to Minneapolis Friday morning. Zup's boys went early to the enemy stadium to run some signals and look over the plant. All noticed with relief that the ground was not frozen. Minnesota's tackling was murderous enough on softer soil.
Bart Macomber recalls it this way: "We began practicing. We were so nervous and upset we could not even hang onto the ball. Coach Bob soon saw that the whole effort was useless. He was afraid it would only demoralize us for the next day. So he called practice off. He waited a bit for full attention and said, 'If you are going to be slaughtered tomorrow, you might as well break training and have a good time tonight.' He told us to try to relax, to eat and drink whatever we liked, maybe see a show. We trooped back to our hotel, the Radison. The whole squad of 25, including coaching staff, napped and idled the afternoon away. That evening we went on the town. No one counted the drinks or the beers. We ate large dinners and moved the celebration over to a burlesque house. There was no bed check."
Kickoff time was two o'clock, Saturday. Twenty-five thousand chop-licking Gopher fans sat in the wooden stands, an impressive crowd in 1916. The day again was overcast but dry, with temperature in the mid-40s. Illinois took the field at 1:30 and moved the ball around for several minutes. Then the Illinois players stood in awe as Mighty Minnesota, three deep, came charging out. Somebody said that the Gophers did not look so big, after all.
Minnesota won the toss and chose to receive. Macomber kicked off to Shorty Long in the end zone. Long fumbled, recovered, moved to the 15. Joe Sprafka carried first and several linemen hit him for no gain. Illinois continued to hold, and A.D. Wyman had to punt to Dutch Sternaman, who made about 10 yards. Robert Knop, Illinois fullback, was assigned to hit the line at center, but the Gopher front wall was impassable. Then Macomber called for a spread formation, employed in this game for the first time by any team. Linemen took up their positions 10 yards apart, the backs doing the same to form a distended box. The opposing linemen and defensemen simply did not know, in the sudden confusion, whether to play opposite the man or the space. Sternaman collected Macomber's pass for a 25-yard gain. Then, behind perfect interference, the Illinois ballcarriers rang up two first downs to the Minnesota five. An offside penalty put the ball on the one-yard line, Macomber went over, then kicked goal.