University of Illinois football and athletics were a large part of campus life in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1913, Illinois athletic director George Huff recruited Robert C. Zuppke to the Champaign campus; Zuppke was bound to become one of the most influential strategists and legendary coaches in college football. In 1914, Zuppke’s team went undefeated and enthusiasm for Illinois football was rapidly growing. At that time, the University’s football stadium, Illinois Field, seated only 4,000 fans (though its capacity was later enlarged to 17,000). Despite these additions, by the end of World War I, it became apparent that Illinois Field would not be adequate for the growing number of Illinois fans.
President of the University of Illinois, David Kinley, realized that the rapidly growing student body increased the need for new buildings and immediately planned a ten-year building program. University communities across the country were raising money for memorial stadiums dedicated to those who died in the Great War. After considering several alternative memorial possibilities, it was agreed that a stadium best served the University’s interests. With the encouragement and leadership of Director of Athletics George Huff and Head Football Coach Robert Zuppke, Illinois mounted its own campaign to erect a new stadium.
The money for the stadium – one of the first University buildings erected after the war – was raised by donations from students, alumni, and friends. The undergraduate class alone raised $700,000. Pamphlets and books were printed and a nationwide drive was undertaken. All told, donations of approximately $1.7 million by more than 200,000 students, alumni and other friends of the University made the construction of Memorial Stadium possible. Later, the Athletic Association (now known as the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics) allocated $509,805 to the project for the construction of the south stands and other stadium additions.
Holabird & Roche were hired by the University to design the memorial stadium. A well-regarded architectural firm based in Chicago, Holabird & Roche had previously been active in campus planning and building design. Along with supervising architect Professor White, Holabird & Roche devised the current location of the stadium in the southwest portion of campus.
The original site proposed for Memorial Stadium was on the former site of Illinois Field located along Wright Street between University and Springfield Avenues. Because this site was too constrained, however, there was a push to locate the stadium in the south campus. Since the stadium was intended as a memorial, the original thought was that the site south of the cemetery would give the stadium a central and commanding location. Limited campus access derailed that plan, and in April of 1922, Professor White and Holabird & Roche decided that the present location of the stadium, located north of Kirby Avenue between First and Fourth Streets, would be appropriate. This location has had a tremendous effect on the development of the southwest portion of campus, which is now the primary setting for University athletic facilities. The location was approved in May 1922 by the Board of Trustees. Holabird & Roche issued drawings for the stadium in July of 1922 and construction was completed by November 1923.
Built as a memorial to the Illinois men and women who gave their lives for their country during World War I, the names of the fallen highlight the 200 columns that support the east and west sides of the stadium. In May of 2002, the University Alumni Association began a campaign to fund a veterans’ memorial project that would recognize the 1,087 who have lost their lives in battle in World War II, the Second Nicaraguan Campaign, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Lebanon and Desert Storm. Current permanent seating capacity of Memorial Stadium is 69,249 including the bleachers at the north end of the playing field. Of these seats, approximately 71 percent are between the goal posts: 18,000 in each stand, 10,000 in each balcony and 12,246 in the south stand horseshoe.
The stadium opened Nov. 3, 1923, when Illinois defeated Chicago, 7-0, in a Homecoming victory. The stadium was dedicated officially Oct. 18, 1924, a day on which Illinois not only defeated Michigan, 39-14, for a Homecoming victory, but Harold E. “Red” Grange accounted for six touchdowns in what remains as the single greatest performance in Memorial Stadium history. In the first 12 minutes of that game, Grange touched the ball only six times but ran for a total of 265 yards and four scores, leaving the field before the first quarter concluded. Grange returned in the third quarter, ran 13 yards for his fifth touchdown, and in the final period threw a pass to Marion Leonard for his sixth score of the day. In 42 minutes of playing time, Grange gained a total of 402 yards, carried the ball 21 times, and also completed six passes for 64 yards. Legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg called it “the most spectacular single-handed performance ever delivered in a major game.”
The 1994 season represented the 70th anniversary of Memorial Stadium’s dedication and the historic Illinois-Michigan game. To celebrate the event, Red Grange’s wife, Mrs. Margaret Grange, attended the Fighting Illini’s Oct. 22 game against Michigan. She helped dedicate the Grange Rock, a tribute to her husband that sits at the north end of Zuppke Field. The rock came from the same Indiana stone quarry that produced the granite columns of the stadium.
Illinois’ record in Memorial Stadium is 231-199-14 following the 2006 season.
Memorial Stadium Timeline
- During the 1980s, Memorial Stadium saw 27 consecutive sell-outs. The single-game attendance record is 78,297 for a 1984 victory over Missouri.
- Installation of the first artificial turf field and a new lighting system was made possible through a 1974 Golden Anniversary campaign drive. Even though the field is lit only from the towers on the four corners of Memorial Stadium, the light intensity is easily sufficient for major network telecasts of night games.
- Other stadium improvements included the 1967 installation of the press box, located atop the west balcony; construction of the Ray Eliot Varsity Room, a training table and trophy display area at the southeast corner of the stadium that was built with funds donated by friends of the Athletic Association; a million-dollar stadium renovation project in 1972, which included the addition of aluminum seating; and a 1977 renovation of the varsity locker rooms and training facilities.
- In April 1985, a $7 million renovation commenced that featured installation of new artificial turf and expansion of the football headquarters in the northeast corner of the stadium. A portion of this AstroTurf field was replaced in the fall of 1989 after vandals burned a 40-yard swath in the middle of the field in the early-morning hours of Sept. 24. Employees from AstroTurf Industries worked around the clock to repair and re-install new turf in time for Illinois’ scheduled Oct. 7 game against Ohio State.
- Also in 1985, an air-tight vacuum dome completely covering the field of Memorial Stadium, commonly known as “The Bubble,” was inflated for the first time in December. The Bubble allowed for practice during the winter months and was used by the Chicago Bears as they prepared for Super Bowl XX. The Bubble saw its final action during the spring season of 2000 before being replaced by the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility.
- In 1986, Memorial Stadium was nominated, among 62 other sites, to become a National Historic Landmark. Other nominated sites included Soldier Field, Wrigley Field, the Rose Bowl, and the Yale Bowl.
- Memorial Stadium underwent major renovations between November 1991 and August 1992. The $18 million project included the replacement of all the concrete bleachers in both upper decks, as well as the top 25 rows of the main stands. The stadium’s electrical and drainage systems were brought to code and new restroom facilities were installed in the corner towers and great halls. The UI Auxiliary Facilities System financed the project through the issuance of revenue bonds.
- Before the start of the 1994 season, a new color matrix scoreboard was added to the north end of Zuppke Field.
- The newest renovations to the stadium surface came in the summer of 2001. The field’s AstroTurf was replaced with AstroPlay, an artificial surface featuring a grass-like, non-abrasive, polyethylene fiber matrix filled with special rubber granules. The Illini played on the new surface for the first time in the 2001 home opener against Northern Illinois.
- While Soldier Field was under renovation, the Chicago Bears played all of their 2002 home games in the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium.
- In anticipation of the Bears’ arrival, construction took place in the winter of 2002 on the expansion of the Irwin Football Complex. Locker rooms and meeting rooms were expanded and a new sports medicine facility was built on the building’s first floor. In addition, a new video-replay scoreboard in the north end zone.