MnB B1G Preview: A few things to know about Illinois football

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Two words: Red Grange. I couldn't find many fun facts about the football program, but luckily, one of the most storied players in football history started at Illinois.

"The Little Dutchman:" Robert Zuppke

Prior to coaching at Illinois, Zuppke coached at Muskegon High School in Michigan. Once at Illinois, he led the Illini through their most successful era. From 1913-41, Zuppke amassed a 131-81-12 record while winning four National Championships and seven Big Ten titles. I don't see another coach coming close to this much success in Champaign any time soon.

Fun to point out are "Zuppkeisms" as they've been named, which are the teaching principles set forth by the man himself (kind of like Ron Swanson's Pyramid of Greatness). The National Football Foundation lists the so-called "best known Zuppkeisms," and I've reprinted those below:

  • Never let hope elude you; that is life's biggest failure
  • The greatest athlete is one who can carry a nimble brain to the place of action
  • Moral courage is the result of respect from fellow men
  • A good back should keep his feet at all times and never lose his head
  • Men do their best if they know they are being observed
  • Alumni are loyal if a coach wins all his games
  • Advice to freshmen: don't drink the liniment.
  • Don't get your exercise by jumping to conclusions.

Isn't that nickname a little boring?: The Fighting Illini

At first glance, yes, the nickname for Illinois is very, very bland. I mean, it's no Wolverines, that's for sure. This insipidness is compounded by the fact that the team didn't really have a nickname for the first three decades of its existence. Bbbboooooorrrrrrriiiinnngggg. However, it's not as humdrum as it seems, and in actuality, the name, arguably, means more than being named after an animal that hasn't really been seen around these parts in the last couple of centuries. Illinois adopted the "Fighitng Illini" nickname to honor students, staff, and alumni who served/died in World War I. Now, there's controversy and arguments on both sides about how much this nickname was influenced by Native Americans, which is only made worse by Chief Illiniwek, but I'm not going to get into all of that right here. I'll assume the main purpose of the nickname was to honor the servicemen (and now, servicewomen) from Illinois. You can read more about the origins of the nickname here.

Another name worth mentioning: Richard "Dick" Butkus

The storied linebacker started his football career at Illinois. After terrorizing college teams for three years, dominated NFL competition for nine more. There's an award named after him because of it. He's one of two Illinoise football players with a retired number (see below for the other), and he's a member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Rivalry time: Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Land of Lincoln Trophy Game vs. Northwestern Wildcats

Illinois's main football rivalry is with the cross-state Wildcats. Prior to 2008 (starting in '45), the two teams battled for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk which was recently retired for obvious reasons. However, it would have been nice to pick a new trophy that looks a little cooler than a bronzed leprechaun hat. At any rate, the teams have been battling on the gridiron since 1892 with the Fighting Illini currently holding a 54-48-5 advantage but also a two-game losing streak.

"The Galloping Ghost:" Harold "Red" Grange

For any football fan, Red Grange doesn't need an introduction. He's as legendary as they come. But since his playing days ended before the start of WWII, here's a short list of his many accolades: three-time All-American, charter inductee in both the Pro Football and College Hall of Fame, and the first recipient of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football awarded to the Big Ten's MVP as voted by the coaches (with coaches unable to vote for players on their own team).

Back in 1924, Grange earned the nickname "Galloping Ghost" against our beloved Michigan Wolverines. At the time, Illinois and Michigan were at the top of college football as they had both claimed a National Title in the previous season (thanks to the even wackier championship awarding system of yesteryear). It was dedication day for Memorial Stadium, and Red made sure the Fighting Illini asserted dominance in front of their home crowd. He started by returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. He then rushed for a 67 yard score on the Illini's first play from scrimmage. Following that, he added two more quick scores of 54 and 44 yard runs. By the time the game was twelve minutes old, he had 265 yards and four touchdowns. And by game's end, Grange had accounted for 402 total yards and six touchdowns (64 passing yards and one touchdown).

The game inspired legendary sports writer Grantland Rice to pen the poem, below, describing Red. Grange shaped the landscape of football and helped make it the game we love today. And perhaps the most telling fact of Red's career was his response when asked about his fondest college football memory. No, it wasn't his complete destruction of the Michigan defense, but rather, when he was the holder on a 55-yard game-winning field goal against the Iowa Hawkeyes. The man kicking the ball was Earl Britton, a fullback/kicker and Red's lead blocker. As Red put it, "I held the ball for him."

A streak of fire, a breath of flame
Eluding all who reach and clutch;
A gray ghost thrown into the game
That rival hands may never touch;
A rubber bounding, blasting soul
Whose destination is the goal.
(Source: ESPN)

So that's it for the Fighting Illini. Not the most exciting football program based on my findings (please let me know if you have any neat info to add), but one the most illustrious names in football started out in Blue and Orange, and that trumps having a bunch of quirky facts about your program any day.

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