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Here’s how IU football fared the last time college football faced a worldwide pandemic

The Big Ten asked the War Department to settle its scheduling concerns and IU went undefeated* in the conference. This fall might get weird.

University Of Southern California Trojans Football
Not a picture of the 1918 co-conference champion* IU Hoosiers

The year is 1918 – the Big Ten, previously known as the Western Conference, has had 10 teams in the league for just one (1) season after the addition of Ohio State (1912) and re-addition of Michigan (1917), IU has a football coach named Jumbo and the planet Earth is in the midst of both its first World War and a pandemic.

Here at CQ, we’ve previously taken stock of the 1918 college football season and mined it for lessons for this fall. The SparkNotes takeaways were that there may not be uniformity from conference to conference or school to school this fall, which is OK, but you’ll be sure to hear grievances from the affected parties or their regional media. Not every game that’s scheduled will be played but football will still probably find a way to thread the needle of many public health guidelines. Because it’s football.

But what about IU, specifically? How did the ‘18 Hoosiers fare?

Here’s the story of the undefeated-in-Big-Ten-play* Indiana Hoosiers.

*Indiana neither won nor lost a conference game in 1918. In fact, it didn’t play any conference games. But we can still lobby for a conference championship* banner.

Somewhat similarly to the summer of 2020, there was some level of doubt in the summer of 1918 as to whether college football would be played during the upcoming fall. “Indiana university [sic] has, among others, been reported as questioning the advisability of indulging in the gridiron sport until the war is won, but from the way (University of Chicago football coach and athletic director Amos Alonzo) Stagg talked today it appeared as if he had never even entertained the idea of suspending football,” reported the Des Moines Tribune on Aug. 22, 1918.

“Doubt as to whether or not football will be played by the larger colleges of the middle west this fall were removed today by A.A. Stagg ... who said that the Maroons would have an eleven as usual and that the other Big Ten and similar schools no doubt also would have representative teams.”

The decision by Big Ten power-brokers and, more importantly, Uncle Sam, for there to be a 1918 college football season meant that IU had to assemble one of its youngest rosters ever.

“I have never before faced a season with so few experienced men to rely upon,” IU coach Ewald “Jumbo” Stiehm said, according to The Indianapolis Star. Stiehm, by the way, had taken a better job at IU after going 35-2-3 in five seasons at a small school named Nebraska.

(In 2019, IU beat Nebraska, 38-31, at The Other Memorial Stadium.)

The Indianapolis Star noted that in the fall of 1918, the Hoosiers only had three returning varsity players, in large part due to so many players joining the military during wartime and others graduating. Then there was the fact that “three of the star’s [sic] of last year’s freshman team have not been heard from,” the Star reported.

IU’s roster situation was more than tenuous. On the first day of practice, one (1) player showed up.

Before the conference season kicked off, there was uncertainty as to if, and how, schools would play their scheduled conference games with travel restrictions in place and proposed quarantines being lobbied for the start of the school year.

IU was scheduled to play Minnesota in Indianapolis in early November and as of mid-September, the belief was that the Gophers could make the trip under the government’s travel rules. But the military authorities at Minnesota wanted the school’s football players to quarantine for the first two weeks of the school year, which would affect many early-season games around the conference if the policy was passed conference-wide. “If Minnesota is to be placed under quarantine for two weeks, then it is only reasonable to believe the same fate awaits other schools in the Conference, faculty representatives now here said,” reported The Indianapolis Star, during the conference’s faculty representative meeting in late September.

If you’ve ever wondered who’s in charge of college football, the following sentence from The Indianapolis Star from September 1918 tells you all you need to know: “In case the meeting tomorrow is unable to find a solution of the question of a quarantine and the consequent cancellation of early games, it is said the faculty committee may request officials of the War Department at Washington to decide the complex situation.”

So who’s in charge of college football? The War Department. Nick Saban. ESPN. Power Five commissioners. Kirk Herbstreit. Local car dealerships and $20 handshakes. The Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Tear-jerking Tom Rinaldi pieces. The Heisman Trust. The South.

No one.

Anyway, back to business.

IU President William Bryan personally reached out to a colonel in the War Department, and IU’s athletic board contacted U.S. senators seeking clarification about the amount of practice time allowed and when road trips would be permitted.

To add perspective to the timing of the Big Ten’s request to the U.S. War Department, the Bulgarian government requested a ceasefire in World War I on Sept. 24, 1918, which led to an armistice that ended Bulgaria’s involvement in the war six days later, after the country had fought on the side of Germany, Hungary and Turkey. Two days after Bulgaria’s proposed ceasefire in World War I, on Sept. 26, the Big Ten held the faculty representative meeting, where the conference’s representatives prepared to ask Washington for help solving the Big Ten’s early-season football scheduling and quarantining woes.

While one country’s government was pulling out of World War I, another’s – ours – was simultaneously fielding requests as to whether the Gophers could make it to Indianapolis to face the Hoosiers.

Big Life, Big Stage, Big Ten,,, Amirite?

IU had a military unit on campus, which meant it had to follow the orders of the War Department. That was just one of the many complexities in figuring out dates and times for college football games in the fall of 1918.

“Quarantines due to vaccinations, differences of opinion as to ‘extended’ trips and varying local conditions undoubtedly will make football schedules so many scraps of paper, as far as early games are concerned at any rate,” reported The South Bend Tribune.

On Oct. 2, 1918 Captain A.T. Dalton, who led the Student Army Training Corps at IU, received a telegram from district inspector Captain Knight that read: “Encourage football and all branches of athletics, not only for varsity squad, but for every one possible in all detachments.... The period of trips in October is from Saturday noon to taps.”

As it turned out, IU was the only Western Conference school not to play a single conference game in 1918. Your Indiana Hoosiers went a fat 0-0 in conference play. I’m no mathematician but I think that means they finished ahead of Ohio State (0-3 Western Conference) and Chicago (0-5), good for an eighth-place conference finish despite not playing a single conference game.

In fact, if Illinois (4-0 Western Conference), Michigan (2-0) and Purdue (1-0) all shared the conference title with perfect records, IU should retroactively campaign to make that a four-way tie. I can picture the Homefield Apparel shirt now: 1918 Indiana Hoosiers, undefeated Western Conference co-champs*.

IU played just four games in 1918: against the Hoosiers’ one true rival, Kentucky (then referred to as Kentucky State in the newspapers), two military camps – Camp Taylor and Camp Harrison – and DePauw. The Times of Munster, Ind. reported that Indiana, “all along this fall ... has been hampered by the influenza, either here at Indiana or at places where the Cream and Crimson was to play.”

Here’s more from The Times:

“In the early part of the season the team went by almost three weeks without a game, because of the local ‘flu’ ban which prevented S.A.T.C. men leaving the campus. Out of a full schedule, only four games were played.”

The Hoosiers went 2-2, ending the season on a two-game winning streak while scoring 54 unanswered points against their opponents. Sadly, IU’s two wins in a four-game 1918 season were better than 10 one-win seasons and one winless season in program history.

“Fort Harrison was outclassed by Indiana University here today and lost, 41 to 0,” reported The Star Press in Muncie, Ind. “The Indiana squad was exceptionally clever with forward passes, by which a number of good gains were made. The soldiers made only two first downs and had the ball in the Indiana territory only once.”

IU football coach Jumbo Stiehm apparently peaced out during the season to visit Princeton, among other stops “in the East” and after the Hoosiers beat DePauw, he sent assistant coach D.M. Evans a telegram that read: “Congratulations on the team’s victories over Fort Harrison and DePauw. Unless you have a game in sight for Thanksgiving, disband the squad and start basket ball [sic] practice.”

[ exhales dramatically, defeated; looks out over the ocean]

Maybe IU basketball’s social media manager in 2017 was right after all...

While the IU football team was originally scheduled to play on Thanksgiving – reportedly against Notre Dame or Illinois – the team discussed their head coach’s telegram and decided to quit, turning in their uniforms and equipment, despite having practiced in the rain and the mud on the school’s golf course in preparation for their Thanksgiving Day game because the old Jordan Field was too wet to use.

“While no cause for the cancellation of the game was made nor any reason given for closing the season at this time,” reported The Times of Munster, Ind., “it is presumed that the influenza situation in Indianapolis might have led coach Stiehm to a decision.”

And that’s how your 1918 Hoosiers went undefeated* in the Big Ten.