NU's Chaotic
1918 Season


Northwestern's Chaotic
1918 Season

By Larry LaTourette

The 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic actually began in late 1917 and inflicted its first wave of deaths in early 1918, but the disease’s greatest wave shook the United States in October and November 1918. Unlike the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted (as of March 24) in a third of the world engaged in a systematic lockdown and partial quarantine, the quarantines in 1918 were sporadic. Evanston and Chicago dipped in and out of quarantine seemingly week by week. That fall, Northwestern’s upcoming football season had already been heavily modified by World War I: the school was slated to play a full Big Ten schedule, but the war demands eventually required NU to push its October game with Ohio State to November, because the War Department began to limit travel. Initially, the team moved its November game with Chicago to October, since the teams were local.

In the first decades of the Twentieth Century, NU employed students from both campuses, Evanston and Chicago, for its varsity football teams. However, the War Department, which had taken over all college campuses, had also restricted preseason practices for football, and this limited the Chicago players’ ability to practice with the team. To make up for this, Northwestern head coach Fred Murphy, starting his fifth and final season leading the Purple, split the team into two squads and had the Chicago players practice on a field at 26th Street.

The Evanston-based portion of the 1918 team. Coach Murphy is top left.

Even with the two-squad system, Northwestern’s preparation for the coming season was further disrupted by the war. All football players were sworn into reserve military service, and the team’s lounge in the NU gymnasium was taken over by campus military authorities. The flu pandemic finally made its presence felt when assistant coach Jack Ulrich (top row, center, in the photo above) fell ill.

An out-of-conference game with Knox College, intended to kick off the season at Northwestern Field on October 12, had to be postponed when Evanston suddenly came under flu quarantine. The quarantine also threw a game with Michigan State in doubt. By mid-October, the flu crisis was affecting college football more than the war adjustments. While some high school and college games were played with full-capacity stands, others were being canceled due to spreading quarantines. By October 19, the Purple team’s camp was put in quarantine and all players were given shots. Games with both Michigan State and Michigan were canceled: the state of Michigan was under a flu emergency. The game with Ohio State was moved to early November.

As NU continued to scrap its October college games, it decided to add two games with nearby military training camps.

Great Lakes, which had also canceled a game with a team from Michigan, hosted NU at its training facility just north of Evanston on October 26. Health inspectors decided that the game was relatively safe, and the teams staged the game free of charge to spectators. Thousands of naval trainees packed the stands to watch. Great Lakes was supposed to have traveled to Pittsburgh earlier in the month for a game with Pitt, but that match was also canceled because of the dire flu situation in Pennsylvania. Football great Walter Camp had recently visited Great Lakes to lend support to its team and rally the trainees. The game with NU was mostly notable because Great Lakes’ team featured Northwestern legend Paddy Driscoll, who had joined the Navy after leaving NU. The Bluejackets were heavy favorites, but Northwestern held the servicemen to a 0-0 tie in muddy conditions. The spectators seemed unconcerned with the pandemic that weekend; most of the nation was riveted to news coming from the Argonne-Meuse front in France, where German forces were trying to bring in reinforcements after being mauled by Allied attacks. The weekend also brought the end of America’s first-ever national daylight savings time period that summer and fall.

Instead of playing a huge game against Michigan the following week, NU attempted to host Ohio State for its delayed game with the Buckeyes. However, Chicago announced that the city would be in quarantine the weekend of November 2. While Evanston had lifted its quarantine, the city’s health department was worried about such a big game at Northwestern Field. NU still held classes, but nearly everything else was gone: the university’s chapel was closed, as were Evanston’s public schools, churches, and theaters. Coach Murphy pressed hard for the game, and—somewhat surprisingly—the city board of health sided with the coach, deciding that the flu risk was safe enough in Evanston to hold the game.

With less than 48 hours to go before kickoff, however, word came that the Buckeye team was being stopped by Ohio health authorities. NU scrambled the day before the game and arranged for Municipal Pier Naval Reserve to play at Northwestern Field. Despite the health threat and the last-minute change, about 2,000 fans came to Evanston to see Municipal Pier rip apart NU, 25-0. The Naval Reservists had already defeated Illinois and Chicago during the season.

Given the chaos of scheduling during the season, Murphy and NU had no idea what team they might be able to play next. They still had a big game against Chicago on the schedule, now slated for November 16, but no team left for November 9. A trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, at the end of Nobember was now in question. Murphy did, however, want to keep NU’s scheduled game at Iowa, at all costs.

Murphy drilled the team during the week, even though it had no opponent for Saturday. Again, the team found an opponent at the last possible minute. The Purple rescheduled its delayed game with Knox College for November 9 at Northwestern Field. By this time, however, the flu was raging, and NU had lost many players to illness, injury, and military call-ups. Murphy, desperate to keep his roster filled, took in several NU Medical School students who had had a little undergraduate football experience.

The Knox game, scheduled quickly, with flu worries swirling around the north Chicago suburbs, and with restricted attendance, drew only 300 spectators. To this day, it is the lowest-attended Northwestern home game during the entire time that NU has played football on Central Street, beginning in 1905. Knox scored a touchdown in the first minute of the game on a 90-yard run, but Northwestern quickly overwhelmed the local college, staging a 47-7 rout.

The Purple battling Knox in front of just 300 fans at Northwestern Field.

The team’s preparation for the homecoming game against Chicago was disrupted—not by flu, but by victory celebrations as the war came to an end. Practices were suspended as players joined in victory parties. The war had put a huge burden on NU: nearly all male students were signed up in the reserves, and even the Daily Northwestern had suspended operation—in its place was the Northwestern Weekly, a newspaper exclusively written and published by female students. The students noted that some of Northwestern’s oldest traditions had fallen to the wayside in the wake of the war and the pandemic. “Once upon a time there were some college traditions,” a columnist wrote in the Weekly Northwestern, “but they were all shot to pieces. . . You need have no fear of wearing the wrong kind of hat. We aren’t giving a hang about such things, just now.” As news of the armistice broke, Northwestern students streamed from their dorms, screaming, singing, and dancing in the quads. The students built an enormous bonfire on Davis Street, and the party continued for an entire day.

The Evanston – Chicago area was out of quarantine, and Northwestern even staged a football prep rally on Tuesday, attended by 1,700 students who cheered for the team and for the end of the World War. To mark the ends of both quarantine and the war, Evanston decked out in both Northwestern and American colors. Evanston storefronts put purple banners in their windows, and NU decorated the football field with red, white, and blue colors. The school expected at least 10,000 fans.

However, the area fans and alumni were still wracked by the effects of the pandemic, and there was still a lot of concern about large gatherings. Bad weather that moved in early in the day didn’t help attendance, either, which was just under 6,000. The fans who did brave illness and the weather got to see NU whip its rival, 21-6.

NU and Chicago play in front of stands less than half full.

The Purple made their only trip out of state in 1918 for their last game of the season, against Iowa. Nebraska should have been NU’s final opponent the following week, but one last schedule change nixed the game. NU chose not to conduct two road games straight, while Nebraska substituted Camp Dodge for the game.

NU’s team was rag-tag by the end of the year, and med school subs took an increasing share of responsibility for the team. Iowa, however, was relatively healthy, and the Hawkeyes handled NU easily in a 23-7 win. It knocked Northwestern out of a possible second-place finish in the Big Ten, and it ended a wild, chaotic, and unpredictable season.

All photos are from the 1920 Syllabus.