The alumni association recently emailed a “Guide to Homecoming 2017.” It listed a full week of varied activities. Five-kilometer run. Blood drive. Talent show. LGBTQ happy hour. Campus decoration contest. Library open house. Spirit rally. Parade. And, of course, the Homecoming Game.
I won’t be there. Columbia, Mo., is a serious hike from my digs in the New York City suburbs, so I save my occasional returns for the periodic reunions of our old student newspaper staff. That is not to say I don’t appreciate the whole Homecoming thing. In fact, I am happy to advance the argument that my alma mater invented Homecoming. And I occasionally break out my official University of Missouri 2011 Centennial Homecoming Celebration necktie.
The story is that Chester Brewer, then Mizzou’s football coach and athletic director, feared a serious lack of spectators at the 1911 game against rival Kansas in Columbia. Previously, the annual tilt had been played in Kansas City, geographically handy to lots of old grads from both schools, and a new edict to play all conference games on campus appeared detrimental to drawing paying customers on a 125-mile trip to Columbia in one of those new horseless carriages (top speed: 40 mph) on deteriorating roads designed for equine travel.
So Brewer tried a sentimental ploy, inviting alumni to “come home,” and when a surprisingly large crowd of more than 9,000 showed up, it was said to be the birth of a fall tradition that remains a slice of Americana.
By the 1930s, the Homecoming ritual had spread nationwide, to both colleges and high schools, and soon a specific Homecoming framework took shape.
- Students painstakingly constructing parade floats, regularly depicting the Homecoming game’s visiting team’s mascot—a panther or bird or some other critter—in various forms of distress: Being fried in an electric chair or prone under a fallen guillotine, with its paper-mache head resting in a bowl of blood-red liquid.
- Athletic officials scheduling the easiest/least attractive opponent for Homecoming, both to draw extra fans to an otherwise unappealing matchup and to theoretically assure a home team victory. (Coaches of really bad teams have been known to moan, “I should ride on a float. Every doggone team we play is having Homecoming when we play them.”)
- The crowning of a Homecoming queen. (A favorite iteration of this, witnessed during my half-century as a sports journalist, was the time the Homecoming queen barely arrived in time for her halftime coronation at Augustana College, because she had run in the state cross-country championships on the other side of Illinois that morning. And won.)
There is no getting away from how pervasive Homecoming is, how wholeheartedly festive even if thoroughly sophomoric. It’s possible that it may not even be serious, just another college lampoon.
Still, returning to the old campus has a way of putting a ghost on every familiar corner again. And the immutable setting—a football stadium on a golden fall day, with the home team wearing the same colors and the band playing the same tunes—doesn’t so much generate a melancholy nostalgia for youth as a renewed appreciation for those good times in that good place.
Years ago, Sports Illustrated dispatched four of its most celebrated writers to their respective colleges to consider the meaning of Homecoming, calling the reports “four views on whether Thomas Wolfe knew what he was talking about.”
Notre Dame grad Ray Kennedy predictably zeroed in on the football aspect, how he had been shown clips of old teams and the Knute Rockne film his first day as a freshman and how “there never was any doubt everyone would graduate summa cum rah rah.”
Cal’s Ron Fimrite mostly was stirred by memories of drinking and checking out women while Miami’s John Underwood found himself “convinced that Homecomings are mostly positive expressions.”
Finally, there was something of an elitist spoof by Frank Deford. “I don’t know what I’m doing in here with all the football factories,” Deford wrote. “At Princeton, we don’t even call it Homecoming”—rather, “alumni days”—and, furthermore, “If there is one thing you learn with a Princeton education, it is Don’t waste a trip back to the Garden State to watch a rinky-dink Ivy League game.”
Deford called Homecoming “entirely too Midwestern,” and I will second that, but in a more reverential—if more naïve—way. There is a corniness to Homecoming, a narrow but genuine reasonableness, and I think of that great Midwestern novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “all decent sentiments are corny.”
Anyway, about those Midwestern roots. Missouri’s neighbor in higher education, the University of Illinois, has claimed that two of its fraternity brothers—W. Elmer Ekblaw and C.F. (Dab) Williams—dreamed up Homecoming in either 1909 or 1910, prior to Mizzou’s 1911 First Homecoming argument.
It happens that the College Football Hall of Fame has no file on Homecoming and that sports historian Dick Kishpaugh of Parchment, Mich.—in canvassing hundreds of colleges years ago—found that several schools insisted on being Homecoming’s creator. Kishpaugh said that only Illinois had written documentation.
But I’m going with two unassailable sources affirming the matter of Homecoming’s birthplace—Trivial Pursuit and, especially, Jeopardy!
Alex, “What is Mizzou?”