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Football in a Pandemic, We Have Been Here Before

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A look a the 1918 college football season, the last time we played during a pandemic

Kansas City Star

The upcoming 2020 college football season is set to kick off in the coming weeks (hopefully), and more so than any season before it, this year poses more questions than answers. However, it’s possible that history could help us answer many of these questions we all are dying to have answered. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the last time college football was played during a Pandemic.

Setting the Scene

The year is 1918, and the United States was at war with the Central Powers in World War I. As if things couldn’t be more hectic, a second wave of the Spanish Influenza was sweeping the nation in October as football season was set to kick off.

Just a month or two before this, the War Department actually attempted to cancel the season themselves before influenza could ever get a shot. This was in an attempt to train all the able-bodied young men the United States had to offer for a large offensive attack that was planned for the early months of 1919.

Luckily for fans of college football, this attempt failed, and the season was scheduled to go forward. However, due to decreasing temperatures across the country as the summer months faded, the Spanish Flu returned for a second, even deadlier, wave than the previous one during early months of 1918.

What made this pandemic so detrimental to college football in particular was that its most common victims were young adults. This was very unique for a virus in the influenza family, and particularly deadly for a college campus, so it’s easy to see how serious of an issue this was at the time.

As the days wound down till kickoff, most teams decided to go with a game-by-game format with regards to cancellation of their seasons. In addition, there were some teams that cancelled their seasons entirely. In fact, 16 of the 88 major universities at the time did not play football that fall, including our Missouri Tigers.

The Season

As the season began, it became clear that the typical 8 game schedule most teams played would be next to impossible to complete in its entirety. This led to the average number of games played by teams to be around 5 for the entire season.

The season being shortened wasn’t the only thing that changed the last time we played football in a pandemic, though. Much like all other decisions for the season, the decision on whether to have fans in the stadiums was left to the individual teams. Some played in empty stadiums, but some, like Georgia Tech, allowed fans to attend as long as they wore masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

With all these changes you’d think that it would be difficult to crown a legitimate champion. Never fear, ladies and gents, the Michigan Wolverines are here. After playing only 5 games, one of which was against Case Western University, the Wolverines were undefeated and claimed the “national championship.” Classic Michigan, if I say so myself. They are easily the most overrated “blue blood” in the sport with their fake and made up national championships from 100 years ago, but I digress.

The team that was most likely the best team in the country that year was actually the Pittsburgh Panthers, who were coached by the legendary Pop Warner. Although they only went 4-1, they didn’t play Case Western University and actually chose to schedule real opponents. One of these real opponents was the defending national champion Georgia Tech Golden Tornado who were coached by the possibly even more legendary John Heisman. The two heavy weights met up in Pittsburgh in front of 30,000 fans, with the Panthers completing an unexpected rout, winning 32-0. The shutout was Pittsburgh’s third of the year and the team ended up surrendering 16 points total on the year. Despite losing their last game to the Cleveland Naval Reserve (a miliary team that had most of the college stars of the time on their roster), Pitt went ahead and claimed the national championship. Which, unlike Michigan, made sense, because to be the champs you have to beat the champs.

Mizzou

Our beloved Tigers were not as lucky as the aforementioned teams in 1918. In fact, they drew the shortest straw of all. At the time, Mizzou was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, one of the only conferences to cancel their season as a whole. However, every member of the conference other than Mizzou did get a game/games in before the cancellation.

To top it all off, Homecoming was cancelled, so it really wasn’t a good year to be a Tiger. But if you think that’s bad, you should feel even worse for the players that practiced a reported 250 hours to not even play a snap for the Tigers.

Overall, the season wasn’t a complete disaster (unless you were a Mizzou fan). Hopefully history repeats itself, and we get some form of football this fall that is safe for all participating parties. Check back next week for part II in which we will assess the lessons learned from this season and how they may be applied to the 2020 season.