Back in 1911, when Chester Brewer invited alumni to come home for the Missouri-Kansas football game, he couldn’t have envisioned that the event would become Mizzou’s biggest annual tradition.
Until then, the Missouri-Kansas game had been held in Kansas City, Mo., attracting scores of alumni and generating significant income for both schools. When the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association declared that conference games would have to be played on college campuses, Brewer was concerned about whether alumni would make the trip to Columbia. Thus, his invitation for alumni to “come home” was a call that drew a crowd of 9,000-plus.
At the time, Brewer thought his idea was novel. In an early 1930s issue of The Missouri Student newspaper, Brewer was quoted: “As I remember, Missouri was the first school to sponsor the idea of an annual reunion on the day of some important football game, and Missouri unconsciously developed the idea way back in 1911.”
For years, third-party ammunition has fueled debates about which university can be credited with starting Homecoming. Recognition from Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit is often touted as supporting evidence by Mizzou fans. And several previously published newspaper articles report that the NCAA credits Mizzou with the first Homecoming — though NCAA librarian Ellen Summers says nothing in NCAA records definitively indicates that Mizzou’s 1911 Homecoming was the first. In the past decade, several universities have also challenged Mizzou’s claim as the tradition’s birthplace.
So did Mizzou really invent Homecoming? That depends on the definition of Homecoming.
Is a football rivalry Homecoming’s defining element? One of the oldest U.S. football rivalries, Harvard-Yale, dates to 1875. Students, alumni and fans from both Ivy League schools gather annually for The Game, whether it’s played in Boston or New Haven, Conn. A 1911 University Missourian article acknowledged the rivalry: “The most impressive feature of a Yale-Harvard game is the meeting of the old ‘grads’ who have come back to their college town to see the contest. After a few years this will be the case with the Missouri-Kansas game.” But the Yale-Harvard game was not referred to as Homecoming. In fact, the Harvard Alumni Association did not host its first Homecoming Weekend until 2009.
If the game was played against an alumni team, does that count? The University of Michigan tracks its Homecoming tradition to 1897, when the student athletic association sponsored Alumni Games, during which the varsity football team faced a squad of former players. Beginning in 1900, Michigan began playing a rival university for the event, but it wasn’t formally referred to as Homecoming. The first football program to include “Homecoming” on the cover was in 1947. Similarly, Northern Illinois University traces its first formal Homecoming to 1903, but the school’s football squad faced alumni, rather than intercollegiate, teams for the first 11 of these games.
Does Homecoming need to include a football game or a parade? In 1908, Indiana University students planned a Gala Week, described in a 1908 Indiana Daily Student article as “a time of general homecoming and reunions” that “helped to cement that wonderful college spirit.” The week centered on the dedication of three new campus buildings but didn’t include a football game. In 1909, though, Gala Day moved to the Indiana-Purdue football rivalry game weekend. In 1910, the event was officially called Homecoming. A sticking point in the debate for some, however, is Indiana’s lack of a Homecoming parade, which started in 1958.
What if the celebration wasn’t continual? Baylor invited alumni “to renew former associations and friendships, and catch the Baylor spirit again” during the Thanksgiving 1909 weekend. The multiday celebration on the Waco, Texas, campus included a band concert, a soirée, class reunions, speeches, a parade and a football game. However, Baylor didn’t hold another Homecoming until 1915, and it was 1934 before it became an annual event.
Did Illinois beat Mizzou by a year? In 1910, two University of Illinois students urged the university’s Council of Administration to sanction an annual homecoming, a holiday that “would afford alumni and students the opportunity to come into closer touch with each other,” according to a 1910 Daily Illini article. Illinois’ version included a football game against the University of Chicago, a baseball game against alumni all-stars, a mass meeting, performances by the HoBo Band, banquets, initiations and the annual freshman-sophomore pushball contest — a battle to push a large ball over the goal line.
What can Mizzou claim? The core elements of most Homecoming celebrations today — pep rallies, a parade, a bonfire and a football game against an intercollegiate opponent — were part of Mizzou’s 1911 Homecoming event. In the days leading up to the Nov. 25, 1911, game, several “mass meetings of rooters” were held. According to 1911 Columbia Tribune reports, more than 2,000 people attended the Nov. 24 evening pep rally, where they listened to speeches predicting a victorious game and practiced old and new cheers. Fans joined a torchlight parade to start the evening ceremonies, which included a bonfire on the practice field.
Other schools trace their Homecoming celebrations back to 1911 — including the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Northwestern University. The conditions of American higher education in the early 1900s were ripe for new Homecoming traditions popping up across the country. In A History of American Higher Education, author John Thelin calls 1890–1920 the “golden age of the college,” a period when enrolling became increasingly popular and attending was a badge of status. Also, during this time, campuses adopted institutional colors, mascots, alma maters, college songs and alumni reunion events.
Todd McCubbin, M Ed ’95, executive director of the Mizzou Alumni Association, says the University of Missouri might have been credited because Mizzou has corroborating evidence: a photo of the 1911 game and historical evidence that can trace the tradition through University of Missouri Archives.
“At one time, Mizzou was given credit for it,” he says, “and then it became something of an urban legend.”
Regardless of whether this can be considered the start of the modern Homecoming tradition, Mizzou has been recognized for having one of the largest, longest and best celebrations. The week of events has expanded to include a student talent show, a blood drive and community service projects. The parade, which started before 1911, and house decorations have become family-friendly events, attracting thousands of community members. And both the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named Mizzou’s Homecoming the top in the nation.
“I don’t know if it even matters whether we were the first,” McCubbin says. “It’s like our journalism school. People don’t attend because it’s the oldest, but because it’s the best. We think we do Homecoming pretty well.”
— Stephanie Detillier
Reprinted with permission of MIZZOU magazine.