A Brief History of Homecoming

Amid Spirit Week, the only thing anyone seems to be talking about is Homecoming. And yet, I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering what all this “Homecoming” business is all about. Who, exactly, is coming home, anyway? And why don’t I see them at any events during Spirit Week? Branching out from these questions, I’ve been curious about the history behind this great school event for a long time. And like the history nerd I am, I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned with you.

Homecoming started in the early twentieth century in colleges, although the specifics on where and how it made its debut are subject to intense debate. Three colleges lay claim to the invention of Homecoming: the University of Missouri, the University of Illinois, and Baylor University. At that time, colleges were initiating a broader focus on extracurricular activities and the recreation of the students. This, then, was the perfect time for the three colleges to plan the celebrations of the year.

According to Fastweb‘s “The History of Homecoming,” The University of Missouri’s “Coming Home” event, taking place in 1911, is commonly cited as the original Homecoming‒and for good reason. It had its foundation on the infamous “Border War” between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Missouri Tigers. Because of recent legislation prohibiting football games on “neutral” fields, the annual rivalry football game had to be held in the University of Missouri’s stadium. To assure good Missouri attendance, the coach and director of athletics, Chester Brewer, invited the alumni to “come home” for the event. He also planned a parade and a pep rally before the game. It had great success; more than 10,000 alumni showed up to celebrate the game. (If you’re curious, the teams tied 3-3.)

However, another college may have beaten Missouri to the chase. ACTIVE.com, “The History of Homecoming” reveals that, in 1910, two seniors from The University of Illinois, Clarence Williams and Elmer Ekblaw, came up with a very similar idea. They were the ones to pioneer the name “Homecoming” for their event. There, the rivalry football game was between the Illinois Chiefs and the Chicago Maroons. Illinois had lost their rivalry match for seven years in a row. The two seniors hoped that bolstering school spirit might turn their fortunes around. With the help of several senior committees, the two were able to get the council of administration to declare October 14th a school holiday. There were parties, alumni meet-ups and band performances, all before the big game. Overall, 12,000 students and alumni gathered at the Illinois stadium to witness the Chiefs win 3-0. The athletic association had to gather 5,000 extra seats to accommodate them all. The event was touted as a success and has been held almost every year on the University of Illinois campus.

Even so, was Illinois the first to hold such an event?  Baylor University lays claim to the Homecoming title with their “Good Will Week,” held in 1909, the earliest date of the three, according to an article on the university’s page entitled, “Coming Home: Stories from 100 Years of Baylor Homecoming.” The story goes that the Baylor decided to invite all their alumni back into town during the last football game of the season, during Thanksgiving break. The entire town was decorated as trainloads upon trainloads of alumni dropped off a total of 5,000 people. According to Baylor, as the last trains rolled in, every business in the entire town was requested to blow a steam whistle for three minutes straight. The noise was deafening. There were parades, speeches, and celebrations on the streets. The night before the big game, there was a bonfire built by students, who chanted and banged drums well into the night. The next day, the Baylor team won against Texas Christian University 6-3. However, “Good Will Week” would not be held again until 1915, and the name “Homecoming” was adopted later to fit with the trend. Although this event bears similarities with those of the other two schools, of the three, Baylor’s event differs the most markedly from the modern Homecoming.

And there you have it. These three schools all claim to be the original inventors of the “Homecoming” idea. Each has its own strength: Baylor’s was the first Homecoming-like event, Illinois’ originated the name, and Missouri’s the most famous, in part because it had the best turnout.  Whichever one can truly be credited is open to interpretation. In any case, thanks to them, high schools have also adopted the event of Homecoming. Homecoming is now a cultural staple in America with various media channels, like books and movies, depicting it as a time for the celebration of school spirit. From the hype of the Spirit Assembly, to the fervor of Friday night’s football game, to the jubilee of the dance, our Homecoming is no different!

Megan Stanley