Nebraska will recognize the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day at Memorial Stadium in conjunction with its annual Veterans Day/Military Salute on Saturday.
And the Cornhuskers will wear alternate uniforms, as they did, sort of, for the first game played in the stadium initially dedicated to those who died in World War I.
The date was Oct. 13, 1923, the opponent Oklahoma, and they weren’t really wearing alternate uniforms, just blue jerseys to avoid confusion – the Sooners also had red jerseys.
Depending on the newspaper account, as many as 15,000, including 3,000 youngsters admitted for free, were on-hand in the unfinished stadium to watch the Huskers defeat the visitors 24-0.
During the week, the Daily Nebraskan reported that seating for at least 12,000 would be ready for the game. The Nebraska State Journal published an “extra” the day of the game; it said 10,000 attended, “probably the largest opening day crowd in Nebraska football history.”
Cy Sherman (who reported 15,000) of the Lincoln Star wrote that given the setting the stadium provided, “football at Nebraska will become a spectacle rather than a game.”
Like the blue jerseys, the kickoff by Nebraska’s Dave Noble following the first touchdown was unique. The football deflated and had to be replaced.
Noble served as captain because Verne Lewellen was sidelined. There had been concern sophomore tackle Ed Weir, who would earn All-America recognition each of the next two seasons, also wouldn’t play because of a sinus infection. But he did, and intercepted a pass.
Herb Dewitz kicked a field goal for the first points. Noble scored two touchdowns, and Doug Myers, playing in his first game as a Husker, picked up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown. The return was 93 yards, according to the Sunday World-Herald’s Gregg McBride.
Other accounts were less specific on the distance.
Myers “had a clear field with a half dozen Huskers running as bodyguards,” McBride wrote.
The game would be the last that season for Oklahoma lineman James Thompson, who was also a member of the state legislature. Oklahoma Gov. Jack C. Walton had called a special session of the legislature, beginning the next week, to deal with race problems fueled by the Ku Klux Klan.
Walton was born in Indiana, but grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska.
His attempt to curtail the Klan’s influence, parodied by Nebraska’s Corncobs at halftime, failed. He was subsequently impeached, a reflection of racial attitudes at the time, and not just in Oklahoma. The Klan’s presence in Nebraska was a significant factor in the discontinuation of a home-and-home series with Notre Dame, begun in 1915, following the 1925 game in Lincoln.
Nebraska dedicated Memorial Stadium a week after Oklahoma’s visit against Kansas, Homecoming. Early in the week, Nebraska athletics business manager John Selleck had to dispel rumors that no tickets remained. Special trains brought fans from Omaha and Lawrence.
The Huskers had opportunities but couldn’t capitalize; final score 0-0.
The Sunday State Journal included the front-page headline: “Stadium Jinx Too Much For Huskers.” Sports editor John Bentley wrote: “It looks like it is impossible for a team to win the game which formally opens a stadium.” The year before, when Kansas dedicated its stadium, Nebraska won 28-0. Bentley cited other schools as well, including Harvard and Yale, Michigan and Ohio State.
Regardless, the Huskers were entering a new era with Memorial Stadium, which “was modeled on the same plan as the old Roman amphitheatres and is about the height of a six-story building,” according to the 1924 student yearbook, The Cornhusker. “The great structure will hold 30,000 people regularly and temporarily may extend to seat 47,000. If the two stands now completed are extended around the oval (track), it will hold 60,000, the same as Ohio Stadium.”
Memorial Stadium was patterned after Ohio State’s home.
The Huskers would play Missouri to a 7-7 tie the next week in Columbia. But they would finish 3-0-2 in Missouri Valley Conference play to earn a third-consecutive conference title under Coach Fred Dawson.
Nebraska had been an independent in 1919 and 1920, ironically because it had played off-campus, a game against Oklahoma in Omaha, part of a double-header that included Creighton-Marquette. Oklahoma replaced the Huskers in the MVC in 1920, and Nebraska returned in 1921.
In any case, the Huskers finished the 1923 season with a 4-2-2 record, their other victory against Notre Dame at Memorial Stadium, the losses against Syracuse and at Illinois.
Nebraska had opened the 1923 season in Champaign, against the Red Grange-led Fighting Illini, losing 24-7. The game was the Huskers’ first on “pay-per-view,” one might say.
The “N” Club rented a Gridograph (also Grid-Graph) for the 1923 season, 12-foot-by-15-foot, glass-covered, football-shaped board with a football field marked off, players’ names on the sides, and designations for downs, yards-to-go, fumbles, interceptions and so forth.
A system of lights identified players and activity on the field.
A Western Union operator in Champaign sent dispatches to an operator at the Nebraska Armory, where the Gridograph was set up. The Lincoln operator typed up the dispatches, which were given to the Gridograph operator. After the operator indicated the play on the board’s light system, the dispatches were taken to the university radio station for broadcast.
The Cornhusker indicated that the radio broadcast covered a 500-mile radius.
Admission to the Armory was 25 cents. Nebraska’s band and cheerleaders were on-hand.
Occasionally, the dispatches would pile up. At one point that happened and the runner who took them to the radio station grabbed one out of order, creating an issue for the Gridograph operator, who had to account for a touchdown reflected in a subsequent dispatch.
A sub-head in the Daily Nebraskan account of the game said: “Spectators of Grid-Graph at the Armory see seventy yard run by Grange which was never made.”
That’s how the issue was resolved. The story said “only those fortunate enough to attend the Grid-Graph exhibition ever saw this play – the rest of the world lost out.”
Grange did score all three Illinois touchdowns that day.
That was Nebraska’s first loss to Illinois in five games, dating to 1892. The Illini would win again in 1924, their only victory ever at Memorial Stadium. They’ve lost four games there since.
Football in Memorial Stadium would become a “spectacle,” Sherman wrote after the Oklahoma game in 1923, “which will so appeal to followers of the pigskin sport as to regularly pack the stadium at all important contests of the home schedule.”
Saturday’s game will be consecutive sellout No. 367.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.