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Pandemic Football — Podcast Notes

Pandemic Football is the first entry of The Game before the Money Podcast’s “Five Minutes of Football History” segments that will appear each Tuesday.

The NCAA cancelled March Madness in 2020. Will there be a college football season in 2020? We don’t know. Rumors swirl around possibly playing in the spring. We haven’t seen sports affected like this in our lifetimes.

The biggest comparison we have available in major sports is the Influenza pandemic of 1918. The virus killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide – 675,000 in the U.S. There were three waves of the pandemic in the United States – one in the spring, a second and most deadly wave in the fall, and a third wave early in 1919.

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There were more deaths from the influenza pandemic than there were in World War 1. The strain of flu was like none other previously – influenza normally only threatened the lives of the very young, very old, and very sick. The strain that hit in 1918 took the lives of people in their primes. It became known as the Spanish Flu, theoretically because the Spanish media were the first to actually acknowledge the crisis.

The Spanish Flu pandemic devastated the 1918 college football season. Most October games were cancelled. Michigan and Pitt split the college football national championship but each team played only five games. The Indiana Hoosiers only played four games as the state suffered a severe outbreak of the influenza.

A playable transcription of the podcast is below for you to scroll through and read. A notes tab that includes a Table of Contents is available next to the share button. The Game before the Money Podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts. Like football history? Subscribe to the podcast today.

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College Football History

JACKSON MICHAEL: Football history podcast host, The Game before the Money:
Hi, everybody, welcome to the game before the Money podcast celebrating pro and college football this year. This edition is a five minutes of football history segment pandemic football. This is the first episode of five minutes of football history, which will come out on Tuesdays. And we’ll still do longer episodes with one on one player features.

My name’s Jackson Michael, author of The Game Before the Money Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL. It’s available on Amazon.com. And don’t forget to check out the game before the money.com as well.

Sports and Covid-19

2020 has been a crazy year. Sports is no exception. The NBA shut down in March of 2020. March Madness was canceled. The start of Major League Baseball was postponed. And the NHL also closed its doors. We haven’t seen anything like this in our lifetimes. The biggest comparison we have available in major sports is the influenza pandemic of 1918.

College Football and WW1

In 1918, the NFL was still two years away from spawning. But college football was huge. Things looked bleak for college football even before the 1918 season due to World War One. The U.S. War Department limited football practices to 90 minutes and even teetered on not allowing a season at all. The government relented near the end of September and declared college football an important means of keeping spirits high during wartime. The military did, however, place travel restrictions on teams and furthermore, many players enlisted in the military and that depleted some college rosters. Fans knew that 1918 would be different for college football, but they had no idea how the influenza pandemic would undermine the season.

1918 College Football Season

Back in those days, teams usually played eight to 10 games in any given season, usually starting with the last weekend of September or first weekend of October and ending at the close of November, except for the 1918 season. Indiana only played four games in 1918 due to the Hoosier State being hit extra hard by influenza. Penn State and Mississippi also played a mere four games. Harvard only played three games. Same with Iowa State. A lot of teams, including Oklahoma and Nebraska, only played two conference games that year. Missouri practice through the fall, but ended up not playing a single game.

Knute Rockne’s first season

Mighty Notre Dame only played six games in 1918. They played their first game in late September and didn’t play their second until early November. Coincidentally, that was Knute Rockne’s first season as head coach. George Gipp was on that team. So was Curly Lambeau. Lambeau fell ill over winter break — not with influenza, but with a severe case of tonsillitis and started a pro football team instead of returning to campus. But that’s another story for another day.

Spanish Flu quarantines

According to Spalding’s official 1918 football guide, with few exceptions, all college football games in October were canceled. The publication noted that most college football teams experienced only a month of real football, and some teams like Missouri and West Virginia had no season at all. Many universities across the country were put in quarantine, including Northwestern and Texas A&M.

Michigan 1918 National Championship, Pitt 1918 National Championship, Football

Michigan’s State Board of Health cancelled the Wolverines trip to Northwestern, citing the outbreak, on Northwestern’s campus and in the city of Evanston, Illinois. Michigan went undefeated in 1918 at five and 0 (5-0). The NCAA’s Web site states Michigan as CO National Champions in 1918, a shared title with Pop Warner’s Pitt Panthers, who finished the season at four and one (4-1). A lopsided win over John Heisman’s reigning champion Georgia Tech team sparkled on the Panthers resumé.

Penn Football, Spanish Flu

Many teams had situations where the coach contracted the flu and then followed by several players on the team. Penn had that situation. And if you listen to the Bert Bell episode of the game before the Money podcast, you’ll know that Penn made the Rose Bowl the previous season in 1917. Penn’s opening game of 1918, however, was canceled three times. They even ended up playing a game in a stadium without fans and one game minus their coach and five starters who contracted the influenza.

Texas A&M Football in 1918

The Texas A&M campus went under quarantine for a month. Most of the Aggies original schedule was scrapped, including games against LSU and Mississippi. A&M ended up pasting together a schedule that kept only three original games and then an improvised slate of games against military bases. College football wasn’t the only sport impacted by the Spanish flu.

1919 Stanley Cup Cancelled

The Stanley Cup finals ended in a stalemate at two games apiece and one tie. The rest of the series was canceled after most of the Montreal Canadiens came down with the influenza, one of their players, defenseman Joe Hall, actually died.

NFL’s first season was 1920

World War One ended in November of 1918. And by the summer of 1919, the influenza had passed. The war was over and Babe Ruth had switched from pitching for the Red Sox in the 1918 World Series to batting for the New York Yankees. The World Series of 1919 brought the Black Sox scandal, and America entered its last autumn season without the National Football League. The league played its inaugural season in 1920.

But again, that’s another story for another day.

JACKSON MICHAEL: Football history podcast host, The Game before the Money:
Thank you for listening to five minutes of football history on the game before the Money podcast. I’ll post links and notes to this episode on the game before the money dot com in the podcast notes section.

JACKSON MICHAEL: Football history podcast host, The Game before the Money:
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