1918: The Spanish Flu Season
With the news of three major Power-5 conferences canceling their out-of-conference games for the upcoming college football season, I couldn’t help but reminisce on the 1918 college football season.
As a history buff, this historical anomaly always fascinated me.
Due to a combination of the end of World War I and the Spanish Flu outbreak, many teams, including Alabama and the SIAA, canceled their season.
The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which featured the Crimson Tide, as well as Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, and many other schools faced many similar problems to the present-day SEC. The decisions made by member schools could serve as a precedent of what is to come for the 2020 season.
In order to rally the troops and the country, President Woodrow Wilson and the military decided to hold the season.
In his article on Sports Illustrated, Tony Barnhart explained President Wilson’s decision. “While there were some who felt college football should completely shut down because of the pandemic, President Woodrow Wilson felt that football added to the overall morale of the country.”
This need for morale led to the creation of football teams at many military bases around the country.
The dominance of these military academies and bases can be seen in the dominant record of Navy who went 4-1 and defeated opponents 283-20. In addition, seven of the military bases had teams that recorded zero losses. One game was missing from the Midshipmen's schedule; however, their yearly matchup against the Army cadets was canceled in what would become one of the only years ever.
In an NBC Sports article, the challenges of the Spanish Flu outbreak are described as it attacked the looming football season.
“Penn coach Bob Folwell, better known as the first coach of the New York Giants, was hospitalized with Spanish flu and missed six weeks during the 1918 season. West Virginia failed to field a team and at least one player died when he ignored a cold that morphed into the virus.”
One of the many side effects of the Influenza outbreak was a shortened season. This meant that most teams couldn’t even start their seasons until mid-October.
While many teams across the country had to sit out of the season, one of the premier matchups came from the Jon Hesiman-led Georgia Tech, also of the SIAA, against the Pop Warner-led Pitt Panthers. Pitt (4-1 as an Independent) ended up beating the juggernauts 32-0 and landed a claim at the national title, along with Michigan (5-0, 2-0 in the Big Ten).
Regardless of what happens this fall, it is important that we take the lessons that we learned from the 1918 season. If medical and government professionals decide to cancel the 2020 season, life will go on. While it doesn’t look normal, many of the lessons from 1918 resonate now. Even if Alabama doesn’t play in 2020, two things are certain-
Sports will return.
America will recover.