The first homecoming: Missouri helped invent a college football tradition
When the SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012, it accomplished more than increasing its geographical footprint and capturing a larger market cap.
The SEC now can brag that one of its schools invented homecoming.
The tradition of homecoming, now a staple on most every institution of higher learning in the United States, did not spawn from a single university. No singular genesis took place. But Missouri’s claim on its invention as as valid, or more valid, than that of any other institution.
To the chagrin of several other school-affiliated historians, the NCAA, Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit and even the neo-Encyclopædia Britannica — the fountain of credibility that is Wikipedia — credits Missouri for holding the “first” homecoming.
Before 1911, the annual Border War between Missouri and Kansas took place in Kansas City. The neutral-site, big-city location was a boon to the Tigers’ athletic department, attracting all sorts of alumni. But the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association passed a rule requiring conference games to be played on campus.
Then-head football coach and athletic director Chester Brewer feared the usual huge alumni crowd wouldn’t make the trip to Columbia, Mo., to see the game. So he invited alumni to “come home” for the game, attracting more than 9,000 folks.
According to Missouri’s alumni association magazine, the degree to which the university can claim credit for “inventing” homecoming depends on your definition of the event. Several other schools — Harvard-Yale, Michigan, Baylor, Indiana and Illinois among them — claim some version of an annual alumni event centered around a football game.
Missouri’s alumni association describes the university’s claim like this:
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.
Regardless of whether Missouri “invented” homecoming, the Tigers were one of, if not the, first football team to aggressively market the event, played a large role in shaping the traditions associated with today’s homecomings and helped popularize what soon became a national staple.
Harvard Yale is one of the greatest, longest-standing traditions within higher education, but if you choose to associate homecoming with Missouri, you’re linking the feel-good, family reunion type pageantry to what was a literal blood feud in the mid-19th century. Missourians and Kansans disagreed on the issue of slavery, which led to violence as well as some serious plundering and burning during the Civil War.
The “Tigers” and “Jayhawks” names can be traced back to the war. The Seventh Kansas Volunteer Calvary called themselves “The Independent Kansas Jayhawkers,” a name that soon spread. The “Tigers” were a militia unit that protected Columbia from guerilla attack.
Needless to say, the rivalry most closely associated with homecoming also was among the most bitter until its discontinuation when Missouri joined the SEC in ’12. Former Mizzou basketball coach Norm Stewart even had his players stay in Kansas City, Mo., when the team played Kansas, taking care to fill the team buses with gas on the Missouri side of the border and chastising any player who dared pour money into the economy of that other state.
At any rate, Missouri “still holds the largest student-run homecoming in the nation, including a parade, blood drive, talent competition, tailgate, and campus decorations,” Business Insider reported earlier this year.
Most homecomings now include a parade, a homecoming court complete with a king and queen, a pep rally and a school-sanctioned tailgate.
“I don’t know if it even matters whether we were the first,” said Todd McCubbin, executive director of the Mizzou Alumni Association as of 2011. “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.”