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B1G 2016 // Illinois Traditions, Fighting Illini, Marching Band and More

Some history behind a few of my favorite things about going to an Illinois football game.

The famous "Illini" formation
The famous "Illini" formation

With the budding optimism of a rebuild helmed by competent coaching, Illinois Fighting Illini fans are excited about the future. But football season will feature a number of things that have been around for decades. If you're expecting yet another scorching take on mascots and Chief Illiniwek, I have already covered that and will not do so today. In that article, however, I stated that Illinois Athletics was defined by more than Chief Illiniwek and that we have plenty of traditions left to embrace. If you're wondering what I could possibly have meant by that, you've come to the right place!

The Nickname: "Illini" and "Fighting Illini"

The state of Illinois takes its name from the French rendering of a name the Odawa tribe used to describe the neighboring confederation of tribes in the upper Mississippi valley. These tribes would later be known as the Illinois Confederation and, informally, Illiniwek. The remnants of these tribes are now known as the Peoria and live in Oklahoma.

The word "Illini" was first recorded in 1874 when the student newspaper changed its name to "The Illini," less than 10 years after the 1867 founding of the University. Use of the name "Illini" for those enrolled at, employed by or associated with the University actually predates the 1885 name change from Illinois Industrial University to University of Illinois.

Though "Illini" does not formally refer to any Native American tribe, the history of Native American imagery at Illinois predated Chief Illiniwek by many decades. This can be explained by the fact that "Illini" evokes no distinct image on its own and the intense predisposition of the rural Midwest at the time towards Native American imagery.

Like most sports teams in the early 20th century, Illinois had no official team nickname. What they did have, however, was national prominence as a football powerhouse. From 1914-1919 under legendary coach Robert Zuppke (after whom the field surface is named), Illinois won four conference titles and two national championships and became hugely popular. A fundraising campaign for a new stadium was put together, imploring fans to put money towards the stadium in memory of all those Illini who fought in the first World War. "Build That Stadium For Fighting Illini" was the rallying cry for the fundraising, and they did indeed. Memorial Stadium was erected in 1923, and 183 of the 200 columns on the east and west facades bear the name of an Illini who gave his or her life for the United States. This is the "Memorial" part of the stadium name. "Fighting Illini" caught on and was eventually adopted informally by the community and the press before eventually being made official at an imprecise date.

The Band: Marching Illini

As the birthplace of the college concert band, the University of Illinois would naturally get in on the marching band game. It was under Albert Austin Harding (after whom the concert band building is named) that Illinois formed its own version of the touring military marching bands that were so popular around the turn of the 20th century (i.e. Sousa). They premiered the first school song on March 3, 1906 when they debuted "Illinois Loyalty" and became the first college band to march Sousaphones that same year. In 1907, the Marching Illini performed the first known halftime show during a game against the University of Chicago and introduced a Block I formation in a parade later that year that was the first letter formed by a marching band.

In short, the Marching Illini invented the college marching band as we know it today.

They were also the first band to perform at a Homecoming (another tradition started at the University of Illinois) in 1910 and played at the first football games broadcast on radio and on national television.

The (Incomparable) Three-In-One is the staple of halftime at an Illinois game and elements of it date back before 1926, including the "Illini" formation shown below.

illini formation old

The Three-in-One as we know it today was first performed in 1926, predating "Script Ohio" by ten years. Though changes have been made to the music and the drill throughout the years, "Pride of the Illini," "March of the Illini," "Alma Mater," the Block I formation and the Illini formation have always been elements. The Three-In-One officially turns 90 years old this fall, and I still get goosebumps every time I experience it. From the a capella intro to the stirring finale, the Three in One holds a special place in the heart of every Illini fan.

The Pregame Show is another staple of the Illinois Football experience and is a good enough reason for me to jump out of wherever I've crashed, burn through a few shots, find a quick snack and get to the stadium early. My favorite part is "Revised Entrance No. 3," which is a fanfare that transitions into a marching version of the state hymn.

The Student Section: Block I

block i gif

(The Union Jack was displayed during the Marching Illini's The Who halftime show)

If all you know about this is that time Deadspin made fun of us for trying, prepare for an education. Block I was founded in 1910 in the student section, when the first coordinated card stunt at a football game was performed. At the time, the cards were plywood and presumably splinters were suffered through to cheer the team on. Ever since, Block I has been part of the landscape at Memorial Stadium, with the Block I card stunts being a halftime fixture. Block I has become extremely visible thanks to the isolated North End Zone seats to which students were relegated in 2006, and when that section is more than half full, it's a thing of beauty.

Block I doesn't get the media coverage it deserves, but we Illini fans love when they chug the beers:

block i chug


The Future: Grange Grove

While the Grange Rock in the stadium is the go-to touch-this-for-luck item for players, Red Grange's likeness has extended outside the stadium as well. Last year, Illinois did some renovations to the area in front of the west entrance of the stadium, transforming it from a grass parking area into a tailgating area called Grange Grove.

grange grove

Tailgaters can drop their equipment off between 5 and 7PM the day before the game and the gates lock after that until tailgating begins Saturday morning. Illinois was ambitious with this venture, bringing Rodney Atkins to Grange Grove for Homecoming and booking it as an outdoor concert venue in the offseason. I tailgated here for the Ohio State game last year and cooked up some lovely pork chops while serving beermosas. This made me significantly less angry when the offense got inside the OSU 35 five times and came up with three points. In an inaugural season with a lame-duck interim coach, Grange Grove proved to be a hit. Surely this pleases the man himself, who is eternally perched in front of the west entrance watching over the pregame festivities.


I'm hopeful that Grange Grove will join some of the other traditions that make Illinois unique and make an Illinois football game feel like home to me. I've seen this stadium packed before, and maybe some day I'll see it packed again, with a capacity crowd going crazy for the Three in One at halftime. Sure, they're the traditions of what's been a losing program for most of the last 50 years, but they're our traditions. We love no other, so let our motto be: Victory! Illinois! Varsity!