Do you like B1G football? Do you like history? If your answer to either of these questions is yes, then this article may be of interest to you. If you don’t like either I seriously question why you clicked this link but thank you anyway.
In honor of their upcoming
game competition slap fight this week, it’s time to dig back into the Big Ten archives to discover the history behind the one of the older Big Ten football trophies and the best cannon in the Big Ten (sorry, not sorry Rutgers).
The Purdue-Illinois football rivalry began back in 1890 with their first contest played in Champaign, Illinois. Purdue would defeat Illinois by a score of 62 to nothing. Following the game, fans of both teams were heard to exclaim how disappointed they were that Purdue didn’t score one more touchdown.
At the time of this first game neither team had adopted their future nicknames. Purdue athletes had been called such names as “railsplitters”, “foundry hands” and my personal favorite “a great big burly gang of corn-huskers”. Luckily the last did not stick and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (lacking creativity of their own) would take it for themselves. Following a game against Wabash in 1891, the Crawfordsville Daily Argus News was headlined, “Slaughter of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue” and thus the nickname Purdue Boilermakers was born. The “Illini” was actually associated with the University of Illinois as early as 1874 to describe the student newspaper. It would first be attached to the football program in 1907. But the “Fighting Illini” nickname would only be born in the fires of competition against Purdue basketball in a January 29, 1911 newspaper report - yes Purdue did win that basketball game played at Kenney Gym. Let’s all take a moment to recognize how much better journalists were back in the 1890s-1910s than today.
Following the 1890 slaughter of Illinois, the two schools would take a one year break before playing again in Champaign in 1892. This battle of land grant schools resulted in another Purdue victory, but by a much narrower margin of 12-6. The Illini would notch their first tie of the series in 1893 at West Lafayette with a 4-4 score (and to think Iowa fans are proud of 6-4) and their first victory in 1897 with a 34-4 home win. In 1896 both schools would become founding members of the Purdue and Friends Conference and they would continue to play football games regularly with the odd year off her and there until 1919.
It was during this time frame that a group of mischievous Purdue students would build (or find) a “cannon” and take it with them to Champaign for a 1905 bout in hopes of firing it in celebration. The Boilermakers would come thru on the field with a 29-0 victory, but unfortunately for the students a group of Illini supporters led by Quincy A. Hall discovered the weapon in a culvert by the field before they could discharge it.
Hall would take the captured cannon with him when he moved to a farmhouse near Milford, Illinois and the cannon survived a fire and the accumulation of dust while being forgotten about by the world. Meanwhile, not realizing that the cannon’s size meant it could do very little damage the Illinois Fighting Illini would go on an unbeaten streak against the Boilermakers from 1906 to 1919 in retaliation.
Following the 1919 contest and the peace treaty to end WW1, Purdue and Illinois presidents would get into an argument over the cause of WW1 and refused to allow the two football programs to play each other for the next 11 years*. Purdue presidents Winthrop E. Stone and later Edward C. Elliott would hold to an argument that rising nationalism and an overcomplicated treaty system had led to the outbreak of war. Illinois presidents Edmund J. James and Dave Kinley would blame the Prussian fear of the rapid expansion of the Russian railroad system for why the war had occurred. Once the Great Depression began (with it a need for close travel opponents had developed) and Kinley was replaced by Harry Woodburn Chase as the president of the University of Illinois in 1930, cooler heads prevailed and the series resumed that fall. But it would only last for 2 years being the Illini disparagement of trains would result in another decade plus gap. Finally patriotic fervor in 1943 would convince both sides to put their differences behind them.
In order to celebrate the return of the series, both sides wanted to award a trophy to the winner. With it still being the Great Depression and with war rationing also ongoing, corporate sponsors such as Iowa Corn Growers Association or the Midwest Laser Manufacturers were unable to fund the creation of a trophy. The organizers of the game despaired of being able to have a trophy. But then Quincy A. Hall out of Milford, Illinois showed up with the cannon he had captured in 38 years previously and since it’s size meant it was worthless for the war effort it was presented at halftime of the game to athletic directors Doug Mills and Guy Mackey (this name should haunt B1G basketball fans).
Since the Purdue Cannon was established as a trophy, Purdue leads the series 37-30-4. The overall series is tied at 45-45-6. Recent years have seen the game as the defining event of the Big Ten West division schedule which determines who will be the best program in the entire division. Football coaching luminaries such as Darrell Hazell, Lovie Smith, Danny Hope, and Tim Beckman have roamed the sidelines for this historical rivalry.
Aside from having similar amounts of success as prestigious football programs, Purdue and Illinois have always felt like universities with a very similar culture and accomplishments. Both are great engineering schools with many engineering programs ranked in the top 10 nationally. Both are located in rural parts of their states and are the land-grant representatives on their state. Both are located in cities originally named “West” something. Founded in 1855 following the establishment of a railroad line in the area, West Urbana was located 2 miles west of Urbana. Sadly, the town decided to be cowards and renamed the area Champaign early in their history. But most importantly, both universities are founding members of the Big Ten that never quit! Neither Michigan nor Ohio State can say that.
Unfortunately one of the schools must lose battle for the Purdue Cannon this weekend while the other goes on to be the leading contender to win the West division. Since the trophy is called the “Purdue Cannon” and my searches for pictures of Illini players with the cannon came up empty, I think we all know who should win the game this Saturday.
*This entire paragraph is possibly not 100% backed by reliable sources.