The story of 1918 IU football, amid the ‘flu’ epidemic

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, 1918, Indiana believed there was more football to be played.

Four games into a schedule that usually went seven, there were rumblings of a fifth contest. It would kick off in Indianapolis, organized by the War Work Committee. There were rumors of Notre Dame. There were negotiations with Illinois, until they were called off with the “suckers,” as the Bloomington Evening World phrased it.

Even without an opponent, even without coach E.O. Stiehm — who was in Princeton, N.J., attending a bayonet school for two weeks — the Crimson Eleven kept practicing. New plays were being installed by assistant coach Dana Evans. Rain soaked the grass at Jordan Field, but Evans led IU’s athletes onto the golf course for more work.

The season was very much alive. That was, until a telegram reached Evans on Nov. 25, 1918.

Players should hand in their equipment, Stiehm relayed.

The season, very suddenly, was over.

“All practices for the last week had been with the Thanksgiving game in view,” a story in the Indiana Daily Student read the next day. “While no cause for the cancellation of the game was made, nor any reason given for closing the season at this time, it is presumed that the influenza situation in Indianapolis might have led Coach Stiehm to a decision.”

A season complicated by war in Europe was actually ended by circumstances relatable to the present moment. A virus — this time, the Spanish Flu — made large gatherings a dangerous proposition. While the first World War took many of IU’s best athletes off campus, the “flu” robbed a full slate of games from the players that remained.

Just a few days after an opening-day loss to Kentucky State on Oct. 5, IU’s campus closed. The Crimson Eleven didn’t play the rest of the month, unable to meet opponents because of orders from the state board of health.

IU’s second game, against an all-star squad out of Camp Taylor in Louisville, Ky., wasn’t played until Nov. 2. A hard-fought, 7-3 defeat was followed by shutout wins over Fort Harrison and DePauw. But that was it.

IU finished 2-2. No conference games were played. Maybe it was a miracle any football was played at all.

“Foot Ball May Be Abolished During War,” a headline read in the Sept. 13 edition of the Evening World. The war department was telling schools to abandon their schedules.

“All of the big universities in the middle west had already made plans for carrying out the 1918 schedules and the request for the abandonment of the intercollegiate sport came as a distinct surprise,”  the article read, noting Big Ten teams were set to start practice the following Monday.

“Officials of the University of Chicago said the war department request undoubtedly means that all spare time of the students will be devoted to military instruction of athletes and that there would be no time for the development of football.”

Fielding a team was a complicated proposition, given the war demanded so much of the nation’s attention. Many athletes were either in the war or readying to ship out. When the war department considered banning football, it figured members of the S.A.T.C., or student army training corps, would devote 14 hours a week to military drills and another 42 to “academic study of military problems.”

The government inevitably reversed course. But the Western Conference — also known as the Big Ten — handed control of the sport over to the war department, which limited travel so it wouldn’t cut into SATC hours. IU had to drop a home game versus Detroit for Oct. 5. Road dates with Wisconsin (in Minneapolis) and Minnesota (in Indianapolis) were canceled, along with the season finale Nov. 23 at Iowa.

There was great uncertainty about IU’s season outlook, anyway. At the start of fall football practice, only a half-dozen men greeted Stiehm at Jordan Field. Only a couple of those had real varsity experience. It was a bunch of “green material,” as they would describe it in that day.

Stiehm had just one returning starter, lineman Russell Julius. There was a fullback from the 1917 freshman team, Everett Dean, who went on to become IU’s first basketball All-American. There was a track athlete, Paul Collier, and the captain of the baseball team, Willard Rauschenback.

One of the team’s star linemen, James Pierce, reported for practice but didn’t stay long. He went home.

Many of the crimson’s best players never showed, including team captain James “Jazz” Ingles, who spent the summer in an officer training school in Fort Sheridan, Ill., earning a commission as a second lieutenant. He didn’t play for IU in 1918. Russ Hathaway, an All-Big Ten center in 1917, became an ensign in the Navy, stationed in Pelham Bay, N.Y. The same with Elliot Risley, IU’s star end.

“Never in history were coaches confronted with such problems as have been brought upon them by the war,” the IDS wrote. “The 1918 season opened with very few old men back and had not the war department ruled that freshmen were eligible for varsity teams the football season would have been a failure.

“The coaches showed their mettle in the whipping together of excellent teams out of a mass of green material.”

It took time for Stiehm to shape them, while also trying to mold a schedule. IU opened with a 24-7 beating at the hands of Kentucky State, which was a last-second replacement for Center College of Kentucky. A connection was easily made because Kentucky State was coached by Andy Gill, an IU football star of the early 1910s.

Before the opener, worries about the Spanish Flu had become so prominent, Stiehm had to clarify for the IU community that the game would be played.

“Coach Stiehm had to make this announcement in order to counteract rumors which were circulated on the campus yesterday that the game would not be played because … members of S.A.T.C. were under limited quarantine because of a threatened epidemic,” the IDS wrote.

In the coming weeks, the flu caused more chaos. IU had October dates with Wabash postponed twice. Stiehm tried to schedule Franklin, with no luck. At one point, he had a date set with the “ordnance eleven” out of Fort Harrison, but the state authorities wouldn’t allow it.

“It’s all off again,” the Evening World wrote on Oct. 17. “The game scheduled yesterday by Coach Stiehm with the Ordnance team of Indianapolis for Jordan Field next Saturday was canceled after the manager of the latter called up and said Dr. J.N. Hurty, secretary of the board of health, refused to allow the ordnance eleven to come to Bloomington.”

The day prior, on Oct. 16, the epidemic had reached its peak at IU. There were 174 patients hospitalized with “flu.”

In response to the virus, which eventually killed more than a half-million people nationwide, IU’s campus closed from Oct. 10 to Nov. 4 that year. The postponement of the Union dance was front-page news. At one point, the old Assembly Hall was used as a temporary hospital, where nurses and volunteer “war mothers” — all wearing masks over their faces — tended to sick students.

The terrors of the “flu” were never far from view. The Monon train carried bodies out of Louisville, dropping them off in towns like Bedford and Clay City for a proper burial. Those trains passed through Bloomington, as well.

Tucked underneath an announcement of Hathaway and Risley’s naval assignment in Pelham was grimmer news. 

“Word was received that Gilbert, star varsity pitcher last season, has died of Spanish Influenza,” the Evening World reported.

Like in 2020, when IU’s campus closed in 1918, students were told to go home. But members of the SATC, including the football team, were required to stay.

Football practice went on.

“Unless a federal order is received, the practices will continue,” the Evening World reported. “The 1,200 members of the S.A.T.C. will remain in school and have their regular military drill on the field every morning at 7 o’clock, according to the present program.”

There were practices, but without games, the Crimson Eleven had difficulty maintaining an edge. Reports circulated about the varsity’s tie with the “scrubs” during an October scrimmage, 12-all. Granted, IU’s second-string was reinforced by a former varsity player, Rosco “Shay” Minton, who was on furlough from an officer training school.

More former IU athletes were about to be on the other side of the line when the cream and crimson faced Camp Taylor. The all-star unit included Lynn “Tubby” Howard, who played fullback for IU in 1917 until he was ruled ineligible. The charges against him were levied by Purdue, the Indianapolis Star wrote, “which so angered the student body at Indiana that it probably played a large part in the terrific mauling which was handed to the Boiler Makers.”

IU beat Purdue, 37-0, that year.

But with Howard dressing for Camp Taylor in 1918, along with Clarence Cartwright, another former IU ‘back, the Crimson Eleven did not play scared. They held the score to 7-3 going into half at Washington Park in Indianapolis. In the final quarter, IU advanced inside Camp Taylor’s 10, but three “line bucks” failed to penetrate the goal line.

IU’s backup quarterback, John Habbe, in for an injured Frank Faust, completed a pass to Harry Donovan. But Camp Taylor corralled Donovan two yards shy of the end zone to seal it.

“Coach Stiehm’s men gave the former college stars a good run for their money,” the IDS reported, “and it was a victory of two yards rather than four points.”

The headline was “Indiana’s Defeat Was Glorious One,” and the Crimson Eleven’s season seemed to turn a corner from there. Even with more twists and turns ahead.

Pierce and Collier headed for officer training before IU’s third game. Faust and Donavan left before the fourth. On the other hand, the Crimson Eleven did gain a player when fullback John Kyle “sufficiently recovered from his attack of ‘flu’ to enable him to show his true caliber,” the IDS wrote. 

There was also a breakout star in freshman halfback Kenneth Kilpatrick, who scored three times in a 41-0 win over Fort Harrison. “Kilpatrick is one of the nerviest, headiest players I’ve seen in action,” Stiehm said of the 155-pound back, both the fastest player on the team and the hardest-hitting.

Kilpatrick’s small-but-mighty nature personified IU. And on a muddy field versus a heavier, possibly overconfident DePauw team, IU claimed a 13-0 victory.

“Every year DePauw comes down the Monon, expecting victory, but receiving defeat,” the IDS wrote. “This year was the best chance they had ever had — they had beaten Purdue handily, trimmed St. Louis, and had a stronger eleven to face Indiana than was their team that beat Purdue; but the old story is to be retold.

“The Tigers were sent back up the Monon, shorn of their tusks, their whiskers singed, and their claws dulled.”

From green material, in less than ideal conditions, Stiehm and Evans fashioned a football team. The next year brought the return of Ingles, Hathaway, Risley, and Minton. Pierce, Faust, and Donavan were back for 1919, as well.

IU went 3-4 that season. But the 1920 team, captained by Risley, went 5-2, including 3-1 in Big Ten play.

The Crimson Eleven did it without Kilpatrick, however. He didn’t suit up for IU in either of those seasons. He isn’t listed in IU’s record book as having ever earned a varsity letter.

“Kilpatrick was seriously injured, it is understood, while playing under the colors of the Emerson High School in Gary several years ago and had not entirely recovered from his injuries last summer,” the Hammond Lake County Times reported in 1920. “It is understood, however, that he is again in playing condition and Indiana alumni are attempting to induce his return this fall.”

Why “Killy” didn’t return to the Crimson Eleven remains unclear. What is known, via public records:

Kilpatrick went into the oil business. In Oklahoma, he married his wife Caroline. He registered for the WWII draft at age 42.

On Jan. 9, 1970, Kilpatrick died. He was laid to rest in the same plot as Caroline, in Tyler, Texas.

Special thanks to Ken Bikoff and Dina Kellams for their assistance in finding historical records for this story.


  1. Thanks for this article as it gives insight to earlier IU football teams and what they faced. It also provides some perspective into our current virus problem as 500,000 out of 105 million Americans died from the Spanish Flu. I can’t imagine how our society would respond today faced with those numbers as it would take close to 2 million deaths to equal what was faced from the Spanish Flu. I would also point out over 50 million died world wide from the Spanish Flu. This puts our current situation into a class of concern but not real danger compared to the Spanish Flu.

    I hope things get back to normal in time for the season to run as usual, so we can see how IU responds to the success of 2019 in the 2020 season.

  2. There’s not nearly enough data to know if it’s a real danger compared to the Spanish Flu, but it’s unquestionably a real danger for our society. Every public health expert, epidemiologist and statistical modeler believes this. We’re in the midst of a public health emergency. That’s not a matter of factual debate.

    1. BD, the amount of danger is in question despite “so many public health expert, epidemiologist and statistical modeler believes this.” Projections are proven wrong every day as topics are too complicated to account for all factors. Yes this virus is a threat but how much we will have to wait and see. Pluto was a planet accepted by astronomers and most scientist but its designation was changed in 2006 after centuries of acceptance as a planet. Science isn’t a hard fast study as it also includes human interpretations.

      An Imperial College study said that COVID-19 could kill 500,000 Brits, but in recent testimony, Neil Ferguson, the head of the group behind the study, put the number below 20,000. Why the difference, because different models were run based on what a society did. There isn’t one scenario but several depending on actions a society takes. What is different today is our fear and the way we see death versus the outlook we had during the Spanish Flu [it isn’t just our attitude but the first world in general”. I hope we get it under control soon so society can return back to normal before we have a real breakdown in society due to the shut down.

      1. I think if you inform yourself a bit better you’ll see the extent of this emergency. The modeling, which has been produced via from independent sources and which shows startling similar results, confirms numbers that have so many experts concerned.

  3. A wonderful article. And we are indeed in danger. But it has purpose. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, and who have been called according to His purpose.”

  4. BD I do get info from various sources which is why I found the British site. The other sites you visit are not looking at all factors which is why they have such high death projections. If you understood statistics better you would see it is about parameters set up and not all info as it doesn’t account for steps that can be taken to diminish the numbers. There is now a drug that works for this virus and the more produced will help reduce the number of deaths if you would research medications.

  5. We’re in the midst of a public health emergency. That’s not a matter of factual debate.

    I think if you inform yourself a bit better you’ll see the extent of this emergency.

    numbers that have so many experts concerned.

    I agree with those comments. And only very cruel and evil men would abandon all perspective to put people in danger knowing the grave risks.

  6. v13, I on this subject think like you. Although certainly understandable parameters of caution are built from projections of models displaying most damage. I’m in my 70’s and have halted my business travel and about everything else affected by the government mandates on association. But I really don’t suffer much worry of the Chinese virus. I figure time is on our side and I let the guys crunching the #’s worry about the #’s because there fluid and change everyday. I for the most part go about doing everyday what I want to. I do know this and I hold a lot of stock in the fact my kids and grand kids will be a hell of a lot tougher after this calamity is calmed down because the next rock in the road will be bigger and lots heavier. Also $6.2T will keep a lot of people afloat through this. Understand, I’m so tight I wouldn’t pay a dime to see a piss ant to eat a bale of hay, so I do hate the stimulus, but this available funding is a good thing.

  7. It was a very well done piece, Jon Blau. My only issue is what’s going on with some of the guys/coaches in the back row of the 1918 team photo.
    It seems those long dead should still be preserved the dignity of showing their entire head.
    Survived the Spanish Flu ….but poor cropping and pasting cost some their heads.
    I only mentioned all of this because I was amazed at the clarity of the photo…I was sort of searching faces and finding lookalikes. And then I noticed that top row ..Maybe those who got crop-chopped were standing atop desks, O captain! My Captain!…?
    ‘Carpe diem’….for all our frozen faces are nothing more than a shrinking photo closing in from the edges of our tiny window pane in time.

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