The Pandemic And College Football: A Look Back At The 1918 Season

This photo is of an undetermined Georgia Tech home game during the 1918 season. The photo was taken by Georgia Tech student Thomas Carter, who would receive a degree in Mechanical Engineering in the 1920s. The photo was provided by Georgia Tech alumnus Andy McNeil. Additional thanks to @GeorgiaTechFB and @CabreraAngel.

Tony Barnhart

The possibility of holding some form of the 2020 college football season during a pandemic has sent folks scurrying to research the 1918 season. That's when the Spanish Flu outbreak ravaged the World. The flu, which came in multiple waves from 1918-1919, killed more than 675,000 in the United States.

Not only was there a deadly pandemic in 1918, but World War I was still winding down. According to a report in the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, 18 schools did not play football in 1918 because of the flu and the war.

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. As a result, football teams were created at various military posts around the country and actually played against established college teams.

“It would be difficult to overestimate the value of football experience as a part of the soldier’s training,” President Wilson wrote in a letter that was eventually published in 1919.

Many schools were not able to play until late October or early November. The annual Army-Navy game was not played. Many schools played only three or four games.

One of the teams that played almost a complete schedule in 1918 was Georgia Tech, coached by the legendary John Heisman. The Golden Tornadoes, as they were known then, played a seven-game schedule with six of those games played at home at Grant Field.

And despite the threat of the flu, fans turned out at Georgia Tech. The photo that accompanies this story is of an undetermined 1918 Georgia Tech home game that was taken by a student, Thomas Carter, who graduated in the 1920s with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. It’s clear that the vast majority of the spectators in the photo were wearing masks in what published reports said was the peak of the flu in October and November.

Georgia Tech, which had won the national championship the year before, did not start its season until Oct. 5. And when it started playing there was no slowing down the Golden Tornadoes. They beat Furman 118-0, The Oglethorpe 11th Calvary 123-0 (in a game that was stopped after the third quarter), and N.C. State 128-0.

In fact, Georgia Tech outscored its first five opponents 425-0.

Heisman, as you might recall,  was never bashful about running up the score as his 1916 team beat Cumberland 222-0 in the most lopsided game in NCAA history. Georgia Tech led that game 126-0 at halftime.

The biggest game of the season came when Georgia Tech, 5-0 and on a 33-game winning streak, went to Pittsburgh to play the Panthers of Pop Warner, who had a 30-game winning streak. Pittsburgh won 32-0 at Forbes Field before a crowd of 30,000. The game was played to benefit military charities.

That game was on Sunday, Nov. 23. Five days later, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Georgia Tech closed out its season with a 41-0 win over Auburn at Grant Field.

A Georgia Tech game that was scheduled with Pennsylvania was cancelled when the Spanish flu went through Philadelphia.

There was a Rose Bowl after the 1918 season, but back then it was called the Tournament East-West game. With so many teams lacking players because of the war, the game was scheduled between two military institutions that had fielded team, Great Lakes Navy of Illinois and Mare Island Marines of California. Great Lakes Navy won 17-0. The MVP of the game was George Halas, a future Hall of Fame coach of the Chicago Bears.

According to records 25,000 attended the game.

So here we are, about 115 days from the start of college football season, wondering if the games of 2020 will, in fact, be played. And if the games are played, will there be fans in the seats? And if there are fans in the seats, would they be willing to wear masks as they did in 1918?

We certainly don't know. We just know that the world has changed a lot since 1918,

Stay tuned.

Comments (3)
No. 1-2
wamcneil15
wamcneil15

Thanks for choosing my great grandfather’s picture! We still cannot determine what game it was, but here is a shot of the teams on Grant Field that day. Happy to discuss further - I drove the Ramblin’ Reck my senior year (2001), so my family has all kinds of GT connections!


Tony Barnhart

FEATURED
COMMUNITY