The most ambitious project in the history of Memorial Stadium since ... well, the construction of Memorial Stadium ... is about to wrap up. A massive $120.9 million renovation is just the latest in a series of big events.
The first Illini varsity team played its one and only home game at the Champaign Fairgrounds, defeating Illinois Wesleyan 12-6.
Games were played on the north side of campus at Illinois Field. During this span, seating capacity rose from 4,000 to 17,000.
April 25, 1921
Athletic director George Huff announces plans for a new football stadium on land in the largely undeveloped south campus. Huff envisions a 75,000-seat facility that would cost an estimated $2 million. Football coach Bob Zuppke suggests the stadium be a memorial to alumni who died in World War I. The Chicago architectural firm of Holabird & Roche includes in its design 200 columns on the east and west sides, on which the names of the war dead are to be inscribed.
About $1.7 million is donated by UI students, alumni and other friends of the university. Permanent seating plans are scaled back to 55,000, with the design easily allowing for future expansion. The Athletic Association later allocates $509,805 to cover the cost of a south stands and other necessities.
Sept. 11, 1922
Huff turns over the first shovel of dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony. English Bros. of Champaign is the project's general contractor.
Nov. 3, 1923
With construction of the stands complete, the first game is held at Memorial Stadium. Because the project is not done – work continues on the ramp towers and columns – UI officials delay plans for an official dedication. In the wake of several days of rain, an overflow crowd of 60,632 plods through the mud of unpaved and unlandscaped walkways. They watch the Illini shut out Chicago 7-0.
Oct. 18, 1924
In the second home game of the season, the stadium is officially dedicated. The public response is staggering, with 67,886 showing up to see what turns out to be a performance for the ages by Harold "Red" Grange. The "Galloping Ghost" accounts for six touchdowns, including four in the first 12 minutes, to lead Illinois to a resounding 39-14 victory against Michigan.
The south end of the stadium is enclosed with a $500,000 horseshoe-shaped seating structure.
Nov. 12, 1966
The playing surface is renamed Zuppke Field, with dedication ceremonies taking place during the season's home finale – a 49-14 victory against Wisconsin.
The first major renovation since the stadium's original construction takes place. To address a soil erosion problem beneath the main stands, the foundation is underpinned. Repairs are made to corroding steal. A new press box is constructed atop the west balcony. In addition, the Ray Eliot Varsity Room, training table and trophy display area are built in the southeast corner of the stadium.
A $1 million renovation project includes installation of aluminum bench seating.
A Golden Anniversary fund drive pays for the stadium's first artificial turf and a new lighting system, making practices and games possible after sunset.
The home locker room and training facilities are renovated.
A new, computerized scoreboard is installed.
In response to swaying in the east upper balcony during a Sept. 11 game against Michigan State, steel supports are reinforced and concrete replaced.
A $7 million renovation project begins. Major improvements include replacement of the 10-year-old artificial turf with new AstroTurf at a cost of $1.72 million and expansion of football headquarters in the northeast corner of the stadium for $1,770,650. The latter opens in 1986.
A $1.5 million air-inflated "bubble" covering for Zuppke Field is raised for the first time, providing the Illini with a seasonal indoor practice facility. The 70-foot-high structure is put to use one month later by the Super Bowl-bound Chicago Bears. The "bubble" is utilized for the last time during the spring of 2000, no longer needed due to the opening of the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility in November 2000.
Sept. 24, 1989
In the early-morning hours, three UI students enter the stadium and burn a 40-yard swath in the AstroTurf. The vandalism costs almost $613,000 to repair. The damaged turf is replaced in time for the Illini's next home game on Oct. 7.
Work begins on the stadium's biggest renovation to date, an $18 million project to replace the concrete bleachers in both upper decks as well as the top 25 rows of the main stands. Other work includes construction of new restrooms in the corner towers and great halls, and an upgrade of the stadium's electrical and drainage systems.
A new color matrix scoreboard is installed in the north end.
Oct. 22, 1994
Grange Rock is dedicated on the north end of Zuppke Field, with Grange's wife, Margaret, on hand for the tribute. The rock comes from the same Indiana quarry that produced the stadium's granite columns.
One type of artificial turf is replaced by another, as workers pull up the old Astroturf and install AstroPlay. The new surface boasts grass-like qualities, with longer, non-abrasive fibers.
Memorial Stadium becomes the temporary home of the Chicago Bears while Soldier Field is renovated. The arrival of the new tenant spurs additional stadium improvements, including expansion of the locker rooms and meeting rooms in the northeast corner. In addition, a new video-replay scoreboard replaces the north scoreboard.