Bob Zuppke with 1929 Illini football

Bob Zuppke coaches the 1929 Illinois football team.

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“Super Bowl Sunday!”

Even in times of COVID-19, there’s no doubt it’s any year’s biggest day for sports.

This weekend, to celebrate, the Illinois Distributed Museum wants to take a look at a few of the sports innovations that have come from the University of Illinois.

Two of the most well-known Illini football legends are Robert Zuppke and Harold “Red” Grange.

While it can be hard to trace when the first time a football play was used, scholars generally credit Coach Zuppke with creating the “flea flicker.”

Considered a trick play, the offense pretends they are running the ball, but instead throw it.

This can be done in a few different ways but often involves the quarterback handing the ball to the running back, the running back then flicking it back to the quarterback, and the quarterback throwing it to a wide receiver.

It can be a great play to open up a wide receiver, but it takes talented players to pull this off.

Grange was able to make it successful.

Zuppke has also been credited with creating the huddle, a common sight at football games today.

Zuppke observed that some of his players would gather in groups to discuss the next play, and he quickly adopted to having all players huddle to hear the next play.

Another innovative impact on football came from Illini faculty member Frank Dickinson. An economics professor, Dickinson created a mathematical formula for ranking college football teams in 1926.

Originally, several magazines would determine the national champions. Dickinson’s system took into account factors such as strength of the schedule and strength of the conference.

Dickinson’s equation did have some bias because his equation made the Big Ten a stronger conference than those teams in the South, which some of their fans did not appreciate.

Nevertheless, Dickinson’s equation gained recognition quickly.

In 1936, the Associated Press began polling which team was best and became more popular than the Dickinson System, which fell out of favor by 1940.

Other sports have also been affected by UI innovations.

Carita Robertson, a physical-education faculty member from 1925 to 1963, organized and helped sponsor the first Big Ten swim meet for women in 1930.

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association was also established by UI staff and students.

Although wheelchair basketball was originally developed at Veterans Affairs hospitals, it was the UI’s Tim Nugent who decided to make wheelchair basketball an official organization with teams and tournaments.

He also helped students use the sport as a platform to educate others and help change the limiting perceptions people held in the 1940s about wheelchair users.

In the 1970s, Karol Kahrs was hired as the first female associate athletic director to help the university become Title IX compliant.

She served as the coach for multiple women’s teams and was instrumental in having women’s sports be officially recognized in the Big Ten Conference.

You can learn more about these sports innovations on the Illinois Distributed Museum’s Sports Tour found at distributedmuseum.illinois.edu/sports.

The Illinois Distributed Museum has online content about the innovations that have come from the University of Illinois as well as self-guided tours of campus where you can view objects and buildings related to these innovations.

The Illinois Distributed Museum is a project under the direction of the University of Illinois Archives. See more at distributedmuseum.illinois.edu.

Kristen Wilson is the Illinois Distributed Museum coordinator at the University of Illinois Archives, in the University of Illinois Library. She can be reached at klallen3@illinois.edu.

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