The record books say that in 11 games dating to 1898, Illinois has never beaten Notre Dame in football.
Yet there was a game in 1921, played on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in Taylorville (population 6,000) ...
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A year earlier, a semi-pro football team in Carlinville had defeated another semi-pro team 40 miles away in Taylorville, 10-7.
“Several Carlinville people then conceived the ‘safe betting’ idea of filling their lineup with college stars,” the Associated Press reported in a spectacular Jan. 28, 1922, story that was printed in newspapers across the nation. “Overtures were made to Notre Dame men, according to backers of the Carlinville team, and it was agreed to pay the 10 men $200 each plus their expenses, the total coming to $2,700.
“The persons who arranged the affair passed the word to their friends to bet the limit. Those friends went to the bank, the family stocking and the cupboard to bring forth, in some cases, the savings of years.”
By the time the game began, Carlinville rooters found that some $50,000 — the equivalent of about $775,000 today — had been bet on their team.
Among the Carlinville players were five regulars from Notre Dame’s 10-1 squad that year, including Fighting Irish captain Eddie Anderson and substitute Michael “Si” Seyfrit, an actual Carlinville native.
After the first half, before a crowd estimated at 10,000, Taylorville led the Carlinville/Notre Dame team, 7-0.
At the start of the second half, Taylorville sprung its own surprise: a squad that now included nine regulars from the University of Illinois team, including the captain of the Illini, halfback Laurie Walquist. It’s what the Taylorville fans — who also had bet about $50,000 collectively — had been waiting for.
The Taylorville/Illinois team won, 16-0.
“We got beat at our own game,” groused Carlinville grocer Bert Wilson.
News of the game remained muffled for months until Illinois athletic director George Huff announced on Jan. 28 that nine Illinois athletes who had taken part were temporarily suspended. Three days later, a faculty committee declared the players permanently ineligible. Notre Dame followed suit with its eight players.
“We are the goats and we will take our medicine,” said Buck Shaw, a Notre Dame tackle. “We thought the game would be a small-town affair, which would attract no attention.
“We didn’t know Illinois was to play, and when we got to the town and found out how big the affair really was, we were going to back out. We had a meeting and decided to play when we were told the people of Carlinville had bet considerable money, which they would lose if we did not play.”
The Illinois players insisted they played only because of their love of football, not of cash.
“We did not get a cent above expenses,” insisted Roy “Dope” Simpson, a Taylorville native who helped recruit the Illinois players for his hometown team. It later was revealed that they each got $100, a suit, a pair of shoes and a hat.
The incident set off a firestorm of charges, countercharges and finger-pointing among university athletic officials. It also led to the appointment in 1922 of the Big Ten Conference’s first commissioner, John L. Griffith.
Grover Hoover, the coach of the Taylorville semi-pro team, started it by charging that “professionalism has been rife in the conference universities for years, and they are not going to make Taylorville the goat.”
A United Press story said that after Hoover “had spoken his piece, there was hardly a Big Ten team which was left with clean skirts.” He charged that Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan and Chicago all allowed their players to play some sport professionally as well as collegiately.
Months later in 1922, at a meeting of Big Ten officials, the Illinois and Wisconsin athletic directors continued the war, trading charges about ethics and more athletes who had played professionally.
“Coach (John) Richards of the Badgers had a few words to say about the war with Illinois on the eve of the Minnesota battle and intimated that he might stir up every team in the Big Ten before he gets through,” the Associated Press reported. “Chicago, Purdue and Wisconsin, he said, were the only schools in the conference which are living up to the spirit of all agreements.”
After that outburst, Richards quit coaching football and moved into a gentler position, becoming a director of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District.
Both Illinois and Notre Dame football quickly recovered from the 1921 Taylorville scandal. The Illini claim an informal 1923 football national championship and Notre Dame won its first national title in 1924.
Tom Kacich’s column appears on Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.