By Tim Brady
The Homecoming tradition began 100 years ago at the University of Minnesota with something closer to a whimper than a bang. Homecomings were becoming a popular means across the nation to get alumni back to the old alma mater, and the U joined the movement. But according to the Alumni Weekly, the first Homecoming at the U “was not an unqualified success from the point of view of the number of alumni who took advantage of the plans made for their entertainment.”
The crowd at a pregame banquet at Shevlin Hall—the women’s dormitory—drew a fair number of women, but just one man. A noontime luncheon drew crowds “not larger than usual.” Even the postgame bash with concert and dance was rather sparsely attended. The Weekly laid blame on alumni, who, while coming to the game “combine business with pleasure and do not have time for anything besides the game. Or want to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the Twin Cities.”
“Homecoming is a custom that has become well established. . . and there is every reason to believe that it will prove popular here. Plans are in capable hands and something will be doing.”
The Alumni Weekly announced the first-ever Homecoming in its October 5, 1914 edition.
World War I prompted a hiatus from the celebration, but in 1919 Homecoming came back with a bang. Decorations draped Greek houses and a parade was instituted. Buttons were worn and a bonfire and pep fest on the evening before the game raised team spirit.
Homecoming themes became a part of the festivities in the 1920s. Vikings animated the first Homecoming celebration in the brand new Memorial Stadium in 1924. A Viking funeral pyre was set ablaze at the campus parade grounds prior to the big game against Michigan, which the Gophers lost 7-6, and Viking floats filled the parade. In 1929, the campus once again honored the state’s Norske roots at Homecoming when the parade featured a fleet of Viking galley ships built by U of M Greek houses.
Celebrations were often elaborate affairs. In 1928, a hodgepodge of Native American motifs ran through Homecoming festivities. Teepees and wigwams were set up all over the campus with “blankets, canoes, tom toms, and campfires,” according to the Gopher Annual, celebrating or muddling a variety of Indian customs and artifacts. A group of Blackfoot Indians imported from Glacier National Park in Montana provided “an unusual note of colorful realism” throughout the festivities. In 1931, professional cowboys were brought in to perform a Wild West roughriding show, and in 1953 mallard ducks were released during halftime to celebrate Minnesota conservation and sportsmanship.
Members of the Blackfoot Nation attended the 1928 festivities. They're pictured with student Marion Clift
Kings and queens have long been a part of Homecoming tradition, but just how it’s decided who should wear those crowns has changed over the years. In earlier times, the student body elected queens, and being crowned king was the prerogative of a particular office: president of the Alumni Association. This practice ended in the late 1960s, when Gopher football team captains were given the keys to the kingdom. One of the most famous of these was Tony Dungy (B.S. ’78), who wore the crown in 1976.
Through the decades, Homecoming traditions like the Memorial Union Ball have reflected fashion trends. From early incarnations of berets, goatees, and sunglasses, to the latest in Mad Men style from the early 1960s and post-Beatle haircuts and bellbottoms, Homecoming has been celebrated in the style of the times.
Sometimes, the times meant drastic changes to traditions. In 1943, war shortages resulted in the elimination of the parade, bonfire, pepfest, and house decorations. In 1971, the Vietnam War had a significant impact on celebrations, and when they resumed in 1973 the bonfire was discontinued for environmental reasons. And the selection of queens was halted from 1970 to 1975 on the premise that it was sexist.
These days, the U celebrates Homecoming with a full week of activities—some of them, like the parade, decades old. Other traditions, such as the student lip sync contest, community service, and the blood drive, emerged more recently. But through all the various incarnations of Homecoming, the one constant remains the Homecoming game—whether played on Northrop Field, Memorial Stadium, the Metrodome, or TCF Bank Stadium.
The queen and her attendants during halftime of the 1938 game
The 1949 parade included a bebop funeral
Delta Tau fraternity decorations in 1946
Former Gopher All-Americans attended the 1969 pepfest and luncheon. From left: Shorty Long, George Hanson, Ed Widseth, Bill Nunn, Bert Baston, Ray King, and Francis (Pug) Lund
The 1956 bonfire awaits
1975 Homecoming King and Gopher captain Tony Dungy with Queen Ann Gallogly
1975 Homecoming chairs Dick Devine and Gary Nelson
Alumnus Dave Winfield (in fur coat) and Bob Hope joined University President Peter McGrath and Alumni Association President Ron Simon at halftime in 1980
Members of the Pride of Minnesota prepare to march in 1988
The return of football to campus in 2009 called for five alumni grand marshals. Three of them- Deb Hopp, Walter Mondale, and Lindsay Whalen- are pictured braving the subfreezing temperatures at the pepfest. The other two were Garrison Keillor and Bobby Bell
Even Goldy sought warmth
Ski-U-Mah is Born
Though its origins predated Homecoming, no Gopher gathering is complete without at least one full-throated Ski-U-Mah. But where did the yell come from? According to this excerpt from the November 9, 1914 Alumni Weekly:
The University yell was started in the fall of 1884. It appears that at the time, Professor Peebles, who had the year before come from Princeton, and who was coach of the football team, used to divide the boys into two squads; he would coach one squad himself and give the other into the charge of someone else. He usually managed to pick out the strongest team for himself and taking advantage of his superior knowledge of the game, used to make touchdowns on the other team almost at will. When a touchdown came, Professor Peebles used to give his “Sis-Boom-Ah, Princeton.” The boys finally got tired of this and decided they would get a yell of their own, and when the occasion came they would get it back on Professor Peebles.
John W. Adams, ’86, who was at that time rooming with “Win” Sargent, set himself to devise a characteristic yell for Minnesota. Naturally the “Rah, Rah, Rah” was the first thing to suggest itself as being a necessary part of any yell.
As something characteristic of Minnesota he took the word “Minnesota,” which is Indian for “cloudy water,” cutting out one syllable, thus “Minn-so-ta.” Then recognizing the necessity of another three syllable part of the yell, three times three, bethought himself of some Indian word that would express exultation, which could be worked into the University yell. The memory of a race between four Indian boys in two canoes, which he had seen years before near Lake City, came to mind, and he recalled how, as one canoe pulled out ahead and across the finishing line, one Indian boy put up his hand yelled “Ski-oo.” Mr. Adams, who had seen a great deal of the Sioux Indians in his younger days, remembered, too, that this yell was almost invariably used by the young Indians when winning an athletic contest of any sort. The Sioux children generally used this exclamation in their play as an expression of exultation or pleasure.
As another syllable was necessary to make it harmonize with the rest of the yell Mr. Adams simply put in the “Mah” in order to go with “Rah” and “ta.” As the yell was first planned, the emphasis was placed on the second syllable of each line. “Rah. RAH. Rah. Ski! OO! Mah! Minn-SO-ta!”
After working out this yell to their own satisfaction, Adams and Sargent could not hold in any longer and they went out on the street to try the new yell. They gave it several times and enjoy the unique distinction of being the first to give voice to the famous “Ski-U-Mah.” As it was late in the evening, one of the neighbors put up the window and invited the boys to “shut up and go to bed.”
The yell was printed for the first time in a University publication in the Ariel in the spring of 1885, soon after it was originated, in the following form:
“Rah. Rah. Rah. Ski-U-Mah. Minn-so-ta!
How’s that for a college cry’? It has not sense but the meter’s immense. We endorse it.”
The “Ski-U-Mah” has been the characteristic feature of the Minnesota yell and this is an authentic report of how the yell originated and its meaning.