COLUMBIA — Thousands of spirit-filled students and reminiscing alumni will descend on Missouri in two weeks to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what many consider the first collegiate homecoming.
There's just one problem, or maybe two.
Illinois already had its centennial homecoming celebration last year, having started its annual alumni event in 1910. And Baylor held its first homecoming in 1909, though it would take six years for the event's return and several more decades for the more-common moniker to take hold after an earlier incarnation as "Good Will Week."
Other schools such as Indiana, Michigan and Northern Illinois held homecoming-like events even earlier but without the traditional football game, bonfires, parades and other hallmarks of modern-day homecoming. When it comes to college football rivalries, none is older than Harvard-Yale and its 1875 origin. But Harvard's first homecoming didn't happen until 2009.
Faithful Tigers have spent decades claiming former Missouri football coach and athletic director Chester Brewer's invitation for graduates to "come home" was the start of the tradition. School leaders know better — and are now more vocal in dispelling a well-worn myth whose adherents included Brewer himself.
"We try to be a little more careful about it," said Missouri Alumni Association executive director Todd McCubbin, whose organization used to promote the school's homecoming as "the first and finest."
The Oct. 15 game versus Iowa State, preceded by a week's worth of activities, is now simply the school's centennial celebration.
"Certainly, our graduates feel like we're the first," he said. "Sometimes perception is reality."
In 2005, university archivists at Illinois attempted to get to the bottom of the historical uncertainty. Their conclusion: "At the very least, Illinois can claim to have had the longest tradition called 'homecoming' and to have self-consciously created the event with the intention of it being a precedent that would be adopted by other institutions."
"Baylor probably had the first homecoming," said Ellen Swain, the school's archivist for student life and culture. "Of course, there could have been a school in Florida somewhere that we don't know about."
As for Missouri's claim?
"We were so surprised to hear that," Swain said. "It was pretty clear that they weren't the first."
Students and alumni in Urbana-Champaign, where No. 24 Illinois (4-0) faces Big Ten rival Northwestern (2-1) in Saturday's homecoming game, were disappointed about the archivists' findings but accepted their conclusion, Swain said.
In Waco, the 1909 celebration convened over Thanksgiving weekend included class reunions, a parade, a band concert and an "old-time soiree," according to an online school history. The university makes no claims to have been the first, going only as far as noting that "few were as early as Baylor's."
"We don't say it's the oldest homecoming," said Baylor senior Zach Sartor, a chemistry major from Abilene who leads its homecoming committee. "We hang our hat on having the oldest and largest collegiate parade in the nation."
Settling the debate on the football field would seem to be an obvious solution, though Illinois chose not to renew what had been an annual season-opening game against Missouri in St. Louis after four consecutive losses. Sartor, however, noted that No. 15 Baylor hosts Missouri as its homecoming opponent on Nov. 5.
"That's a great storyline, huh?" he said.