Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has for the past few of months, the Spanish flu played havoc with college football back in 1918, causing some programs to shut down for the year, while others played on.

The University of Utah was one of the colleges that chose not to play that season, while the majority of colleges did play, despite World War I still being fought in Europe and the Spanish flu pandemic raging in full force. 

A century ago, the football season didn’t begin until mid-October and ran through late November, with most colleges playing around six or seven games total. That sounds like the University of Utah’s schedule this year, although the Utes will play their seven games (hopefully) in November and December.

Why the 1918 pandemic serves as a cautionary tale for sports now

The Spanish flu pandemic began in the spring, but hit its peak in October 1918 with nearly 200,000 people dying that month in the United States alone. In the middle of that month, Utah canceled its season and didn’t play again until the following October. Utah State, which began playing football in 1912, also didn’t play in 1918, nor did BYU, which didn’t field an official team until 1922.

Exactly 102 years ago, on Oct. 17, 1918, the Deseret Evening News published a half dozen stories on page 3 about football and the flu, along with one about the pheasant hunting season starting later that week, one on boxing and another on golf.

“Spanish Influenza Rapidly Spreading over Entire U.S.” read one headline, while another read, “Football Looks Like a Dead Issue in this Section for 1918 Season.” The subhead to that story read, “Epidemic of Spanish ‘Flu’ May Succeed in Sounding Death Knell of Gridiron Sport This Year.”

The story went on to report that the University of Utah along with high schools in the area, had been closed for a week and wasn’t expected to be open for “as far as five or six weeks off,” which would force that cancellation of the entire season. 

“Football in this vicinity is gasping for breath. There’s hardly enough wind to inflate a ball with which to practice,” read the lead paragraph of that story.

The story went on to say, “What scientists declare to be the dangerous ‘streptococclia’ germ is lurking around the lower regions of the atmosphere in such fashion with the system of the human and causes Spanish influenza.

“Almost any way the situation is considered, it looks like bye-bye for football this year.”

It noted that there hadn’t been “a bit of practice on the part of local high schools or the university” in over a week. “Almost any way the situation is considered, it looks like bye-bye for football this year,” the story read.

But while Utah colleges and high schools shut down, other schools around the country were moving forward. 

A story with a San Francisco dateline read “Interest Keen in Football on Coast; Many Elevens Will Play Despite War”

The article noted the University of California, Saint Mary’s and several military schools were expected to play football despite the war, but curiously makes no mention of the Spanish flu.

One story said Colorado A&M was set to play the State Teachers College of Greeley, while the University of Colorado and Colorado College were “at a standstill owing to the influenza epidemic.”

Another story was about defending champion Denver playing Colorado Mines the following Saturday. As it turned out, the five Colorado schools in the Rocky Mountain Conference played without Utah and Utah State that season, playing anywhere from two to five games total.

Another story affirmed the University of Idaho playing football that season, but having its upcoming game against the Oregon Aggies canceled. 

Only four colleges in the Pacific Coast Conference (precursor to the Pac-12) played football that season — California, Oregon, Washington and Oregon Agricultural. 

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As dire as the headlines were at the time — one read “Situation as to Influenza is Worse. Red Cross Working Day and Night to Care for Patients — New Cases — Several Deaths,” football still went on.

As it turned out, most colleges around the country played football that fall despite World War I and the Spanish flu, although at least seven conferences didn’t play, including the Missouri Valley, which included the likes of Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State. 

It was similar to the situation this year, with many games canceled throughout the season as a handful of teams played as many as nine games, while others such as Florida, Army and Central Michigan, played just one game. 

That turned out to be the only season Utah didn’t play any games since 1894 and the Utes haven’t missed a season over the past 101 years.

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