Courtesy University of Missouri
The year was 1911. The place, Columbia, Missouri. The words that would forever change campus autumns: Come Home.
The story goes like this: University of Missouri football coach and athletic director Chester Brewer invited alumni to “come home” for the team’s football game against Kansas, a game packed with a spirit of rivalry that seems to have rippled since pre-Civil War Border Wars between the states. Brewer’s call yielded an unprecedented response. More than nine thousand Tiger fans packed the Columbia campus for a spirit rally, parade, and of course, the game—igniting a tradition that today is celebrated each fall on campuses across Missouri and the United States: homecoming.
Although other universities claim to have hosted the first homecoming, the word according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the television show Jeopardy, and the game Trivial Pursuit is that bragging rights for the nation’s first homecoming do, indeed, belong to the University of Missouri.
The particulars of homecoming vary wildly from school to school, but there are three elements generally deemed essential for any homecoming celebration: proud alumni, spirited students, and at least one big event that pulls everyone together in contagious camaraderie. The manner in which these fundamentals are interpreted and expressed is what makes each Missouri homecoming a tradition unto itself.
THE PROUD PARADES
Marching bands, floats pieced together by student groups, school administrators perched on convertibles— these and more create the slideshow of the campus community known as The Homecoming Parade. At these parades, you’ll catch a glimpse of the perpetually smiling-and-waving homecoming king and queen. Here, too, is where you’ll spot some new trends. For example, decorated golf carts are lined up for this year’s homecoming parades at both Missouri State University and Rockhurst University.
In some cases, you can measure a homecoming’s popularity by the traffic jam created by the size of its parade. Culver-Stockton College in the small town of Canton claims a doozie of a jam. Southeast Missouri State and University of Central Missouri also do them right. The grand marshals of these homecoming parades alone can create quite a stir. This was certainly the case when Mizzou alum and superstar Sheryl Crow presided over the University of Missouri at Columbia homecoming parade in 2003.
THE BIG GAME
All these parades and all this partying tend to constellate around one glowing event. In most cases, this event is The Big Game: traditionally, a football game—ideally, an emotionally charged football game against a long-standing rival team. But homecomings being what they are, there are twists to this tradition. The University of Missouri at Kansas City’s homecoming is referred to as a “Court Warming,” and a Kangaroo basketball game is the athletic highlight. Across the street at Rockhurst University, a Hawks soccer game takes center stage. Sometimes fun and games for families supplement the athletic events, as is the case with the giant inflatable bounce games that entertain little ones during Columbia College’s homecoming. Such innovations are what make Missouri homecomings popular ... and anything but predictable.
In a 1915 prank at Kirksville, a bugle sounded and two hundred of three hundred students walked out of their morning classes. Thus began the Northwest Missouri State tradition of Walkout Day. Eventually the walkout was sanctioned by the school president, and students waited in eager anticipation for the time the bugle (and later the campus’s Memorial Bell of ’48) would sound, releasing them from classes to picnic in the woods and play baseball games against faculty. Today, even though classes are not in session, the president of the student senate and the university president ring the Bell of ’48 on the Friday of homecoming weekend.
Each year, Missouri Valley’s homecoming celebrations do not begin on campus, but rather in the town of the college that the Vikings will play at the homecoming football game. This town is the starting block for the school’s annual Valley Torch Run, where Missouri Valley athletic teams run a relay-style race with the last leg arriving at the homecoming bonfire on the night before the game. The idea for the run started with the 1958 Tangerine Bowl, when 58 students ran 1,285 miles from Marshall to Orlando, Florida. This year, the Viking athletes will run from MidAmerica Nazarene University at Olathe, Kansas, to Marshall.
Some of the more bizarre homecoming traditions are those undertaken by fraternities. The University of Missouri at Rolla has been rather prolific in this sense. Sigma Pi fraternity burns an outhouse on campus each year. The tradition began years ago to protest a campus policy. What was the policy? No one remembers, but the annual outhouse burning continues.
Also on this campus, several fraternities conspire to literally carry out another homecoming tradition: moving a veteran one-ton rock to a new campus location each year. Let us pause for just a moment and imagine someone from another culture straining to make sense of all this homecoming fuss. Missouri Southern State University at Joplin, mindful of the fact that homecoming traditions may be lost on those from other cultures, has international students carry the flag of their home country in the homecoming parade and invites them onto the field during half-time.
BEST IN THE COUNTRY
Since the first nearly a century ago, the homecoming at Mizzou has continued its grand tradition, growing to become one of the country’s largest. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education has also named it the best homecoming in the nation. The parade and spirit rally are still as important as ever. But over the years, additional alumni events, campus decorations, and talent competitions have been added into the mix. There is also an increased emphasis on community service. In fact, one service project, the annual homecoming drive at Mizzou, has broken the world’s record for the largest peacetime blood drive on a college campus.
Thanks to the Missouri-born tradition of homecoming, each fall, the thousands of alumni who make their way back to the colleges and universities acrossMissouri and across the country are sure to find both something soothingly familiar and something surprisingly fresh when they respond to their alma mater’s invitation: Come home.