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61 Days Until Kansas Football: KU’s Season During the 1918 Pandemic

A look back at the Jayhawks during another infamous pandemic.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know if football will be played this fall. Neither do you. And there will be plenty of time to speculate between now and September. But the COVID-19 virus has made a full season played as normal highly questionable.

This pandemic has been widely compared to the 1918 Spanish Flu. So I was curious, what did KU football look like during that pandemic?

The Jayhawks did play a shortened season in 1918–only playing four games compared to eight games each of the previous six years—but there are multiple reasons given. The KU Alumni website, as does the American Football Database, credits the shortened season with a campus-wide influenza outbreak. However, according to the Kansas Historical Society, World War I and the Student Army Training Corps were what interrupted play.

From what I can find, it seems like both were factors.

I wasn’t sure what I would find—or if there would be anything worth talking about—with this topic. There still might not be. But I would argue there are some interesting facts about the season worth sharing (what else are we going to talk about?). Also, you’re going to want to read until the end for an unexpected Phog Allen anecdote.

Kansas Football 1918 Season

Record: 2-2

Coach: Jay Bond

Conference: Missouri Valley

This was coach Jay Bond’s only season as a head college football coach. (And yes, from my research, Jay is short for James, which means James Bond was KU’s coach before earning his license to kill.) He was also KU’s baseball coach for two years and compiled a 5-9 record. He was better off as a secret agent.

The season didn’t begin until November and it wasn’t a great start to the year. Kansas failed to score a point in two consecutive losses to Oklahoma (33-0) and Nebraska (20-0). Things got better in a 20-6 win over Baker (fun fact: the two teams participated in the first recorded football game in Kansas history) and then it was a season finale against Kansas State on Thanksgiving Day.

The last game of the year was supposed to be against Missouri, but the Tigers didn’t form a team in 1918, so it was K-State (then known as the Aggies) that took its place. The Jayhawks won the game 13-7 to break even on the year. Happy turkey day, Jayhawks.

A Story About Phog Allen

The Spanish Flu lasted until the spring of 1920, so it’s relevant to share this anecdote. And even if not, I’d do it anyway.

Bond was replaced in 1919 by Leon McCarty, who went 3-2-3 in his only season as a major college football coach. For 1920, Kansas went to Phog Allen to coach the team. In addition to the work on the basketball court that led to him having his name on the most storied cathedral in college basketball, Allen went 5-2-1 as a football coach.

This again came from the Kansas Historical Society. Undefeated at 3-0, KU went to Ames to play Iowa State. I’ll let them take it from here.

“Before the Iowa State game, ‘Phog’ had a dream. He dreamed about football, of course, and naturally it had to do with the impending battle with the men from Ames.

‘I seemed to see Harley Little carrying the ball,’ Dr. Allen related. The K. U. coach said that he regarded this as a good omen. Kansas won the toss and elected to receive the kick-off. Allen ordered his quarterback, Arthur Lonborg, to run Little on the first play. The dream came true. Before spectators were aware of what was going on, Harley Little was clear of the secondary defense, with the exception of the Ames safety. Lonborg, running interference, took care of the Ames safety and Little sprinted 75 yards to the only touchdown of the game. Kansas won, 7 to 0.

The Kansas Aggies were the next K. U. opponents and their coach wired Doctor Allen that dreams wouldn’t turn the trick at Manhattan. Dream or no dream, the University (KU) won the game, 14 to 0.”

There’s so much to like about this. Allen is getting visions that help him win football games. K-State’s coach then did the 1920 version of starting a Twitter beef with Allen by calling him out and Phog responded by going out and giving the in-state rivals a goose egg.

Don’t mess with Phog Allen on the basketball court or football field is the lesson I’m taking away from this.