Northern Illinois University’s homecoming tradition goes all the way back to 1903, when they played the first game against a team of alumni. In 1906, they first began using the term “homecoming” to describe their annual alumni game.
If you are the kind of person who quickly does math in your head, you may have noticed already that 2018-1903 does not equal 112. That is because NIU canceled homecoming for three years during World War I (1917-19), because most of the young men were off fighting in the war.
Even so, 112 years is a long time. But is it the oldest college homecoming event in the nation? That depends on what criteria you use to determine what makes up homecoming.
There are at least six other Universities besides NIU who have claimed to have the oldest homecoming tradition: University of Missouri (1911), University of Illinois (1910), Baylor University (1909), Southwestern University (1909), Indiana University (1908) and the University of Michigan (1897).
According to a 2017 Daily Chronicle article, former NIU Sports Information Director, Mike Korcek, started investigating this topic when he heard the University of Illinois claim to have invented Homecoming, even though NIU’s began seven years earlier.
Korcek was further annoyed when he visited the NCAA Hall of Champions in Indianapolis and saw a display claiming that the University of Missouri had the oldest homecoming, even though theirs only dated back to 1911.
After further investigation, Korcek discovered that the University of Michigan had a homecoming game in 1897. So did that settle the matter? Well, it depends on what makes homecoming homecoming.
Did the homecoming event have to center around an intercollegiate football game or could it be a game against alumni? Both NIU and Michigan played their first homecoming games against teams made up of former players.
Did the event have to use the term “homecoming” for it to be official? Even though Michigan began inviting former players back to their campus for their alumni game in 1897, they didn’t use the name “homecoming” to describe the event until 1916.
Indiana’s event in 1908 was called “Gala Week” and included a parade but not a football game. The following year in 1909, their event was moved to the week of their football rivalry game against Purdue University. In 2010, they started calling it “homecoming.”
Did the event need to be continuous? Baylor University claims to have had the first homecoming event in 1909, but they did not repeat the tradition again until 1915 and did not make it an annual event until 1934.
What other elements are required for an alumni event to officially be considered “homecoming”? A parade? A homecoming queen? A rivalry game? Each school seems to use a different standard to determine what makes it an official homecoming, in order to declare theirs to be the oldest.
And all of this debate might be a moot point, if you consider the fact that Harvard and Yale have played a football rivalry game with alumni returning to campus since 1875, even though Harvard didn’t officially start calling it homecoming until 2009.
There are two things this debate shows: (1) Traditions are very important to American universities and are a source of school pride to alumni, and (2) NIU can lay claim to one of the oldest homecoming traditions in the nation.