USC Football History

How USC football was impacted by 1918 flu pandemic

USC football at the Coliseum. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
USC football at the Coliseum. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /
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The 1918 flu pandemic forced a shutdown of sports in the Los Angeles area, impacting USC football’s final season under Dean Cromwell.

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It has been more than 100 years since the 1918 influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish Flu, tore through the worldwide population, but it is on the mind for good reason.

With the COVID-19 coronavirus causing shutdowns across society, including sports, the parallels between measures taken back in 1918 and now in 2020 are worth exploring.

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So what happened back in 1918 and how did it impact USC football?

The truth is, the Trojans 1918 season was already being unsettled by another force: World War I.

USC was supposed to begin practices in the final week of September, but plans were delayed because of military obligations. The establishment of the Student Army Training Corps, or S.A.T.C., meant many of USC’s players were simultaneously undergoing military training. That had to take precedence over football practice or games.

Moreover, wartime travel restrictions were in place, causing the cancelation of several games, including visits from Oregon and Utah.

Just as USC was able to start practicing and games were supposed to begin in the second week of October, the influenza outbreak became serious enough to put a stop to just about everything in the city of Los Angeles.

On October 11, the day before USC’s scheduled opener, the Los Angeles Times reported the news that the city health commissioner had forbidden public gatherings, including football games and all other sporting events.

Social distancing back then wasn’t strictly applied though. While high school football activities were closed down, universities and military institutions were not included in the full shutdown. USC ended up playing two unscored scrimmages against the Naval Reserves and continued to hold practices.

The Trojans weren’t spared from the effects of the pandemic. The LA Times described the team as “rather badly shot to pieces” with numerous players missing a week or more of practice while out sick. At least one player lost 10 pounds during his absence.

At least they didn’t have it as bad as their rival Occidental. That team had their head coach, team captain and 87 of the 90 men who had originally tried out for the team take ill, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The quarantine was eventually lifted as cases of the flu lessened. In fact, the Los Angeles Times ran a headline on November 12, the day after armistice was declared, that said: “Germs Quit Along with Germans.”

USC’s first game of the season, now against Stanford, was scheduled for November 23, but even that was almost prevented.

The Trojans played games against out-of-town teams at Tournament Park in Pasadena. The city had lifted their quarantine, but a new rash of flu cases caused them to reinstitute the ban on public gatherings at 4:00 p.m. of the 23rd. The USC-Stanford game, however, was slated to begin at 3:00 p.m., so it went ahead (though not without protest from some in the city who feared the gathering would encourage the spread of the virus).

USC won that game 25-8, but the rest of the season didn’t go quite as well.

Though they were adept at the forward pass and seemed to be able to move the ball at will, USC’s players struggled to finish the job of getting into the endzone.

The Trojans tied twice to Whittier Reform and Pomona before being smacked around by Cal, 33-7. A narrow loss to Occidental, 7-6, sent them into the final game of the season as underdogs with a disappointing 1-2-2 record.

Dean Cromwell’s men managed to end the campaign with a bang though. Redlands needed a win to claim the southland’s championship, but USC’s desire to salvage their season won out.

The two faced off on Christmas Day. Even as USC continued to frustrate by not taking advantage of all their opportunities, their passing prowess was too much for Redlands to deal with. The Trojans won 10-0.

The 1918 season was the final one for Cromwell, who had been a central figure in USC athletics for the previous decade as a football and track coach. He resigned from his post, leaving the door open for the Trojans to hire Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson and a new era of USC football to begin.

Today, USC basketball fans may be disappointed to see the NCAA Tournament canceled, but USC football fans may feel fortunate for a March shutdown instead of one in October. Hopefully, it is the only one needed.

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