October 26, 2012

Homecoming in Hyde Park, from bonfire to block party

You probably had some kind of Homecoming at your high school. Whether it was a whole week filled with pep rallies, trash talk, a football game, and a dance, or just one night when everyone pretended to care about your high school’s mediocre athletic program, chances are you experienced something called “Homecoming” before you came to the University of Chicago. The word certainly carries high school connotations, but we also know that big time college sports schools (read: DI) celebrate Homecoming with a football game, typically against a conference rival.

If you expected even a bit of the Homecoming pageantry when you came to Chicago, raise your hand. Anybody? Well, if you were surprised to see that this Saturday is Homecoming, if you thought that a DIII school might not have such a celebration, you’re just a few years too late.

While we do now honor our Maroons with a Homecoming every year, the event is a relatively new development. Just ask football’s head coach Dick Maloney.

Maloney began coaching at Chicago in 1994. At that time, there was no official Homecoming.

“We had a tradition here of having a Friday night bonfire before one of the games,” Maloney said. “We would have the bonfire between Bartlett and 56th Street, which was a vacant lot that Max East now sits on.”

While Homecoming is now centered on football, the older version, bonfire included, had a lot more to do with basketball.

“We also incorporated [the bonfire] at times with the first basketball practice. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, it was really popular to have the first basketball practice at midnight. We used to call it Midnight Madness,” Maloney said. “We would have a pep rally at Henry Crown—because Ratner didn’t exist yet—at about 11 p.m., and then at 12 a.m., the basketball team would come out and have a shoot around.”

Given that attendance at home games for the Maroons fluctuates these days, you might be surprised to hear that crowds at that basketball pep rally were “great,” to use Maloney’s word.

A bonfire, pep rally, and basketball practice at midnight were the closest events that the U of C had to Homecoming, until one day when Maloney had a conversation with then–athletic director Tom Weingartner.

“In the late nineties, I said to the athletic director at the time, ‘you know, we should have a Homecoming.’…I said I would call some people together and we’ll have a cookout,” Maloney said.

Maloney invited all the parents of his players and a bunch of alumni, and the first U of C Homecoming happened—“It was just a cookout before the game,” Maloney said. He estimates that first year was 1998.

Now, there are tents everywhere, crowds of students and parents, and many more associated events. For example, the Hall of Fame dinner is the Friday night before the big Saturday. Alumni from all sports come back and current players who are representatives or captains attend as well. When home, the soccer team typically has an alumni and parents brunch.

“All the sports tend to do something if they’re home,” Maloney said.

So how did we get from a small cookout to a big event that will this year include a block party, with help from ORCSA, COUP, and numerous other committees and groups on campus?

Maloney attributes some of the increased popularity to campus growth.

“I think with the development of Ratner, this part of campus became developed,” he said. “Ratner originally was a huge parking lot. So you left campus, you left Henry Crown and the Bartlett area—which was our headquarters until 2005—and it was a long way to get to Stagg Field, etc. When Ratner started coming into existence, they wanted to do some fundraising things of that nature and we put together a much more definitive Homecoming plan. And now, of course, there’s a whole committee.”

Another significant factor in the event’s growth is its timing.

“The university [has tried to] match Homecoming and Parents’ Weekend, which really works well, when we can do it…. We’ve actually had soccer here for Homecoming as well as football, and it’s just a great event, there’s something going on all the time. There may be a volleyball contest. Sometimes it’s the first swim meet of the year. So it’s a whole weekend of activities. It’s just grown leaps and bounds…. It’s fun to have so much excitement.”

Head basketball coach Mike McGrath serves as the athletic representative on the committee that plans Homecoming. He’s been on the committee for eight years, over the course of which changes in the event have varied.

“It hasn’t been steady growth, it kind of peaks and plateaus,” McGrath said.

Whether it’s a year of significant change, or just another U of C Homecoming, more participants and bigger crowds just add to an exciting atmosphere.

“It’s a lot more fun when more students show up, we all appreciate the support they give during Homecoming,” fourth-year Dee Brizzolara said. Brizzolara is heading into his final Homecoming and has seen the evolution of the event over the last four years.

If the student body needs any more of a push to get excited about Homecoming this year, they should know that the game matters a lot more this year than it has in the past. Homecoming is typically a weekend or two earlier, but because the quarter started so late this year, it falls on the first UAA game of the season. This game against Case Western carries much more weight than last year’s contest against Denison did.

With their conference record on the line, a bigger crowd than normal and more excitement surrounding the game should play into the Maroons’ favor. At least, that’s what Maloney is hoping.

“Maybe our twelfth man—and woman—can push us over this year.”