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Bears, Illinois share long storied history

Lovie Smith isn't the first person to be associated with both the Bears and the University of Illinois. The two institutions have a shared history that predates the birth of the NFL.

It started with George Halas, who founded the Bears in 1920 after graduating from Illinois in 1918. Papa Bear played football, baseball and basketball for the Fighting Illini and brought the school's navy and orange colors with him to the Bears.


Statue of Red Grange outside Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois.

In 1925, the Bears scored a major coup by signing Illinois superstar Red Grange, college football's top player. Grange played his final game for Illinois Nov. 21, signed with the Bears Nov. 22 and made his NFL debut Nov. 26—in a 0-0 tie against the Chicago Cardinals before a crowd of 36,000 on Thanksgiving Day at Wrigley Field.

Grange then headlined a barnstorming tour throughout December and January during which the Bears played an astounding 19 games, traveling from coast-to-coast. Grange's presence on the tour helped pro football explode in popularity.

Grange and Dick Butkus are the only two Illinois football players to have their numbers retired. Before Butkus joined the Bears as a first-round draft pick in 1965, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker was a two-time consensus All-American at Illinois, where he played center and fullback in addition to linebacker.

Butkus finished third in Heisman Trophy voting as a senior in 1964 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983.

Halas, Grange and Butkus are among more than 50 players who have suited up for both Illinois and the Bears. Others include J.C. Caroline, Jim Grabowski, Kelvin Hayden, Tom Hicks, Dana Howard, Ed O'Bradovich, Revie Sorey, Ed Sternaman, Joe Sternaman, Calvin Thomas and Laurie Walquist.

Other connections between the two institutions include the following:

• The Bears played all of their home games at Illinois' Memorial Stadium in 2002 when Soldier Field was being renovated.

• The Bears spent the first of two weeks in advance of Super Bowl XX in January 1986 practicing in the university's indoor facility before heading to New Orleans, where they crushed the New England Patriots 46-10.

• In between stints as Bears offensive coordinator from 1993-96 and 2005-09, Ron Turner served as Illinois' head coach from 1997-2004.

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