The 50th anniversary of Illinois’ 1963 Big Ten football and Rose Bowl champions won’t be the same this spring.
The leader is gone. Coach Pete Elliott, whose drive and charismatic personality topped even the greatness of Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski, is gone at age 86.
Few Illini coaches have touched the heart of Champaign-Urbana and the midstate area like Elliott. He made everyone he met feel like they had been longtime friends. He was genuine, but his time here was too short.
Looking back, Elliott had an extraordinary career. At Michigan, he won 11 varsity letters and quarterbacked the 1948 team to an undefeated national football title. He rocketed through the coaching ranks, taking head jobs at Nebraska and Cal before moving to Illinois in 1960.
Elliott’s toboggan ride here lasted just seven seasons, touched bottom with an early 15-game losing streak, caught fire to win the UI’s last Rose Bowl victory on Jan. 1, 1964, and fell apart after the 1966 season with the “slush fund” revelations. From despair to euphoria and back again.
It blew up when assistant athletic director Mel Brewer, who kept the books showing payments in excess of NCAA rules, turned them over to UI President David Dodds Henry, thus preventing a “Michigan man,” Elliott, from replacing Doug Mills as athletic director.
Elliott and basketball coaches Harry Combes and Howie Braun were forced out (not to mention several star athletes), and the UI’s two major sports struggled for years to come. Sometimes we wonder whether it has ever fully recovered.
What a ride
Football in the 1960s cannot be compared to today. Spread formations with multiple receivers were uncommon.
Elliott’s 8-1-1 team in 1963 averaged just 17 points per game, beating Northwestern 10-9, UCLA 18-12 and Michigan State in the “title game” delayed by John Kennedy’s assassination, 13-0. Illinois advanced without beating the two dominant powers, tying Ohio State 20-20 and losing 14-8 to Michigan.
As a defender who sometimes entered at center on short-yardage situations, Butkus was the nation’s premier player even though he finished sixth in Heisman voting that year, and third in 1964. His fierce linebacking style represented the era.
For uplifted Illini fans, Elliott prevailed over an exciting period. The team reached No. 2 in the nation before losing to Michigan in 1963, and again peaked at No. 2 in 1964 before losing to Ohio State. Ironically, Pete did not defeat his brother Bump Elliott at Michigan until 1966.
The setback that followed in December of 1966 was devastating not only for the teams but also to a community that held Elliott and Combes in such reverence.
My first awareness of the pending disaster was walking toward Assembly Hall offices — anticipating that Elliott would be confirmed as athletic director that night (and Bill Taylor as head football coach) — and seeing a grown man crying. Something very bad was happening, and the repercussions lasted for many years.
Down the road
It was left for an Elliott disciple to revive UI football after 15 years in which only one 6-4-1 team reached .500.
Mike White captained Elliott’s California team in 1957, the year before the Golden Bears won the Pacific Coast title and lost to Iowa in the Rose Bowl.
“There is no way I’d have gone into coaching if it hadn’t been for Pete Elliott,” White said. “I was headed for law school. But he motivated me, and I joined his staff after college.”
White said Elliott’s relationship with his staff was such that they “would follow Pete around the world,” but White decided not to accept Elliott’s first offer at Illinois and remained in the Bay Area for the next two decades. White was national Coach of the Year at Cal in 1975, the same honor he earned at Illinois in 1983.
White ran a “West Coast offense” that featured an aerial game by non-running quarterbacks. Would that be successful today?
“You can turn a program quickly with a durable, running quarterback. The hazard is keeping the quarterback healthy,” White said. “All of a sudden, we have a few running quarterbacks in the NFL. We’ll see how long it lasts.
“I wouldn’t change what we were doing. Somewhere you’re going to need a fullback and a tight end. You still have to make third and 1, and you still have to score at the goal line.”
Styles change but leadership is forever. White, like Elliott, would be successful in any era.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.