It was hot in September 1983, but sweating Illini fans weren’t easily dislodged from their seats.
Even after an opening loss at Missouri (28-18), Illinoisans turned out 72,852 strong to see John Ayres score on a blocked punt in a 17-7 defeat of Stanford.
And there were few who didn’t stick around for fourth-quarter heroics against Ohio State and Michigan. Thomas Rooks ran 21 yards to stun the Buckeyes, and David Williams took a pass 48 yards as Michigan fell 16-6.
This is the 30th anniversary of a Mike White team that defeated every Big Ten member in an uplifting run to the Rose Bowl. With Cincinnati invading here Saturday, attendance is barely more than half the number that saw the Michigan game (76,127). And to scan Memorial Stadium in the fourth quarter these days is like comparing a bustling Detroit in 1983 with the bankrupt city today.
White, who returned here with his team in 2008 for the 25-year reunion, looked back on 30 years from his California home this week.
“That was our signature accomplishment when you look back at it,” White said of the ’83 campaign. “I thought we had it on the way again in 1987 when I was going out the door.”
White was obliged to step down as a result of recruiting violations. John Mackovic inherited a crack backfield of Jeff George, Keith Jones and Howard Griffith, and a squad that went on to match 1983’s 10-2 record in 1989.
White had one advantage that no other Big Ten coach has ever fully capitalized on, a plan that drove Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Big Ten fathers crazy.
White packed his UI squads with junior college transfers.
The 1983 offensive unit featured names like Williams, Brewster, Boso, Beverly, Aina and Cruz. The defense was loaded: Ayres, Haynes, Weingrad, Sebring, Carter, Thompson and Johnson. Twelve of the top 15 UI tacklers that season were out-of-staters.
“I made a conscious effort to do something that I didn’t do well as (head) coach at Cal,” White said. “I tried to blend the old with the new. We had some great guys from Illinois like Don Thorp (Big Ten MVP) and Mark Butkus and, while it took a few years, everybody bought in, and we were able to build some momentum.
“We had our critics. But after the first or second year, we realized we weren’t going to dominate Chicago for recruits, and we learned the midsize cities downstate don’t turn out players like the midsize cities in California. We cherry-picked a few — mostly offensive linemen — but to build a defense we realized we had to go back to our roots in California.
“With junior college transfers, we knew what we were getting. We had done the same thing at Stanford (early ’70s, White was assistant under John Ralston) when we won consecutive Rose Bowls there. It may be a foreign concept for Midwesterners, and teams like Ohio State and Michigan never had to do that. But it was the best route for us ... a good investment.”
Failing to finish
While some problems arose, it was an overlooked fact that the majority of California transfers here were academic qualifiers out of high school.
“At the same time, we branched out and (assistant coach) Kevin Cosgrove got us into Indianapolis (Moe Gardner, Darrick Brownlow). The five-star blue-chippers weren’t lining up to come with us, so we looked elsewhere,” White said.
White was carefully scrutinized and was slapped for fudging on NCAA rules. Word of a pending investigation seeped out just prior to the 45-9 loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
As a result, a postseason ban hit the 7-4 team in 1984. That club lost stirring games at Ohio State (45-38; Keith Byars’ TD run broke the tie at :36) and Michigan (26-18). And the 1985 club, with more than two dozen juco transfers and seniors like Trudeau, Guy Teafatiller, David Williams, Jim Juriga and Craig Swoope, lost a home opener to USC, 20-10, and never quite found the magic in a 6-5-1 season. It was best remembered for Chris White’s deflected field goal attempt bouncing off the crossbar at the end of a 3-3 tie against No. 4 Michigan.
“During that period, we were trying to get competitive kids who could run,” White said, “but there is no perfect formula. The sanctions in 1984 were hanging over our heads, and later on we had quarterback problems.
“My biggest disappointment was that I didn’t have a chance with Jeff George after he transferred from Purdue. He was a complex guy to coach, and he wanted our system. I felt he would flourish, and he did under John Mackovic. Later on, I even tried to get him when I was coaching at Oakland.”
Secret to success
White sees his alma mater, Cal, having some of the same problems as Illinois, while Stanford defies explanation with a stunning rise.
“Stanford doesn’t have juco kids now,” White said, “and they made some unbelievable decisions under Jim Harbaugh. Everybody thought they needed to pass to make up for physical shortcomings, but they went totally away from the aerial circus and became really creative with a jaw-to-jaw approach.”
When Harbaugh left for the 49ers (he is 24-7-1 there), David Shaw kept it going the last two years. Stanford was the only team to defeat Oregon last season, and the Cardinal did it with defense, 17-14 in overtime. Stanford beat Wisconsin 20-14 in the Rose Bowl.
“Stanford and Northwestern are similar in that they’re building on character and defensive tenacity. They’re getting athletes, and they’re starting to push through,” White said.
Two good examples of programs that must be taken seriously where once they weren’t. Get these numbers: Stanford was 25-55 in seven losing seasons through 2007. In the last three years, the record is 35-5. Northwestern’s Wildcats, incidentally, have won 15 of their last 20.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Each week during the season, we’ll look back at how the ‘83 Illini were doing in what turned out to be a magical run to the Rose Bowl.
Today: An ominous start
Game 1: Missouri 28, Illinois 18
Tatelines (Sept. 11, 1983):
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Mike White suffered a setback Saturday in his crusade to turn the Fighting Illini into a physical club that will be less reliant on the forward pass.
Missouri’s slashing, battling Tigers stunned Illinois on a sweltering afternoon, pounding out a 21-0 lead and hanging on against the UI’s desperation passes, 28-18.
The season-opening decision, played amidst controversy swirling from last year’s recruiting confrontations in St. Louis, gave Mizzou four straight against Illinois and a 9-4 series advantage.
A disappointing crowd of 53,744 — perhaps as many as 8,000 of them wearing Illini orange — turned out at Faurot Field in 94-degree heat to see if White had really developed a ground attack. What they witnessed on the pock-marked grass field was an Illini club that lost the war of the trenches — both ways — and once again had to resort to passes in an attempt to catch up.
Marlon Adler, a former walk-on who fought his way into the Tiger QB slot, devastated the Illini with option runs and 10-for-14 passing good for two touchdowns. Offering proof of Mizzou’s superior muscle, Tiger fullback Eric Drain bucked the line for 76 yards in 16 tries, while the crisp-tackling Gold and Black defense rejected Illini blockers, permitting a net of only 35 UI ground yards.
“The tone of the game was set early,” said White. “We had no defensive intensity, and we never got in sync offensively. We need to be a more physical football team. I don’t know whether it was one or two guys reading their press clippings, or the entire team. All I know is that Missouri dominated us up front and I want to find out why.”
Warren Powers, reportedly under the gun because of dwindling fan support and last year’s 5-4-2 record, was as pleased as the Illini were bitter.
“This game was a great tribute to the effort of our players,” he said. “They’ve worked hard so it’s great for them to see some positive results. We didn’t know how our defense would respond against the great Illinois offense, and I was pleased with the outcome.
“I thought Marlon played a brilliant game — he didn’t get rattled out there — and he was able to make the big play for us. Obviously it was a great plus to come out so strong and know we could control the game that way.”
30 years ago this week ...
— USSR admits to shooting down Korean Airlines flight 007, killing all 269 aboard
— Greg LeMond becomes first American to win cycling’s Road Championship
— Jerry Lewis’ Labor Day Telethon raises $30,691,627
— “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” closes on Broadway after 749 performances
— Eight-pack 16-ounce bottles of Pepsi on sale at Eisners for $1.29.
— “Vacation” and “Mr. Mom” (left) draw crowds at the Market Place Cinema.
— Kenny Rogers (right) to play at the Assembly Hall
The Associated Press was years away from ranking 25 teams. Here’s how the Top 20 looked like on Sept. 12, 1985:
Team (First-place votes)
1. Nebraska (51)
2. Oklahoma (2)
3. Texas (2)
4. Notre Dame
5. Auburn (1)
6. Ohio State
9. Florida State
10. North Carolina
18. Southern Methodist
20. West Virginia
And we mean 10. No Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland or Rutgers to worry about. Here are the league’s standings after the Sept. 10 games:
Michigan State 1-0
Ohio State 1-0