Nightmare Pasadena trip taints dream season

Photo courtesy of John Zich, Illio File Photo

Photo courtesy of John Zich, Illio File Photo

By Chris Deighan

Editor’s Note: Chris Deighan is a 1984 graduate of the University living in Warner Robins, Ga. As a senior, he served as a Daily Illini beat writer for the Big Ten champion Fighting Illini.

The 1984 Rose Bowl game was supposed to serve as an exclamation point on the historic season compiled by the Illinois football team. Instead, the events of the day yielded a huge question mark.

What happened?

In one of the ugliest and most lopsided games in the history of the Rose Bowl, UCLA thrashed the Fighting Illini 45-9.

“I don’t make excuses. And there aren’t excuses,” former Illinois head coach Mike White said. “The game is played and we were beaten soundly.”

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Most affiliated with that team think it went to California too early. Poor weather and a lack of indoor practice facilities forced White to take the club to Los Angeles in mid-December. The team enjoyed the campus unity of a snowy pep rally on the Quad on Dec. 18. Less than 24 hours later, the players were being handed leis as they got off the plane in Southern California.

“We were kids from the Midwest, leaving the cold and going out to a sunny, beautiful climate, and we forgot why we were there,” return man Donnie Passmore said. “We were rock stars. We got off the plane wearing sunglasses. We had girls following us, young ladies hanging out at the hotel. We were rock stars.”

It wasn’t just the athletes from the cold who were happy to touch down. The Illinois roster included nine players with California hometowns. Several others attended junior colleges in the state. Some had not been back for the holidays in years. All relished the opportunity to show off to their home boys.

But while acknowledging many made the most of their two-week stay, quarterback Jack Trudeau denies the team took a lax approach to the game.

“I’ve had a lot of people say, you know, ‘You guys screwed around.’ That’s not true,” Trudeau said. “That team was amazing in practice. We had some practices that you shake your head at and say, ‘My God, they’re just going to kill UCLA.'”

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way.

Trudeau was intercepted on the team’s first possession, but Luke Sewall blocked a Bruins’ field-goal attempt.

Most days, that’s a good thing. But when safety Craig Swoope tried to return the ball from inside his own 10-yard line he fumbled and UCLA recovered at the 14-yard line. Four plays later, Rick Neuheisel threw the first of four touchdown passes and the rout was on.

“When the game was over with, I thought we were at a funeral,” center Perry Carlini said. “I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It was a horrible embarrassment.”

Illinois fans were mortified. At kickoff, the team stood 10-1 and ranked No. 4 in the nation behind Nebraska, Texas and Auburn. The Illini were favored – although only by 4 1/2 points – to beat the Bruins. Had they done so, Illinois would have earned some National Championship consideration, as there was no BCS at the time. At the least, the team would forever be regarded as one of the school’s best in history.

Arguably, it still is.

From 1981-84, Big Ten teams competed in a round-robin format. The 1983 Illini defeated every other team in the then-10-team league.

“We beat everybody and that will never be duplicated,” flanker Cam Benson said. “You can’t deny we were a special team.”

During a five-Saturday October, Illinois won home games against Iowa (33-0), Ohio State (17-13) and Michigan (16-6). wEach of those opponents was ranked in the nation’s top 10 before facing the Illini. The victories against the Buckeyes and Wolverines were especially gratifying because they each ended long losing streaks that extended into the late 1960s.

Against Ohio State, Illinois trailed 13-10 with 1:47 left in the game as the Buckeyes debated a fourth-down decision from the Illini 19-yard line. Coach Earl Bruce eschewed a field-goal try and Illinois linebacker Vince Osby tackled Jim Karsatos short of the yard marker.

From his 17-yard line, Trudeau engineered a lightning-quick drive that culminated in a 21-yard Thomas Rooks touchdown run and a 17-13 Illinois victory.

“I remember that play like it was yesterday,” Rooks said. “Whenever I go back for games, fans say they remember it like it was yesterday, too. It was the drive of the decade. I knew I was going to score.”

Trudeau completed two deep sideline routes to little-used receiver Scott Golden. A rare quarterback scramble gained another 16 yards. The Rooks run came on an audible call.

“From a quarterback’s standpoint, I don’t know that there’s any more satisfying drive that I can point to in my career than that one,” Trudeau said. “From the standpoint of a drive: running the show, getting it done, making plays, but making smart decisions. And that allowed us to win the game.

“A lot of guys did their jobs and did what they were supposed to do,” he added. “And it was obviously a thrilling ending to the game.”

The ’83 team provided plenty of thrills to the campus community and Illini fans throughout the state and nation. The average Memorial Stadium attendance in 1983 was 73,871. During White’s seven-year tenure, home attendance figures averaged at least 70,000 five times.

At no other time in stadium history has the team drawn an average of as many as 65,000.At a time when charging the field after a game was unheard of, Illinois fans did it routinely. Goal posts fell four times at home. After the Illini closed their perfect conference season with a 56-24 waxing of Northwestern in Evanston, fans toppled those posts and dumped them into Lake Michigan.

The disappointment from the Rose Bowl loss lingers for most of the coaches and players. The dream season wasn’t supposed to end that way. After the game, Trudeau was quoted as saying, “We’ll be back,” but under the weight of increased expectations and a period of NCAA probation, the program couldn’t recapture the magic.

Still, as the Illini Nation suffered through a 24-year Rose Bowl drought, the indignity of a blowout loss grew less severe. Memories gravitate toward the good times.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be forgotten. We’re going down in history. We’re the only team that went 9-0,” cornerback Mike Heaven said. “Think about how much beer they drank at our football games. Think about how many quarter-beer nights on Sunday celebrating a game we won that weekend. Lines all the way down the street at Kam’s. If you went to school from ’81 to ’84 or ’82 to ’85 or whatever, you’ll be 50 years old and talking about how that was a great team.”