To commemorate the upcoming Dec. 3 bicentennial of Illinois becoming a state, Prairie State Pigskin begins a series today featuring some milestones in the Land of Lincoln's football lore. Today, we highlight Southern Illinois' 1983 national championship with an excerpt from SIU Salukis Football (published by SIU Press).
Michael Jackson wasn’t the only one producing a thriller in 1983.
The Southern Illinois Salukis gave their fans the ultimate thrill with a Division I-AA national championship.
Almost to a man, SIU players point to their second game of the regular season as the springboard. In that Sept. 10 game, the Salukis slipped past Eastern Illinois 17-14 at McAndrew Stadium.
In that tide-turning contest, future NFL defensive back Terry Taylor blocked a short field goal attempt that would have tied the game in the waning seconds.
“That game really got us over the hump and gave us confidence,” said quarterback Rick Johnson, a Wheaton native.
Taylor agreed and noted “that game got us rolling.”
More than a quarter century later, the 12-year NFL veteran still remembered the play.
“I saw the (Eastern) center squeezing the ball and I took off,” Taylor said in 2010. “In fact, I almost ran past the ball. I came in from the right side and had to pull my hands back to get the kick.”
Near perfect regular season
SIU ran through the regular season with 10 straight victories. The Salukis lost the final game of the regular season at Wichita State 28-6.
“Wichita State should not have even been on the same field with us,” Taylor said. “They didn’t even throw the ball. They ran the option all game. That loss bugged me for a long time.”
Yet, some good did come from the defeat.
“It got us focused (going into the playoffs),” Taylor said.
To Johnson, the Saluki success started with the defense.
“Our defense was like the ’85 Bears in its dominance,” said Johnson. “We had Terry Taylor and Donnell Daniel. They were two shutdown cornerbacks. That meant we could bring everyone else on the rush. You can do so much on defense with two shutdown corners.”
Taylor pointed out that things began up front.
“Our defensive line was so good,” said Taylor. “They made it easy for us. There were games when they were sacking the quarterback seven, eight times. I would get selfish and say, ‘Let them get a pass off so I can intercept one!’”
Daniel said the defense was more than playoff ready.
“Not to be arrogant, but as the playoffs started the defensive mindset was that if they don’t score, we win and that was our mission, to lay a bagel (shutout) on each opponent,” he said.
While Johnson is quick to credit the defense, SIU head coach Rey Dempsey cited his quarterback as a difference maker.
“His teammates knew he worked hard and would do anything to win,” Dempsey told Luis Medina of The Daily Egyptian in a 2009 article. “He was a real general out there. He exuded confidence and they admired him and knew they had something good.”
Johnson was a fifth-year senior due to a redshirt season as a freshman.
Offensive lineman Tom Baugh saw firsthand Johnson’s abilities.
“Ricky had the respect of his teammates,” said Baugh, who later played in the National Football League.
The late-season loss to Wichita State didn’t affect the Salukis once the playoffs began. SIU breezed past Indiana State 23-7 in the quarterfinal round.
“It was a downpour, but we dismissed them,” Daniel said. “Their seven (points) came after an interception and return inside our five-yard line.”
A week later, the Salukis knocked off Nevada-Reno by the same score.
“Reno had the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack,” said Daniel. “The defense crushed the Wolfpack and stifled their so-called running game.”
The semifinal victory earned SIU a berth in the I-AA championship game against Western Carolina. The Dec. 17 showdown in Charleston, South Carolina saw the Salukis romp 43-7.
“It was kind of anti-climatic,” Johnson said.
SIU lead 10-0 at the half before blowing the game wide open with a 23-point third quarter.
The Saluki defense dominated the game, intercepting seven passes by Western Carolina quarterback Jeff Gilbert. Greg Shipp led the way with a record-setting four INTs.
With the game safely in hand in the fourth quarter, play was stopped for an injury. One of the Western Carolina players stood alongside Johnson and mumbled some trash talk.
“That’s when it really hit me,” Johnson said. “I told him where he could go. We were the (national) champions!”
Johnson finished the day with 213 passing yards and two touchdown throws.
‘Whooaaaa Nelly!’ & a $5 bill
The game was carried on national television.
“Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles did the game,” said Johnson.
Daniel recalled, “I remember Terry Taylor and I getting excessive press coverage all week long, doing multiple interviews with Keith Jackson and his signature, ‘Whooaaaa Nelly!’ In our final interview Keith Jackson pulled a $5 bill out of his pocket, autographed it and gave it to me. I still have the old $5 bill, and I manage a smile every time I look upon it.”
Saluki spirit from Carbondale to Colorado
Roger Lipe, the Salukis’ team chaplain since 1994, was working in a retail store during the game.
“I was carrying a little radio around with me that afternoon,” he said.
Meanwhile, the broadcast wasn’t just for viewers or listeners in Carbondale.
“I was already living in Colorado,” said Chris Lockwood, an offensive lineman whose Saluki career ended in 1981. “I had on my SIU jersey as I watched the championship game on my black-and-white TV in my Fort Collins apartment. And, it was really fun to watch so many guys I knew performing on national TV.
“And, of course, a lot of pride comes with knowing so many of the players on that team, pride for being associated with SIU, and a lot of pride knowing that my fellow teammates probably had a positive impact on a lot of guys on the (championship) team that maybe, just maybe, helped them win all of those games. And, of course, I was very happy for Coach Dempsey.”
Salute to Dempsey
Mike Reis, the Salukis’ longtime broadcaster, was a student when Dempsey arrived at SIU in 1976.
“Dempsey’s first team was 7-4. (The Salukis were) 3-18-1 (in) the previous two seasons. Same players in ’76 as ’75. Likely the best one season coaching job done by any Saluki football coach,” Reis said.
Baugh also carried an appreciation for Dempsey.
“Obviously Rey Dempsey had everyone’s respect,” Baugh said. “My most memorable moment with him was when I awoke from unconsciousness after a motorcycle wreck my junior year.
“He was standing over me with Carl Angelo praying in tongues. He’s a follower of Jesus and a good man. When I first arrived at SIU I heard all kinds of stuff about him parting the skies for practice and mysterious activities during meetings. All I can tell you is the man loves Jesus with a passion.”
Shortly after leading SIU to the I-AA title, Dempsey left the school to accept the head coaching job at Memphis State. On-field success would not follow him. Dempsey went 7-12-3 in his two seasons at the Tiger helm. He then became a full-time minister in Ohio.
“The thrill of winning was short-lived,” Lipe said. “When Dempsey left for Memphis State, it took all of the air out of the balloon.”
“Some people didn’t take it lightly because they felt I shouldn’t go, but most of the players accepted it,” Dempsey told Medina. “I’ve always held SIU deep in my heart.”
It’s a feeling most SIU players and fans would reciprocate. So what if he couldn’t moon walk, Rey Dempsey proved to be a thriller in his own right.