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 Eastern Illinois' 1978 national championship with an excerpt from EIU Panthers Football (published by NIU Press).
As the waning seconds of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s landmark victory over the Soviet Union ticked away, broadcaster Al Michaels asked viewers if they believed in miracles. For Eastern football fans, that response had to be yes. For two years earlier, those fans had witnessed a miracle firsthand.
“It was the biggest turnaround in the history of the NCAA, that’s what I’ve been told,” said Mike Mullally, Eastern’s athletic director at the time. “It was highly improbable, but not impossible as it things turned out.”
The basis for that miracle goes all the way back to 1951. In the 26 years before the 1978 season, Eastern had just two winning seasons. Moreover, the Panthers were coming off a 1-10 record. Rumors that Eastern would drop football were making the rounds.
“It was a foregone conclusion in most people’s minds,” said Mullally. “In fact, there were only two people who believed otherwise, the university president (Dr. Daniel Marvin) and me. I had to convince him, but his vote was the only one that counted.”
Mullally then made the decision that may very well have saved the Panther program: He hired former Arizona and Florida State coach Darrell Mudra.
“When I was at South Dakota he was at North Dakota State,” Mullally said. “He was still highly regarded in Illinois. He had credibility.”
Mudra, nicknamed Dr. Victory for his ability to resurrect football programs on life support, went to work immediately. He brought in a former defensive star from his days at Western Illinois as his defensive coordinator. That man was 27-year-old John Teerlinck.
At Mullally’s urging, Mudra also hired a former Eastern quarterback who had seen his playing days end with a ruptured kidney that nearly left him dead on the operating table. With his playing career over, this Illinois native had turned to coaching and became Mudra’s offensive coordinator at the tender age of 25. His name? Mike Shanahan.
“I came close to hiring Mike Shanahan (as head coach),” Mullally said. “But, Mike was only 25 or 26 at the time. Truth be told, if Mike had been a year older, I would have hired him. But, I didn’t want people to think I was giving up on the program.
“Part of the deal I made with Mudra was that Mike Shanahan had to be the offensive coordinator.”
From day one, Mudra preached success to his team. In fact, Eastern received one vote for No. 1 in the NCAA Division-II poll. That vote was cast by Mudra.
“I wouldn’t have hired the guy if he didn’t believe and say things like that,” Mullally pointed out.
In the eyes of the coaching staff, there was no miracle. There was no magic. It was an age-old formula: hard work.
“It was just good old fashioned plain hard work,” said Teerlinck, recently retired from a long career as an NFL defensive line coach.
Mullally also points to the players.
“People give me credit, they give Mudra credit, they give Shanahan and Teerlinck and the other coaches credit, but the players deserve credit,” he said. “The chemistry on that team was unbelievable. Those intangibles might just be as important as talent when it comes to winning.”
Upgrading to success
Mullally also provided the program with as many upgrades as he could.
“I worked out a deal with Eastern Airlines so that we could fly to places like Northern Michigan,” he said. “The plane of course had Eastern painted across the side. It was in our school colors. The players thought it was our plane. They were proud of it. It also helped us a little bit psychologically against our opponents. We’d show up in this plane and they’d think, ‘Hey now, that must be a big-time program.”
The football upgrades didn’t come cheaply. Mullally eliminated the gymnastics, golf and tennis programs.
“If we didn’t do that we’d just be wallowing around,” he said. “I was protecting the quality of the programs. The days of NAIA were gone; we were Division-II. People forget who difficult those decisions were.”
Playoff run and revenge victory
Those decisions paid dividends on the football field. The long-downtrodden Panthers finished the regular season with a 9-2 record, qualifying for the Division-II playoffs. They opened the playoffs with a victory over Cal-Davis. The win then brought a rematch with Youngstown State, a team that had defeated Eastern 40-24 early in the regular season.
This time around, however, the Panthers hosted the Penguins. The day turned out to be cold and rainy. While the weather played a factor in the game’s outcome, Eastern also came to play.
“We had them on our home field,” Mudra said. “We were ready for them the second time around.”
Eastern surprised Youngstown State 26-22. With the clock ticking off the final few seconds, Panther fans rushed out of the stands to tear down the goal posts.
“One of the state troopers turned to me and said, ‘What are you gonna do?’” said Mullally. “I turned and said back to him, ‘I don’t know, what are you gonna do?’ The fans deserved it after all those years of losing. I wanted them to enjoy the moment and relish the victory.”
Tracking Blue Hens in Texas
The triumph was more than a moment of vengeance for the earlier loss; the victory sent the Panthers to Longview, Tex. for the national championship game.
Eastern’s opponent would be the mighty Delaware Blue Hens, a team that had long dominated Division-II football. In fact, Delaware had won four national championships at that point of its history. The Blue Hens would win the title in 1979.
Delaware rolled into the title game averaging 33.6 points a game. The Blue Hens had won their semi-final game with a 41-0 shutout. They were led by quarterback Jeff Komlo, who would go onto a nine-year NFL career.
Delaware was coached by Harold “Tubby” Raymond, a former Michigan quarterback and linebacker who would earn induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Under Raymond, the Blue Hens won three national championships and 14 Lambert Cups, the annual award given to signify small-school supremacy for East Coast football.
“The Delaware coaches were Michigan men,” Teerlinck said. “Their uniforms were Michigan, complete with the winged helmet.
“We (Eastern) had uniforms like the Dallas Cowboys. We told our players, they’re college, we’re pros.”
The coaching staffs also had differing views on more than just the way their teams looked on the field.
“(Delaware) had curfews, all their guys wore shirts and ties,” recalled Teerlinck. “We had no curfews. We treated our guys like men.”
Eastern also felt that the pre-championship focus and hype all settled on Delaware.
“They (NCAA Division-II organizers) couldn’t have mistreated us more than they did,” Mullally said. “But, they also couldn’t have done us a bigger favor. The coaching staff and I pointed this out every chance we had to the team.”
One of those points came when Eastern discovered that Delaware had already printed t-shirts proclaiming the Blue Hens national champions.
“We found a couple of the shirts,” Mullally said. “Our players really got cranked up when they saw those.”
Middle linebacker Alonzo Lee, now the head coach at North Carolina A&T, said, “The people who put it on were expecting (Delaware) to win (easily).”
“(Delaware) got put up in a plush hotel where they could eat on site,” Lee remembered. “Our hotel was under construction. We had to eat at a Denny’s away for the hotel. We were second-class citizens.”
Eastern also had to contend with Delaware’s vaunted Wing T offense.
“It was an offense that really threw a lot of motion and deception at you,” said Mudra.
The offense traced its roots back to the 1950s. Raymond’s success was so pronounced that the Wing T became known as the Delaware Wing T. In fact, the offense was so prolific that it was featured in Tim Layden’s evolutionary Blood, Sweat and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook: How The Great Coaches Built Today’s Game.
Yet, Eastern wasn’t about to be undone by what Layden called “a truly modern offense, spreading the field, adding straight drop-back passing, and eventually, an option game.”
A little help from friends
After conferring with former Western Illinois assistant coach Don “Deek” Pollard, Teerlinck devised a plan that revolved around Eastern’s defense staying at home and ignoring that motion and deception.
“John and I always had a lot of respect for each other,” said Pollard, then an NFL assistant coach. “I always respected John’s ability to teach technique. He respected my knowledge of football.”
The plan that was hatched relied heavily on Eastern not being fooled by Delaware’s motion.
“We had to stay at home,” said Lee.
The Panthers would also put pressure on Komlo to make quick decisions. In short, Eastern wanted to get into the Delaware backfield and force the issue.
Teerlinck created huge flashcards to signal in defensive alignments.
“As middle linebacker, I was in charge of that,” Lee said.
Teerlinck added, “Alonzo Lee called every defense at the line of scrimmage. He did one helluva job.”
Eastern took the opening kickoff and drove to the Delaware 10-yard line. After the drive stalled, Eastern took an early 3-0 lead with Dan DiMartino kicked a 28-yard field goal.
Delaware came back to tie things up when Brandt Kennedy kicked a 19-yard field goal. The Blue Hens then grabbed the lead when Komlo completed an eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mike Mills.
However, Kennedy missed the extra point. Thus, Delaware had to settle for a 9-3 halftime lead.
While the offenses had both been riding high coming into the title game, the story quickly became the defenses.
In its summary of the game, The NCAA News lauded Eastern’s effort in particular.
“The defensive unit, with its continual blitzing, held the potent Delaware offense, ranked No. 2 nationally, to 354 yards—114 yards below its season’s average,” read The NCAA News account.
“We got after their ass,” Teerlinck said. “We didn’t bite on their motion.”
Over 30 years after the game, Teerlinck recalled the play of Lee, defensive end Pete Catan and Steve Parker.
“Steve Parker came from Triton (Junior College),” the defensive coach said “We called him Kong because had had such long arms and played like hell.”
Teerlinck added that Parker later played with the Colts before dying in a car accident.
It was the defense that turned the tide for Eastern. Panther safety Kevin Jones recovered a Delaware fumble on the Blue Hens’ 19-yard line early in the third quarter.
Working with a short field, Eastern’s offense drove to the Delaware one. From there, Chris “Poke” Cobb scored at the 13:08 mark. Cobb, the sixth leading rusher in Division II that season, would wind up as the Panthers’ career rushing leader with 5,042 yards. Tragically, he, like Parker, would perish in an auto accident.
DiMartino then added the all-important extra point, and Eastern grabbed the 10-9 lead.
From that point, the game settled into a defensive stalemate.
Delaware managed to get into position to win in the game’s final seconds. Kennedy, who had kicked a then team-record 12 field goals during the season, lined up for a potential 45-yarder.
However, his attempt sailed wide right. Thus, Eastern celebrated its national championship.
“We shocked the world,” said Lee, three decades later.
The Panthers would return to a suddenly football-crazed Cole County.
“The biggest thrill I’ve ever had was winning the national championship and seeing the reaction of the town of Charleston,” said receiver Scott McGhee.
“I’ve played in the Grey Cup twice, made the USFL playoffs and played on national TV dozens of times, but I don’t think I could ever have another experience like that,” said McGhee.
Quarterback Steve Turk added, “It really helped put Eastern on the map. All it takes is one thing like that to turn things around. I wouldn’t have wanted to have gone anywhere else other than Eastern.”
Though Teerlinck has gone onto a lengthy career as an NFL coach, the memories have not diminished.
“I put it right up there with our Super Bowl win here with Indianapolis,” Teerlinck who also won consecutive Super Bowls alongside Shanahan in Denver.
“Today, Eastern is the cradle of NFL coaches,” said Mudra. “The attitudes of faculty and community were changed forever (by our winning the national championship).”
In the aftermath, the university made a highlight film to mark Eastern’s moment in history. Chicago Cubs’ radio announcer Vince Lloyd was the film’s narrator.
“I don’t remember what we paid him, but he gave us a pretty good rate,” recalled longtime Eastern sports information director Dave Kidwell.
“(Lloyd) said it was such a bright spot for the entire state at the time. All of the Chicago teams were really suffering during that era.”
But the era proved otherwise for Eastern. And the Panthers and their fans did indeed believe in miracles.