Saturday, June 25, 2011

Remember the Rose Bowl, part four: Illinois vs. UCLA, 1947

The 1946 Fighting Illini’s two-week round trip to Pasadena proved momentous and eventful, for the team, the Big Nine [later Ten] Conference, and the future of the Rose Bowl Game. During the long journey via New Orleans senior end Bill Heiss married his fiancé in a ceremony conducted aboard the team train — surely a singular event in Rose Bowl history. And as the new Mr. and Mrs. Heiss started their married life together, so the Big Nine and Pacific Coast Conference [later Pac-8] consummated a union that has lasted more than half a century.

Illinois coach Ray Eliot Nusspickle had played in Champagne for the legendary Robert Zuppke. The slight but tenacious 190lb lineman had hitchhiked to Illinois from his home in eastern Massachusetts in the fall of 1928. Eliot wore glasses he could barely see without. One assistant coach heavily discouraged him from pursuing football, but Eliot refused to listen and not only made the Illini freshman squad but also became the first bespectacled catcher in Big Ten baseball history.

Eliot was drawn to Illinois by the fame of the Galloping Ghost, Harold “Red” Grange, and the winning Illini tradition. Zuppke won four national championships over twenty-nine seasons from 1913-1941. After graduating Eliot spent five years as an assistant coach at Illinois College in Jacksonville before returning to Champagne in 1936 as an assistant. Succeeding Zuppke in 1941 Eliot began an eighteen-year head coaching tenure which included three Big Ten titles and two Rose Bowl victories. Subsequent work as assistant athletics director continued a career of service to the University of Illinois that covered almost Eliot's entire adult life.
Eliot coached many fine Illinois teams, but his greatest achievement was undoubtedly leading the surprising 1946 Illini to glory. After an opening win over Pitt the Illini dropped two of the next three games, to Notre Dame and Indiana, scoring only a combined thirteen points in those defeats. Despondent over the lackluster start Eliot tended his resignation, only to have athletics director and basketball coach Donald Mills refuse. Instead Mills appealed to the football players directly, informing them that their poor start had prompted their coach to resign and challenging them to improve their play. The strategy succeeded. Most of the Illini squad consisted of relatively unknown and unheralded commodities. But a few exceptional standouts answered the call and led the team in an unlikely run to Pasadena.

Claude “Buddy” Young was the University of Illinois’ first black football star. The 5’4” speedster made an immediate impact as a freshman in 1944, scoring sixty-four and thirty yard touchdowns on his first two touches vs. Illinois State. A 93-yard run two games later against the Great Lakes Naval Training School remains the longest run from scrimmage in Illini history. Young finished the season with thirteen touchdowns, breaking Red Grange’s 1924 Big Ten Conference record and landing the freshman on several all-America lists. More impressively, Young claimed NCAA track championships in the 100 and 220-yard dash, and tied world records in the 45 and 60-yard dash. After being drafted into the navy in January 1945 he starred the following fall for the Fleet City [California] Naval Base football team, almost single-handedly winning the west coast service team championship with three touchdowns, [including two kick returns of 93 and 88 yards] in front of 65,000 fans at the L.A. Coliseum. In 1946 Young returned to Champagne and led the Illini with 456 rushing yards [a little over four yards per carry] despite persistent injury problems.

Buddy Young in later life as an NFL star

Young shared the backfield with fellow halfback Art Dufelmeier, known fondly as the “Flying Dutchman”. The Beardstown, Ill. native enrolled in Champagne in 1942 and lettered in both football and basketball as a freshman. He enlisted with the U.S. Air Force in 1943 and entered one of the most dangerous service jobs as a B-42 top-gunner. In early 1944 Dufelmeier’s plane was shot down over France. He spent eleven months as a POW inside Germany, losing 35lb before liberation. Simply glad to be alive, Dufelmeier relished his return to football in 1946.
Despite Young and Dufelmeier rushing for over 900 combined yards, Illinois’ only all-conference and all-America selection was right guard Alex Agase. Another tough veteran, Agase had served as a marine in the Pacific. He participated in the amphibious invasions of both Okinawa and Iwo Jima, earning a Purple Heart. Alex’s bother Lou played at left tackle. Alex Agase had scored twice as a sophomore against Minnesota in 1942, making him only the second guard to notch a multiple touchdown performance in collegiate history. The following year he made all-America lists playing for Purdue while training as a Marine in Indiana. Later Agase would coach Northwestern and Purdue. His obvious football intelligence contributed inestimably to the top-notch run-blocking of Illinois' line.

The 10-0 UCLA Bruins entered the Rose Bowl as the bookmakers’ favorite, having outscored their opponents 313-72. All-conference quarterback Ernie Case called the plays for a prolific offense featuring pass-catching ends Burr Baldwin and future hall-of-famer Tom Fears, and bolstered by the breakout running of fullbacks Cal Rossi and Johnny Roesh and halfback Gene Rowland. Rossi weighed in as the Bruin’s heaviest back at just 170lb, but the team averaged a shade over 200lb per man. Several linemen in the 230lb range [as big as they came in the days of one-platoon football] made for an intimidating and forceful UCLA front which stampeded west coast rivals with apparent ease. Averaging just 190lb the Illini were noticeably smaller.
Regardless of any apparent size mis-match, history repeated itself as Illinois out-witted and out-played the bigger Bruins in the same convincing style in which Alabama had blow past the larger Trojans a year earlier. The Agase brothers and Illini captain center Mack Wenskunas opened gaping holes all day, often simply cutting the Bruins down at the knees for Young, Dufelmeier, and Co. to skip over and around. UCLA coach Bert Labrucherie used virtually every player on his three-deep trying to counter Illinois’ unstoppable blocking. But to no avail. The New York Times post-game report claimed that the affair “looked like a college line blocking against high school forwards.”

The Illini marched sixty yards on their first possession for a score. The rout began with quarterback Perry Moss tossing a 44-yard completion to halfback Julius Rykovich. After a kickoff return set UCLA up at midfield Case responded in kind with a 40-yard strike to his diminutive but elusive halfback Al Hoisch. When the Bruins scored to take an early 7-6 lead the 90,000-strong crowd sensed an epic in the making. Instead they witnessed Illinois shifting gears and leaving UCLA behind.

Illinois put together scoring drives of sixty and fifty-five yards on its first two possessions of the second quarter. A lineup of mostly second-string players added a fourth Illini score shortly before the break. Hoisch responded with a scintillating 103-kickoff return [still a Rose Bowl record] to keep the score respectable at the interval. But solo efforts, no matter how impressive, could not make up the difference. Young finished another long drive, this time fifty-one yards, with a short scoring run on the first play of the fourth quarter. Russell Steger then ran back a Case interception for a 65-yard defensive touchdown to make the score 38-14. Stanley Green, a fourth-string Illinois back, added insult to injury with a second six-point interception return in the game’s final minutes.

The Illini prevailed in an outright romp, 45-14. Eliot’s squad held the Bruins to just twelve first downs and forced six demoralizing turnovers. Most incredibly, the Illini held a team that had run roughshod over the west coast to a paltry sixty-two rushing yards. Only 176 passing yards on 29 attempts from Case afforded any offensive success. Despite their lesser physical stature Illinois racked up 320 team rushing yards, including 100-yard performances from both Young and Dufelmeier.
The 1946 season marked the first visit to Pasadena from the Big Ten champion since Ohio State fell 28-0 to Cal in 1921. The Big Ten would provide the visitor at the New Year’s Day classic for each of the next fifty-one seasons. Despite controversy leading up to the game due to the Pacific Coast Conference entering a long-term agreement with the Big Ten rather than invite unbeaten Army, Illinois’ performance provided a thrilling display of dominant football and set a new standard for conference mates. Partly because Midwestern and Pacific teams preceded the rest of the country by three decades in fielding talented black players like Buddy Young, the Big Ten and PCC/Pac-8 perennially produced impressive champions and followed the 1947 Rose Bowl with a long run of memorable [and typically more balanced] attention-grabbing matchups.

Despite the previous hostility of the University of Illinois faculty to the academic distractions a Rose Bowl berth meant for participating students, the headlines, income, and interest its triumph generated proved too seductive. The Big Ten, which claimed only two appearances and one victory in Pasadena prior to 1947, fell collectively in love with the Rose Bowl. Eliot’s surging team claimed an emphatic victory which consummated a strangle-hold on Rose Bowl invitations which the Big Ten still maintains.

[Sources: Buddy Young, Wiki; Art Dufelmeier obit, State Record-Journal; Alex Agase obituary, St. Petersberg Times; Doug Cartland, Ray Eliot; 1947 Rose Bowl, Rockford Register-Star]

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