Kirk Wessler column for Thursday, Dec. 27. On Bradley faculty member Dick Deller, a co-captain for Illinois' 1964 Rose Bowl winners
He is the answer to a trivia question on the Bradley University campus: What faculty member co-captained the last University of Illinois football team to win the Rose Bowl?
You might think the College of Engineering would be the last place to scavenge for the right answer. But that’s where you’ll find Dick Deller, a lineman for a storybook Illini team that went to Pasadena and defeated Washington, 17-7, on Jan. 1, 1964.
“Things were a lot different then,” Deller says. “There were other engineering students on our football team; maybe one or two every year.”
This was different about big-time college football, too: Deller played both ways. He was right guard on offense and played outside the tackle on the defensive line.
“Back then,” he says with a chuckle, “men were men.”
With teammates like Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski, who became football legends, nobody will argue that statement, no matter how much bigger today’s players are or how specialized the sport has become.
It’s interesting, though, to note the most glaring similarity between Deller’s team and the current edition of the Illini, who will play Southern California in the 2008 Rose Bowl next Tuesday. As with the 1963 club, and with good reason, nobody predicted this year’s team would wind up playing in the granddaddy of all bowl games.
After a winless Big Ten season in 2005, the Illini managed to beat Michigan State in 2006 and lost by a touchdown or less to four opponents down the stretch. Heading into this season, they had won only two of their last 21 games, but things appeared to be looking up.
The Illini had gone winless in 1961, and heading into 1963, they had won only two of their last 19. But Deller remembers fortunes starting to turn for the better in 1962, when they went to Purdue and ruined the Boilermakers’ Homecoming Day, then capped the season with a victory over Michigan State.
“That was the turning point, when things started to work out,” says Deller, one of at least four players on that Illinois roster who either had or would establish connections to the Peoria area.
Deller was from Cincinnati, and after Illinois he went to graduate school in Texas before he was hired to teach mechanical engineering at Bradley. Bill Farrell of Park Forest would later coach at Washington High School. Bob Easter (Richwoods) and Bill Harper (Manual) played their high school ball in Peoria and returned here to work.
As the Illini’s fortunes began to turn, Deller understates, “we had a couple of decent players show up. Grabowski was one. Ron Acks was a safety who could knock guys out of their shoes. (Fellow co-captain) Mike Taliaferro was a real good quarterback. And Butkus was coming into his own. We had a nice chemistry of different people, different ages and experience.”
Through seven games, the Illini were 5-1-1, “but we were running scared,” Deller says. “Were we good or lucky?”
Then they went to Wisconsin, where they handled the defending Big Ten champion while Ohio State was getting upset by Northwestern. Suddenly, the program’s first Rose Bowl trip since 1952 was there for the taking. All Illinois had to do was win the regular-season finale at Michigan State.
The Illini wound up making two trips to East Lansing. The day they flew up the first time, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Big Ten officials called off the contest, mere hours before kickoff, and rescheduled it for Thanksgiving Day. Upon their return, the Illini shut out the Spartans, 13-0.
One month later, they were in Pasadena, enjoying the warm sunshine and getting amped up by coach Pete Elliott. Reports out of the Washington camp during bowl week, Deller remembers, seemed to disregard Illinois as a slow, unconditioned team that didn’t hit very hard.
“So Pete put in a special play for the defense at the start of the game,” Deller says. “He had every lineman go on the first audible sound, which could have ended up being an offsides penalty against us. But we all broke together. Washington got the penalty, and then they got pretty beat up after that.”
Washington led 7-3 at halftime, but Elliott was strangely calm, Deller says. The coach reminded his players all they needed was one touchdown to take the lead, and that could be enough because their defense had been superior all season. The Illini scored one TD in each of the final two quarters to win, 17-7.
“Then one of the guys said, ‘Hey, remember how they said we were out of shape?’ Deller says. So the Illini decided to make a statement. “We took a victory lap around the whole Rose Bowl field.”
Thus ended Deller’s football career, but not his fame — at least as long as there are trivia buffs in the Bradley student body.
“It’s not a very well-kept secret,” Deller says. “Some of the kids seem to find out pretty quick. They’ll come up to me and say things like, ‘Did you really play with Dick Butkus?’
“And I’ll say, ‘No, Butkus played with me. I was a captain. He was on my team. It was his team the next year, when they didn’t play in the Rose Bowl.’”
KIRK WESSLER is executive sports editor/columnist with the Journal Star. Contact him at email@example.com, or (309) 686-3216.