1951 National Champions to be Honored at Spring Game

The Illini carried head coach Ray Eliot off the field after a 40-7 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
The Illini carried head coach Ray Eliot off the field after a 40-7 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

April 10, 2012

By Paige Thompson, Illinois Sports Information

Sixty years ago, the 1951 University of Illinois football team was selected as national champions after finishing the season 9-0-1 and hammering Stanford 40-7 in the Rose Bowl. At this weekend's Orange and Blue Spring Game, the 1951 squad will be honored for all of its accomplishments.

The 1951 group is the last Illini team to finish a season undefeated. That season, the Illini outscored their opponents 220-83 over the course of the season and allowed only 20 total points in its final six games.

During the 20th century, the NCAA did not hold a national championship football game. Instead, the NCAA recognized a national champion based on polls consisting of sportswriters from around the country. One of the systems for determining a national champion was the Boand System.

The Boand System is recognized as a "national champion major selector" by the NCAA Division I records book, and rankings were based on a mathematical formula. It was from this selection method that the Fighting Illini were named one of the national champion football teams in 1951.

"That was a great season," said Tommy O'Connell, quarterback of the 1951 team. "We had a full plate of tough football games and we went through the season and won every one."

After wins against UCLA, Wisconsin, Syracuse, and Washington, Illinois appeared in the top-5 of the AP poll, ranking No. 4.

"We didn't have any cream puffs on our schedule," said O'Connell. "That year, we played UCLA and beat them, we played the University of Washington in Seattle, and both of them were outstanding football teams. Then we played Syracuse, which is another major football program. The non-conference games were against top-class football teams."

After a 21-0 win at Indiana, the Illini faced their toughest opponent yet: Michigan. After three quarters, the game was tied 0-0. Michigan had gained more yardage than Illinois and had threatened to score twice. Halfway through the fourth quarter, the Illini were able to hold the Wolverines and Michigan was forced to punt.

"With about seven minutes left to go, we had the ball on our own 13 -yard line going into the wind, and snow was blowing out of the south end," O'Connell said. "We marched right down the field and in about the next five minutes, hit about five passes. (Fullback) Bill Tate had some good runs, as did (halfback) Johnny Karras."

After driving down the field, the Illini were on the their own 8-yard line. With 1:10 left, O'Connell threw a touchdown pass to receiver Rex Smith.

"I called a play action pass and Rex Smith was so wide open it was unbelievable," said O'Connell. "That was for the touchdown, and we went on to win, 7-0. That was the best, most important game we played all season. We were vying with Michigan to be the No. 1 team in the conference. The Michigan game was the real key to the whole situation."

After the victory over Michigan, Illinois jumped up to No. 2 in the rankings. The Illini beat Iowa 40-13 the following week, then traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to take on Ohio State. With a win, Illinois could clinch a Rose Bowl bid and at least a tie for the Big Ten title. However, after a back-and-forth battle, the game ended in a 0-0 tie.

"Playing a 0-0 tie is not an interesting game," O'Connell admitted. "We tried everything and couldn't score on Ohio State, and they tried everything and couldn't score on us."

But the Illini had another opportunity to grab the spot in the Rose Bowl, and they defeated Northwestern to win the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. The Illini finished the regular season at No. 4 in the AP Poll, and would face No. 7 Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

On January 1, 1952, in front of 96,825 fans, the Illini played in the 38th Rose Bowl, which also was the first nationally televised college football game in history. Illinois trailed Stanford 7-6 at the half, but scored 34 unanswered points in the second half to win, 40-7.

"In the second half, we came out and just blew them away," O'Connell said of the victory.

The 1951 Illinois football team accomplished feats that no other team in the program has done since. The squad remains the last undefeated team and the last team to win a national championship at Illinois. The team will be honored at the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game on April 14th at Memorial Stadium.