Wedding rings symbolize a commitment to a lifetime of love and devotion. For the 1983 Northern Illinois football team – the last group of Huskies to win the Mid-American Conference Championship – a California Bowl ring serves a similar purpose.
It’s been 27 years since a group of underdog Huskies became the program’s first and – for at least a few more hours – only MAC championship team. They were also the first NIU squad ever to make a bowl game, earning those rings with a 20-13 win over Cal State Fullerton.
People who share those experiences just don’t say goodbye after graduation. They refer to each other as college buddies when they introduce each other to their wives and children.
Most of the ’83 group remain close. The players maintain an e-mail chain, updating each other on NIU football scores, talking about business ventures, sharing jokes or asking for support of Huskie athletics.
They gather in droves at the NIU-sponsored Brigham-Novak Gridiron Classic golf outing each July, by far the most represented era of Huskies, to share stories of the special season. They call and e-mail current NIU coach Jerry Kill to congratulate him on wins.
“Success brought us together,” said Vince Scott, a DeKalb High School graduate and kicker for the 1983 NIU football team. “We were already together, but that milestone of winning a championship and going to a bowl game just really cemented all our relationships and we’ve been close ever since.”
“It’s interesting with teams I’ve been around the ones that have been successful how well they’ve stayed bonded,” said Bill Mallory, coach of the 1983 NIU team. “I think that just indicates they were a team and that was our strong suit, and we were. That was just a team that was well-bonded, good leadership, good focus, a team wanting to succeed. There was no question what they wanted to do and that was to win the MAC Championship.”
Though they’ll never tire of retelling their fond season, the ’83 Huskies would rather not be the lone NIU squad to hoist a MAC Championship trophy. They hope the 2010 Huskies (10-2, 8-0 MAC) can end the drought tonight against Miami (8-4, 7-1 MAC) at Ford Field in Detroit.
“We’ve talked about this for a long time. We’re very proud of our championship, but we want to see more championships,” said Scott, who will be at tonight’s game with his son. “We feel it’s time to pass the torch. We’ve talked enough about 1983. We’d like to talk about 2010.”
The Huskies couldn’t maintain success after the California Bowl win. Mallory couldn’t pass up an offer to coach at Indiana, where he coached until 1996. He still lives near the Bloomington, Ind., campus. NIU hired Lee Corso, who left the Huskies in less than a year to coach in the USFL and now famously wears mascot heads as an on-air personality for ESPN’s popular College Gameday.
Tim Tyrrell, quarterback of the 1983 team, said he thought the 2003 Huskies had a chance to end the title drought after wins against Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. But conference losses to Bowling Green and Toledo not only knocked the Huskies out of contention for the MAC but also a bowl game. Two seasons later, Domenik Hixon’s Hail Mary catch in Akron’s last-second 31-30 MAC Championship defeat of NIU added more years to the title-less streak.
“Man, I can’t believe it’s been 27 years. Unbelievable,” Tyrell said. “It’s weird because I can remember when the (undefeated) ’63 team came around, and I was like, ‘Man, you guys are old.’ So I can’t imagine what they’re saying about us.”
But the ’83 team likes NIU’s chances tonight. About 30 of the 1983 players made the trip back to DeKalb to see the Huskies’ 65-30 drubbing of Toledo. Of the 18 retired coaches who vote in the Legends Poll, Mallory was the only one to vote in the Huskies this week.
“I had them 24th this week, last week 25th, in the polls. They’re an excellent football team,” Mallory said. “I was up there (in DeKalb) this summer, and I just had a good feel that they were going to be a pretty darn good football team.”
The ’83 players think this year’s Huskies have similarities to their team, not just in terms of talent but intangibles. It’s a “will to want to win,” Scott said.
Both teams attribute their success to a blue-collar work ethic. Both offenses were led by mobile, contact-loving quarterbacks (Tyrrell said NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish was his pick for MAC Offensive Player of the Year).
“I think a lot of people outside of this program, fans and the people in this program have had a lot of faith and stood by us for a long time,” NIU senior linebacker Alex Kube said. “I think this game is really up to us to win it. It’s huge for us to show up and do this for the community, do this for the program, and then do this for ourselves because we’ve worked so hard.”
The 2010 team is a tight group. They aren’t singing “Kumbaya” after practice but they seem to have bought into Kill’s all-for-one, one-for-all philosophy. But is their camaraderie as strong as the bonds shared among the ’83 Huskies?
We won’t know that for another 27 years, but a win tonight – plus the resulting stories and maybe even a championship ring – could be the start of a lasting relationship for the current Huskies.
“I wonder why the tradition is so strong with our guys,” Tyrrell said. “I guess it’s just when you win, you want to have other people experience that feeling.”