University of Illinois

1945 - 56  Illini
(Authentic Reproduction)




Like many other football programs, the Illinois team was dismantled by the need for manpower in the military during World War II. Called the "Vanishing Illini", they were hit perhaps harder than most of the visible programs. When the War ended, many of the players who had gone to battle, some directly from college, others who had received military training on other college campuses where they represented those schools on the field before heading off to combat, returned to play at Illinois. These were tough men; Art Dufelmeier had spent eleven months in a German POW camp; Alex Agase was an All American at Purdue in 1943 and a Marine squad leader who won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for heroism on Okinawa; Claude "Buddy" Young had served with the Navy in California. Young was offered the opportunity to remain on the West Coast and play for UCLA but like the others, returned to Illinois. Perry Moss was allowed to transfer from Tulsa and huge 270-pound lineman Les Bingaman was back. Coach Ray Eliot, a former star for Coach Bob Zuppke's Illinois teams from 1928 through '32 followed in his mentor's footsteps, taking the head job from the master in 1942. He was excited about the '46 squad but like most other coaches who welcomed back a bevy of War vets, had no idea what to expect. Losing early to Notre Dame and Indiana, Eliot actually submitted his resignation but the administration wouldn't accept it. The players received the message loud and clear and the Illini  fought through the remainder of the schedule, winning with grit and determination. QB Moss and HB Young provided the fireworks and All American guard Agase won the same acclaim he had when he was "on loan" to Purdue in 1943. The team received the Rose Bowl bid as underdogs to UCLA. The 45-14 dismantling of the Bruins was a shock to the football world. The passing combo of Moss to end Ike Owens, the speedy dashes of Young, and the line play of Agase at guard and Bingaman at tackle overwhelmed the surprised UCLAN. The West Coast media had clamored for Army to play their champion but this one game established Midwest football as "the real deal" in the first year of the Rose Bowl conference contract. Claude "Buddy" Young only had two years of college football, both with Illinois but in 1944, he broke a number of records held by the immortal Red Grange, scoring 13 TD's and averaging 8.9 yards per carry. He duplicated those heroics in '46, becoming a member of the College Football Hall Of Fame, and then took his 5'5", 163-pound frame to the pro ranks, playing nine seasons, first for New York in the AAFC and then Dallas-Baltimore in the NFL. He averaged over 1000 yards per season, gaining 9419 yards in nine seasons of play and later serving with distinction in the Commissioner's office. Eliot adopted the Riddell RT plastic helmets with a burnt orange shell and dark navy blue one-inch center stripe for his players, a combination they would maintain through the 1956 season. The addition of one-inch "Eagle style" gold numbers trimmed in black on the rear of the helmet gave the headgear a finished look. 
Expecting to challenge again for the Big Ten title in '47, the team fell off a bit to a 5-3-1 record, no doubt due to the loss of some of the stars of the Rose Bowl squad of '46, especially Young and Alex Agase who played for Chicago and Cleveland of the AAFC. Bingaman, who controlled the middle of the line of scrimmage with his 270-pounds, had another solid season and became one of the first "big men" in pro football, playing for the Lions from '48 through their dominant seasons, to 1954. With all of the War vets gone and the stars of the Rose Bowl season but a memory, Eliot's 1948 team struggled to a 3-6 mark, beating only Purdue and Iowa in-conference. Recruiting however, was good, with some of the frosh earmarked for starting positions in 1949. The '49 record was also disappointing at 3-4-2 as Eliot began to stockpile obvious talent. Young Chuck Studley took over at guard, teaming with a tough Leo Cahill. John Karras immediately took a starting RB spot, putting in a great 826 yards on the ground. 1950 marked a return to prominence but with the Big Ten title all but sealed, the Illini dropped the finale to Northwestern 14-7, leaving them with a 7-2 record and blew the Rose Bowl bid. The play-makers were on board; conference rushing leader FB Dick Raklovits, All American Bill Vohaska, lineman Leo Cahill who went on to be a legendary coach and GM in the CFL and World Football League, and potent HB Johnny Karras who had run for more than 1400 yards in his first two seasons. In 1951 Karras lived up to his billing as the finest back to play for Illinois since Red Grange, a consensus All American who paced the running game with 658 yards, and led the team to a 9-0-1 record and the Big Ten championship. The trip to the Rose Bowl led to a 40-7 rout of Stanford. With Bowl game hero FB Bill Tate and QB Tommy O'Connell who transferred from Notre Dame, the attack was relentless with only a 0-0 tie against the Buckeyes marring the season's slate. The line was led by Charles Studley, a former Navy submarine torpedo operator who went on to a sterling coaching career as the head man at UMass, Cincinnati, the Houston Oilers, and the D-coordinator with the Dolphins, Forty-Niners, and Bengals during the glory years of each of those teams. 
QB O'Connell had a big year in '52, tossing for 1761 yards, forty-five of those to ends Rocky Ryan who piled up 714 yards and five TD's, and Rex Smith. FB Tate was effective. Unfortunately even with safety Al Brosky, the team could muster no more than a 4-5 mark. There was a quick 7-1-1 revival in 1953 with the debut of rookie backs "Mr. Zoom" (J.C. Caroline from South Carolina) and "Mr. Boom" (halfback Mickey Bates). The re-introduction of one-platoon ball played well for the Illini and when the two soph backs first played an entire game together, the result was a 41-20 thrashing of Ohio State and 432 yards rushing, Caroline with 192 of those and Bates notching four TD's! All American as a soph, Caroline led the nation in rushing with 1256 yards and punted well. Bates was the team scoring leader. A tie with new conference member Michigan State for the title sent the Spartans to the Rose Bowl in a vote of Big Ten reps. With the addition of hurdler Abe Woodson to the backfield mix of Caroline and Bates, hope was high for a great '54 season but the absence of good line play sent Illinois from the penthouse to the outhouse in one season, with their 1-8 record a shocker. Caroline played well with an absence of recognition but Bates was not as effective running from fullback.
The Illini battled back to respectability with a 5-3-1 record in '55, still trying to tack together a decent line but stocking up on a bevy of backfield talent. Joining Caroline, Bates, and Woodson, who was better defensively, were soph fullback Raymond Nitschke and speed-demon Bobby Mitchell. Mitchell gained 504 yards with a flashy 8.3 yards per carry. Nitschke would be an obvious tough-guy, refusing to come off the field after getting his teeth knocked out against Ohio State and telling Coach Eliot, "Let me back in, they can't hurt me any more, I've already lost my smile." Caroline departed for a ten-year career as a two-way back with the Bears. There was more talent than 1956's 2-5-2 record reflected with QB an ongoing problem. Tom Haller lettered as a back-up but proved to be a better baseball player, lasting ten years in the Majors, mostly with the Giants. Mitchell lost time to injury, leaving Woodson and Nitschke as the workhorse backs. The highlight was an upset win over Michigan State 20-13 while the Spartans were ranked the best in the nation.

If interested in any of these UI helmets please click on the photos below.