O'Connell Recalls Last Undefeated Team

The last Fighting Illini football team to go through a whole season undefeated was the 1951 team. It was ranked by one service as the National Champion, the latest of five such honors in Illinois history. And it went on to trounce Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Quarterback Tommy O'Connell and his surviving teammates held a reunion on the UI campus recently.

Tommy O'Connell was the star quarterback of the 1951 Illinois football team. He passed for a remarkable 1700 yards that year, more than was typical for a defensive conscious Big 10. That total remained at the top of the Illini list until Dave Wilson shattered the record in 1980. O'Connell was interviewed on WDWS radio recently.

O'Connell's special team has held numerous reunions over the years. Of course, the number in attendance has dwindled each time, but the enthusiasm has never waned.

"Our 1951 Rose Bowl team has stayed very close. We've had reunions that have really been significant. We had a 50 year Rose Bowl reunion out in California with the players from Stanford, and it was an awesome affair. Our teams have really been close.

"We'll probably have another reunion in 2-3 years, and we'll probably have 25-30 people. Everybody who's alive."

The only blemish on an otherwise perfect season for the Illini in 1951 was a 0-0 tie with Ohio State. Contributing to the futility was the fact each team knew the other team's signals.

"When we had the ball, when we were going to throw the ball, they only rushed three guys. When we were running, they rushed almost everybody. Rex Smith came back and said somebody's tipping something off because they know what we're gonna do.

"When Ohio State had the ball, we would read the quarterback's feet. If he had his right foot back he was going right, and if his left foot was back he was going left.

"I played the East-West Shrine Game, and we had three Ohio State guys. I asked (one of them) what they had on us. He said when we were running the ball, our center would have a lot of his weight forward, and you could see it. When we were gonna throw, he would be back on his haunches. They were calling even numbers for a pass and odd number for a rush. That was the whole thing.

"When I was back coaching on the staff a couple years later, I told them Ohio State had that on us. Illinois was still teaching the center the same way. I think they changed it after that."

Perhaps the most famous game that season, apart from the 42-7 blowout of Stanford in the Rose Bowl, was the 7-0 victory over Michigan. The game was played in a snow blizzard so bad fans in the stands couldn't see everything. Even the players had trouble with vision. O'Connell led a last minute drive for the clinching touchdown.

"We got the ball on the 27 yard line," O'Connell recalls. "It was into the snow, into the wind. Johnny Karras and Bill Tate had good runs. I think I threw three passes coming down. We got down to the 7 yard line.

"On the first play, I looked at the defense, the way they were playing. So on the second play, I called a fake run to John Karras. When I went back to pass I said, 'I hope I can hit Rex because he's gonna be wide open.' I did the fake and turned around, and there was Rex standing alone in the end zone. I threw him the ball, and that was the ball game."

O'Connell and Smith became instant heroes. But what about the Michigan player who defended on the play?

"I have a funny story that happened about three months ago. I joined a golf club in Florida, and there was a guy there with a Michigan shirt on. He said he played football in the early '50's. When he realized who I was, he said, 'You threw a touchdown over my head. I'll never forget that the rest of my life.'"

Low-scoring games were common back then, with the kicking game playing an important role. O'Connell believes coaching had something to do with the low scores.

"When I look back, I think Ray Eliot got very conservative at the end of the year. We were punting on third down and all this stuff. It was wrong I thought."

O'Connell later went on to make his mark in pro ball.

"I played 6 years, but I played and coached the last year. And I got hurt and just finished coaching. I played with the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills. I was the first quarterback in the history of the Buffalo Bills.

"The great year I had was with Cleveland. We won the Eastern Division and then lost the World Championship to Detroit. I had broken my leg with two games to go, and we played very bad in the championship game. Of course, that was Jimmy Brown's rookie year. That was a real pleasure playing with him."

O'Connell learned a great deal as a coach with the Bills.

"I had an opportunity to coach with Buster Ramsey, who was the head coach. He was a defensive coach with the Detroit Lions for many years. Buster was a wonderful defensive coach. He probably did more blitzing with the Lions back in 1951-53 than anybody else."

When he returned to coach at his alma mater, O'Connell shared what he had learned to the UI's benefit.

"I remember when I was coaching at Illinois, I said during a spring meeting I'd like to introduce blitzing. And Ray Eliot said, 'What, blitzing? How do you do that?' I told him you've got to get to the quarterback. You get to the quarterback and the ball game is over."

Eliot was not too old to learn a new trick, so he employed the defense to defeat Ara Parseghian's Northwestern team.

"We had a tip on Northwestern on what they were gonna do, and we put the blitz in. We beat them because we had signals, and we blitzed for the first time. Their quarterback was a good quarterback, and he was confused. He didn't know what he was doing."

It must be difficult to attend reunions late in life. Survivors are no longer enjoying complete health, serving as a reminder of how fragile life is.

"Seeing all those fellows at the reunion, and seeing how banged up some of them are, it's really discouraging."

Regardless, O'Connell and his 1951 team will always be one of the best groups in Illinois history. That reality will outlive everyone.

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