Those Were The Days - Northwestern

Nov 28, 2019

I think this is now two years in a row where I remembered to post the Northwestern TWTD. The two (three?) years before that I totally forgot because of Thanksgiving. But look at me now, remembering AND posting it Thursday night. Here's Detlef to take us back to before I was born.

Northwestern travels to Champaign for the final game of the season in the battle for the Land Of Lincoln Hat trophy (LOLHAT). Bring back the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk! I am still on vacation, this time in Tuscany, so don't let me down, Fox Sports App! Today's tale goes into the way back machine for a big Fighting Illini victory for my fellow Jolietan, Jim Valek!!

November 19, 1968: Illinois sports continued to be mired in the aftermath of the Slush Fund Scandal. To this day, my father still has a "To Hell With Mel" button. He really loathes Mel Brewer, who, spurned in his quest to become the athletic director, blew the whistle on Illinois. Even though other schools also had a "slush fund" only Illinois got probation. Yeah, that subject really grinds my gears. Anyhow, Illinois football was in the toilet. After Pete Elliott got sacked in 1966, Jim Valek replaced him, going 4-6 in 1967. But now, with scholarship restrictions, Illinois was 0-8 entering this home game against Northwestern. It was a cloudy and rainy day in the 217 to match the mood of the program.

In the second quarter, quarterback Bob Naponic scored from the four-yard line. That gave Illinois not just a rare lead, but a halftime lead as a bonus! "I told the team at halftime that this was our first lead of the year and I wanted to see what kind of team they really were. We weren't especially fancy," said Valek. In the fourth quarter, fullback Rich Johnson scored from a yard out for the final score of 14-0.

Illinois stuffed the Northwestern passing game. The Wildcats finished 8 of 28 passing for 136 yards. Valek praised the defense, especially senior co-captain Tony Pleviak and nose guard Bill Nowak. Each finished with nine tackles. Further, Illinois held Northwestern to just 45 yards rushing.

"I was extremely pleased with two aspects of the game. First, our pass defense was just excellent, and secondly, we shut them out," said Valek. "I can't remember the last time we had a shutout." Valek did note that the weather played a role in the outcome. "It sprinkled a little in the first half but the field was in great shape and we had no problem in footing."

Former Illini All-American Alex Agase, now the head coach at Northwestern, felt frustrated. His defense had played its best game all year and still lost. Agase did not offer the weather as an excuse, noting that his team took the wind in the first quarter and failed to score. "I've still seen teams execute well in cold and wet weather. We could not run it very well, but Illinois did."

Illinois had suffered not only from losing all season, but the scholarship reductions meant a lack of depth when injuries hit. However, this day, the only injury was a shoulder separation suffered by Gary Simpson who fell while playing the role of Chief Illiniwek at halftime. The team did not suffer any injuries and actually had two players return, halfback Bill Huston and defensive back Fred Wolf.

Illinois finished 1-9 in 1968, 0-10 in 1969, and 3-7 in 1970 under Valek, who got sacked after that season. The Slush Fund Scandal took a heavy toll on Illinois athletics.

Sources: "Agase Frustrated" by Joel Summer & "Great Day for Valek" by John Hundley. Daily Illini, November 19, 1968.


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