Glory days: Illini Rose Bowlers share memories of dream ’83 season

By Chicago 13 Min Read

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It was the year that goalposts fell, records were smashed and tailgaters partied hardy. With Mike White’s ’83 Rose Bowlers headed back to campus for a reunion next weekend, we asked members of that special squad to share behind-the-scenes stories from 40 years ago.

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DON CARLOS PASSMORE JR.’83 Illini’s top punt returner

“It’s December 19th, 1983, my birthday, and we are flying out of Willard Airport in the midst of a snowstorm. Five hours later, we land at John Wayne Airport in sunny, warm Irvine, California.

“The entire team and coaches are dressed in our Adidas Illini sports wear, looking fly, and we are excited, happy and a little tired due to the early-morning flight.

“We were also a little anxious because Illinois had not been to the Rose Bowl since 1964 and this was obviously a new experience for all of us. In addition, we did not want to let down the Illini Nation.

“We were 10-1 and UCLA was 7-4. We were clearly the better team. This is my opinion and the behind-the-scenes story as to why we lost.

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“We were in Tinseltown, the land of the how-do-you-dos, movie stars and take-twos. We all had our sunglasses on and we were enjoying our Hollywood moment. Unfortunately, the boys from the Midwest got caught up in that warm Hollywood vibe and the game on January 1st became lost in the Hollywood shuffle.

“The effort was there and I admire Coach White and his staff for treating us like men. We practiced hard every day from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. But after practice, we had to attend all of the mandated events — a day at Disneyland, the breakfast and dinner of champions, and last but not least, total access to the home of Playboy founder Mr. Hugh Hefner.

“Mr. Hefner was a graduate of the University of Illinois and he was so pleased that Illinois had made it to the Rose Bowl that he opened up his home — the Playboy Mansion — to the entire Illini team and coaches.

“Imagine: 29 rooms, a huge indoor/outdoor pool, beautiful Playboy bunnies, pelicans, three zoo/aviary buildings and again … beautiful Playboy bunnies everywhere.

“We were 18- to 23-year-old young men — except for our dear late teammate, Willie Young, who was in his mid- to late-20s via the U.S. Army — chilling outside of Beverly Hills, California, kicking it with Jim Brown, Marcus Allen and other NFL legends and entertainers at Hugh’s house.

“To add to our Hollywood escapades, we only had two curfews from December 19th through January 1st — the night we arrived in town and the night before the game.

“When you factor in this being a home game for UCLA, it’s easy to see why the 10-1 Fighting Illini did not show up on January 2nd of 1984. We worked, trained and practiced hard every day. The problem was that we were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted on game day.”

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Fullback joined Tim Brewster and Don Thorp as co-captains of ’83 Illini

“The most memorable moment I have is captured in this picture — from Senior Day in 1983, when I scored the only touchdown of my career and, without hesitation, threw the ball into the Block I.

“It wasn’t planned but was something I’d thought about doing if the timing was right and I was fortunate enough to score.

“The interesting part is that this picture was before cellphones and was taken by a local family in Champaign who I have never met. They must have been sitting in the end zone bleachers at the south end of the stadium.

“They mailed it to me weeks after the game. I don’t recall their name but it is a picture that, for me, capped a remarkable year.

“It should also be noted that in the picture you can see the referee reaching for a penalty flag that I received for that play. Coach White was not happy with me but still gave me a game ball, given that I couldn’t hold onto the earlier one.”

LUKE SEWALLOne of two All-Big Ten academic selections on ’83 team

“The story I keep coming back to happened on the first play of my first game at Illinois, three years before the Rose Bowl. It was also Mike White’s first game.

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“Mike promised all of us that he would change the way the Big Ten played football and I can tell you from watching the games in recent years, he accomplished his goal.

“Illinois went from 3 yards and a cloud of dust to a wide-open west coast offense, and the beginning of that change wasn’t subtle.

“He told us in the locker room before the first game that this Illinois team would be different and that this offense would look different. He pre-planned the first series of the game. In that first game, he told quarterback Dave Wilson to go deep on the first play — even if the receiver was covered and double-teamed.

“He wanted to make a statement and he did. The pass was incomplete, but I remember the standing ovation in Memorial Stadium to this day.

“Beginning with that play, we never looked back.”

Todd Searcy

Todd Searcy

TODD SEARCYEarned two letters as linebacker

“As the bus pulled up to Hugh Hefner’s mansion, I remember seeing this beautiful convertible car I had never seen before — with a flat tire. I thought: How ironic. Flat tires can happen to anyone.

“We split into groups and the bunny that took my group around was Kimberly McArthur, from the ‘Easy Money’ movie with Rodney Dangerfield.

“It was surreal to get to see the iconic pool and grotto with the ‘changing rooms.’ He had a little zoo, with various animals and a reptile house.

“I also remember when Mr Hefner’s wife or girlfriend came down the stairs in a white angora small top and bottom. Every guy was following her down the stairs. LOL.

“I realize just how lucky I was to experience Hugh Hefner’s mansion, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farms, Newport Beach and Pasadena.”

Cam Benson

From left, the late Steve Strode, Don Passmore and Cam Benson during the Rose Bowl season.


CAM BENSONStarted at wide receiver in ’83, catching 19 passes for 192 yards

“Everyone was filled with high energy for the homecoming game against Ohio State. Knowing we were playing a powerhouse on homecoming felt strange but we were up for the challenge.

“The campus was lit up with orange and blue everywhere and Kams did not disappoint those in need of a beverage throughout the week. You felt a certain nervous energy in the air among students, supporters and staff.

“Before each game, we would go through our Friday routine for a final prep — sort of a very light walk-through practice and recovery to maintain focus. On this particular Friday night, Coach White changed our routine and put us on buses and we headed to the Quad.

“There was a huge pep rally happening in anticipation of the big game. As we unloaded off the buses heading to the pep rally, I noticed Coach White sort of waiting for all of us to get off, which was unusual. As I got off the last bus and headed toward the Quad, Coach White turned to me and said, ‘Cammie.’ And my reaction was ‘Oh (bleep), what happened now?’

“He said: ‘Listen, I need your help. Please take the stage tonight and address the crowd with a few closing remarks to get them fired up and ready for this game.’

“My response was, ‘OK, not a problem.’ After Coach spoke to the crowd — along with a couple of other teammates, who knew well in advance they were speaking — Coach introduced me and handed me the microphone.

“I stepped up on the stage in front of the large gathering of fans, students, staff and families and, after a few opening comments, screamed: ‘As a kid from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I got one thing to say: If you keep us hyped and support us during this game and remain positive until the end and we win this game, I am inviting all of you to my house for spring break and we’re going to have a blast.’

“The crowd went crazy and the band began playing our fight song — and all were pumped for the game.

“Funny about that unrealistic promise: Not only did we win, but students and fans called me throughout spring break asking me to meet them at Fort Lauderdale’s finest restaurants and beach areas.

“I kept my promise, and it turned out to be one of my favorite spring breaks of all time.”

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Rick Renfro

RICK RENFRO‘83 offensive guard won’t make next week’s reunion — son Jake is making his Wisconsin Badgers debut that day

“The feeling after the Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan games was special — especially after we beat Michigan. Once we finally reached the locker room, I looked around and realized I was surrounded by a lot of great coaches and some very special football players.

“I’ll never forget the feeling in that locker room when Coach White spoke. It was electric. After that, we knew we were special and the Rose Bowl was right in front of us.

“One other memory I have that most people didn’t know was that one of the quarterbacks had a date with one of the Playboy bunnies he met while we had dinner at Hugh Hefner’s mansion.

“We all were jealous.”

SAM ELLSWORTHThree-year starter at linebacker

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“I went from Urbana High School to Illinois. What I remember most, without a doubt, were the personalities. I was 18, surrounded by guys who were 23 and had three or four years under their belt.

“They came from Miami, LA and everywhere between. Juco superstars and farm kids. It didn’t matter who you were — that was the most competitive environment I have ever been in.

“Max McCartney was the defensive coordinator, and he was so intense. He had no problem telling you straight up: ‘Kid, you have a job to do. If you can’t do it, I have four lined up behind you that can.’ It was my first taste of accountability.”

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