Cornerback Terry Taylor celebrates SIU's victory over Western Carolina to give the Dawgs the National Championship. Taylor was taken with the 22nd overall pick in the 1984 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks
1983 playoff game stats listed at the bottom of the page
For many Southern Illinoisans, that year brings back more than just memories of Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan and big hair.
It was the year that the Southern Illinois University football team put together a dominating and magical run to take the Division I-AA National Championship.
After just missing an undefeated regular-season with a loss to Division I-A Wichita State in the regular-season finale, the Dawgs marched through the playoffs, outscoring their three opponents by an average of 23 points, capped by a 43-7 thrashing of Western Carolina in the National Championship game.
The Salukis finished that campaign with a sparkling 13-1 record, by far the best mark in SIU history. Fans were inspired to record a song about the team and carry the goal posts from McAndrew Stadium to the Strip on two occasions.
But has it really been 20+ years? Believe it or not, more than two decades have passed since SIU won it all.
"Even though time is flying by," said then-SIU coach Rey Dempsey, "it's still amazing it's been 20 years."
"Sometimes it seems like 100 years ago," said that team's starting quarterback, Rick Johnson. "And sometimes it seems like yesterday. It's kind of weird."
The team celebrated the 20th anniversary of that magical season with a reunion at McAndrew Stadium on Sept. 27, 2003 when SIU played St. Joseph's. Approximately 50 players from that team attended the game and reminisced about what was indisputably the greatest football team in school history.
The `83 Salukis had it all -- chemistry, dedication, talent and a confidence that was there from the get-go.
"I recall friends saying `I heard you are going to have a good team,'" Dempsey said of the weeks leading to the `83 season. "My reply was, `I think we're going to win a I-AA championship.'"
"We thought we were that good coming in. In general, we agreed among ourselves we were going to do it."
That confidence was a direct result of the team's unparalleled unity and preparation. Dempsey and his staff set the tone.
"We were close knit as a team and staff," Dempsey said. "That looks easy to do, but that is a hard thing to do."
"The guy never slept," Johnson said of Dempsey.
"We felt nobody was going to outwork us as a staff," Dempsey said. "And our players worked very hard. It all starts from the top. If you work hard, they will work hard."
"You always had the sense that someone had your back," Johnson said. "We all hung out together. When you get that, everything starts to work together."
Ironically, despite being so dominant, the Salukis were not a team of superstars. There was no, one, star player, just a focused group of team-players with one common goal.
"You can name any player on the team," Dempsey told Greg Hardwig of the Southern Illinoisan in 1997, "and you can say `Hey, he was very vital to us.'"
"You give credit to coach Dempsey," said tailback Sterling Haywood, "he kept us humble."
None of the players' individual stats jump out at you. But the only stat that really mattered certainly does -- SIU averaged 32.6 points per game that season and gave up just 14.3.
"I think 28 of those were scored by the defense," Johnson said, half-seriously. "Our defense was awesome. We just had studs."
Primarily in their secondary, which featured cornerbacks Terry Taylor and Donnell Daniel. Taylor went on to be a first-round NFL draft pick and have a, 11-year career.
"With Terry Taylor," Johnson said, "you could see the fear in the quarterback's eyes."
The duo were also dangerous on special teams, as Taylor specialized in blocking kicks, while Daniel was a threat on punt returns.
Safeties Greg Shipp and B.T. Thomas joined them in a secondary that picked off seven West Carolina passes in the National Championship game.
Linebackers Granville Butler, Fabray Collins, Dan Wetzel and Mike Brascia, plus linemen Ed Norman, Ken Foster and Haywood rounded out the unit.
SIU's offense was solid, but not spectacular, led by fifth-year senior Johnson. Their backfield featured tailback Derrick Taylor, fullback Corky Field and Terry Green. Wideouts James Stevenson and Cecil Ratliff were Johnson's primary targets, as were tight ends Cary Shephard and Carbondale native Mike O'Day.
"The defense was really good, but the offense put up a lot of points too," Haywood said.
Future NFL star Tom Baugh anchored a young offensive line at center, flanked by guards David Bock and Mark Banburry and tackles Ralph Van Dyke and John Cook.
The Salukis' success throughout the regular season can be attributed mostly to talent...and a little luck.
For the most part, SIU dominated. Wins over Western Illinois, Southeast Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Drake, Missouri State, Indiana State and New Mexico State were all decided by at least two touchdowns.
But the second game of the year, a 17-14 win over defending Division II national champion Eastern Illinois, is considered by Johnson, Dempsey and Haywood as the flash point of the season.
A blocked punt by Frank Carr that was recovered in the end zone tied the game at 14 late, and freshman Ron Miller kicked a field goal to provide the margin of victory later.
"I think we were just a normal team until the Eastern game," Johnson said. "I think that was a turning point. It seemed like we could never beat them.
"That's when it was like `That's it, there is no turning back. That's when our team got the swagger.'"
The Salukis pulled out two other close games during the regular season, coming back from a 28-21 halftime deficit to beat Arkansas State, and shocking Illinois State, 28-26.
The Redbirds held a 26-21 lead, and had the ball in Saluki territory late in the game.
The game appeared to be over. But a pair of bad snaps -- thanks in large part to a noisy McAndrew Stadium crowd -- forced the Redbirds to punt deep in their own territory. SIU then drove in for the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing series.
The only blemish of the season turned out to be a blessing. At 10-0 and ranked 20th overall in the country (I-A and I-AA) going into the regular-season finale, the Salukis were humbled.
Wichita State ruined SIU's perfect season with a 28-6 thumping, costing the Salukis the Missouri Valley Conference title.
Fortunately, the loss just made SIU stronger.
"They didn't panic after the Wichita State game," Dempsey said. "That made them angry.
"It was a wake-up call," Johnson said.
"We lost the conference," Haywood said. "We blew that. We definitely didn't want to blow it in playoffs."
"I don't think it fazed us one bit," Johnson said. "I think it made us mad."
Did it ever.
Despite the loss, the Salukis entered the playoffs as the No.1 seed, getting a first round bye. With home field advantage, they rolled past Indiana State and Nevada-Reno by identical 23-7 scores to advance to the championship in Charleston, S.C.
The confidence displayed in the regular season only intensified before their showdown with West Carolina.
SIU was so ready for their opponent that coach Dempsey canceled a team meeting the night before the game.
"He said `this game is over," Haywood said. "And he told us to go back to our hotel rooms."
The Salukis were so anxious the next morning that many of them skipped the pre-game meal.
"Some of the players asked if they could take their steak and put it in a bag," Dempsey said. "They were ready to play."
The Salukis were able to back up that swagger from the opening kickoff to the final seconds.
"To tell you the truth, it was total dominance," Haywood said.
The Salukis picked off seven WCU passes in the game, and led 33-0 entering the fourth quarter. Johnson led the offense, completing 19-of-25 pass for 213 yards and three touchdowns in his final game at SIU.
"We thought it would be a very close game because they had tremendous speed and great coaching staff," Dempsey said. "But we never expected that big of a lead."
"They were determined they were going to win that game."
To listen to Dempsey and Johnson reflect on that season, one would guess it happened a few weeks ago. But its been a while, and a lot has changed.
Johnson is now an actor, appearing in such films as Jerry MaGuire, Any Given Sunday, and The Rock. Dempsey is a senior pastor at his church in Ohio.
But the Saluki program may be on the verge of going full circle.
Twenty-three years after winning the National Championship, the Salukis are among the preseason favorites to compete for a I-AA Playoff bid and the national title.
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