Illini vs. SIU: 20 years ago, it was magic

October 9, 2010

The drive to Champaign on Sept. 22, 1990, was routine. As beat writer for University of Illinois football, trips east on Interstate 74 came two or three days a week.

This was another one.

The destination was another game, presumably nothing more.

Illinois was at home against Division I-AA Southern Illinois. John Mackovic’s 15th-ranked Illini were heavily favored.




Sure enough, Illinois won big, 56-21. Yet, the day veered miles from routine.

Those of us in the Memorial Stadium press box wound up writing about Red Grange, Jim Brown, a Chicago math teacher and Arnold "Showboat" Boykin.

Never heard of Showboat?

Neither had we until Illini senior running back Howard Griffith, a former walk-on, ran past Grange, Brown and "Showboat" into the NCAA record book.

In the Dad’s Day crowd of 64,469 were the misty eyes of Huie Griffith, Howard’s father and a Kelvyn Park High School math teacher.

"This is a treasure," he said later, clutching the game ball.

No one argued.

Even then-SIU coach Bob Smith, a former Illinois assistant, called Howard Griffith’s eight-touchdown, 48-point performance "quite an honor," adding, "It’s great that he got it because he’s been so important to the Illinois program."

The Illini and Salukis play again Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. It is their first meeting since Huie Griffith’s pride and joy broke Grange’s school record of five rushing TDs against Michigan in 1924, eclipsed Brown’s NCAA mark of 43 points in 1956, and bettered Boykin’s NCAA record of seven rushing touchdowns for Mississippi in 1951.

The younger Griffith is not so young anymore. He enjoyed a lengthy NFL career, winning Super Bowl rings with Denver in 1998 and 1999. Now a Big Ten Network television analyst, he will be at Memorial Stadium on Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his jaw-dropping day.

The game, like Griffith’s Illini career, started slowly. Illinois trailed 21-7 early and Mackovic benched starting quarterback Jason Verduzco.

It appeared that would be the story, provided the Illini avoided the upset. Instead, Verduzco and his replacement, Jeff Kinney, became afterthoughts to Griffith.

He scored on runs of 5, 51, 7 and 41 yards in the first half, and 5, 18, 5 and 3 yards in the third quarter. The eight TDs and 48 points remain NCAA records.

None of it was likely when Griffith walked on at Illinois and failed to meet Proposition 48 academic standards as a freshman. He became a starter as a sophomore and ended his Illini career fourth in rushing and first in touchdowns.

Griffith blossomed into a leader and co-captain, helping Illinois go 10-2 in 1989 and share the Big Ten Conference title in 1990. He also emerged in the classroom, earning his bachelor’s degree in speech communication.

No. 29 was well established by the time Southern Illinois arrived in Champaign, but eight touchdowns?

No one saw that coming.

Huie Griffith was right. Seeing it was a treasure.

The image is clear in the rearview mirror as well. A lot of things fade in two decades, but not this.

Howard Griffith was a beast that afternoon, covering 208 yards in 21 attempts. He ran through, around and over the Salukis, turning a game into a rout, and routine on its ear.

The drive was worth it.

Never better.

Randy Kindred is at The Kindred Blog:


PUB: The Pantagraph

PUB DATE: 20100910

Section: Sports




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