The Panthers finished 1-10 in 1977 and were fighting not to be eliminated as an intercollegiate sport.
Shanahan return to his alma mater in 1978 as offensive coordinator for first-year head coach Darrell Mudra, who was coaxed out of retirement being fired at Florida State in 1975.
Essentially saving the program, which continues to thrive, the Panthers beat Delaware 10-9 on Dec. 9, 1978, in the Division II champion game, the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
“I thought it was extremely unusual to do what Darrell Mudra did as a head football coach,” Shanahan said in 2015. “He took a program (came to EIU after last coaching in 1974 and 1975 going 4-18 at Florida State) that had not had a winning season in 17 years and were 1-10 the year before.
“He has 21 of the 22 starters back and so it wasn’t like a big change, but you could feel the change. To go from 1-10 to 12-2 those are stories that you will remember forever.”
They did it with running back Chris “Poke” Cobb, who rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown early in the fourth quarter against Delaware.
They did it with Scott McGhee, who ranked second in Division II with 878 yards receiving in 1978.
They did it with All-American defensive end Peter Catan, linebacker Ray Jeske and safety Kevin Jones, who helped the Panthers hold Delaware’s vaunted Wing-T to 155 yards rushing and forced five turnovers.
Jeske had 21 tackles and Jones two takeaways, a fumble recovery and an interception, against Delaware.
“I had the fumble recovery that set up the score to go ahead and the interception with less than a minute to go (to seal the win),” Jones recalled in 2011. “They threw a bomb and I intercepted it on the 3.”
“The defense really stiffened in the second half,” Mudra said after the game. “We applied a lot of pressure. Without a doubt, turnovers were an important factor. … All were critical to us, either leading to a score or stopping a drive.”
After Jones’ fumble recovery, EIU drove for its winning touchdown. Quarterback Steve Terk hit McGhee on a 25-yard completion to set up Poke’s 1-yard run and the all-important extra point.
Delaware still had a chance to win with nine seconds remaining, but kicker Brandt Kennedy missed a 45-yard field goal.
Mudra, dubbed “Dr. Victory” by the Chicago Tribune for curing a program that appeared terminal, led the Panthers back to the Division II championship game in 1980. They lost to Cal Poly but went 47-15-1 in Mudra’s five years.
Cobb, a former NCAA rushing record holder with 5,042 career yards, finished as EIU’s career leader with 6,077 all-purpose yards and 49 touchdowns. He played in the Canadian Football League.
Catan, who is on this year’s ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame, finished with a school-record 47 career sacks.
All are in the school’s Hall of Fame, along with Shanahan, who left EIU in 1979 to become offensive coordinator at Minnesota then Florida.
He joined the Denver Broncos as offensive coordinator for Dan Reeves in 1984. He compiled a 170-138 record in 20 seasons as head coach for three NFL teams, including the Broncos’ Super Bowl champions in the 1997-98 seasons.
He also helped put Eastern Illinois football back on the map. The Panthers produced another Super Bowl-winning head coach, Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, and current NFL quarterbacks Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo.
“I recruited in the Chicagoland area for about five years after that at Minnesota and Florida and you could tell the respect people had for Eastern after having the 1978 season,” Shanahan said in 2015.
“It seemed like the kids kept on coming here. Eastern was growing and I think a lot of it had to do with the successful football program and the vision of a guy like Darrell Mudra who was able to turn things around. There were some things that had never done before.”
Above: Chris “Poke” Cobb, a former NCAA rushing record holder with 5,042 career yards, helped lead the Panthers to the 1978 NCAA Division II championship in 1978 following a 1-10 season in 1977. (Courtesy Eastern Illinois University Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Drexel and Duquesne
• Tuesday: East Carolina and East Tennessee State
• Wednesday: Eastern Illinois and Eastern Kentucky
• Thursday: Eastern Michigan and Elon
• Friday: Ferris State and Florida Atlantic