Crème de la crème: ISU '80s gridiron juggernaut returns to Memorial Stadium

Oct. 25—Since the early 1980s, when Indiana State football made the jump to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, it has progressed to three national tournaments.

The most recent bid was in 2014 when the team got out of the first round with a win over Eastern Kentucky.

Before that, the 1983 and 1984 squads that went a combined 18-7 reached the postseason in each year. The Dennis Raetz-coached Sycamores beat Eastern Illinois in the first postseason. During the regular season, they had the horses for national powers — from what became the Football Bowl Subdivision echelon.

One of these foes was Florida. ISU traveled to the "Swamp," now Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, in Gainesville, Fla., and almost stunned the No. 15-ranked Gators.

With nearly 70,000 in attendance, Raetz said the Sycamores led late in the fourth quarter before falling 17-13 on Sept. 17, 1983.

Steve Buxton, a 6-foot-7, 325-pound guard on that team, said it was a far cry from what was anticipated by pundits on the eve of the matchup.

"Florida was a big game just from the fact that we had an opportunity to go knock off a big team," he said. "They were [No. 15] and here we come from a Division I-AA school, go to Florida to play these guys and of course, we were watching the news highlights, before the game the night before. They're talking smack about how they are going to blow us out "400-0" — the news media. I was like, 'This is not right. This is not how this is going to go."

Raetz counted with his five fingers outside Memorial Stadium on Saturday the collection of first-round NFL draft picks on that Gators squad.

They boasted the likes of Lomas Brown, the No. 6 pick in 1985 to the Detroit Lions; wideout Ricky Nattiel to the Denver Broncos in 1987; fullback John L. Williams to the Seattle Seahawks; and running back Neal Anderson to the Chicago Bears in 1986.

The 11th pick in the 1984 draft was linebacker Wilber Marshall to the Bears.

The guy pulling the strings on Florida's offensive side of the ball was future NFL coach Mike Shanahan.

The Sycamores had an eclectic bunch on their sideline taking the program to new heights.

Pete Hoener headed up the offensive line, the tight ends and was the offensive coordinator. He coached these positions for more than two decades in the NFL.

Alvin Reynolds, ISU secondary coach, logged nearly two decades as a defensive backs coach in the NFL.

Bobby Turner coached running backs at ISU from 1975-82. Now he's doing the same with the San Francisco 49ers after working in the NFL for almost every season since 1995.

Former defensive backs coach Dave McGinnis was with the program in the years leading up to 1983 and was in the NFL for 30 years, including serving as the Arizona Cardinals' head coach from 2000 to 2003.

The ISU coaching cradle rocked after 1984 and is still rocking.

Current Broncos head coach Sean Payton was with ISU from 1990-91.

"So, yeah, we had some guys," said Raetz, who was a defensive coordinator from 1978-79 and coach from 1980-1997. He was MVC Coach of the Year in 1984.

Raetz said his staff was tasked with not only coaching but recruiting and player development.

"They matured us into finished players," Buxton said.

Buxton added that effort in practice in games and practice often seeped over into effort in the classroom.

The 60-year-old Buxton's leg was amputated a few years ago because of a bone infection in his ankle, after rebuilding his ankle in surgery that was hurt from years of wear and tear.

He was a member of a team that morphed into a juggernaut after hitting the ISU campus.

"We never said a lot," he said. "We just played."

Buxton, several teammates and coaches were on hand Saturday as Indiana State lost 17-3 to South Dakota as the school commemorated the 40th anniversary of the squad.

Prior to the homecoming game for the current players and alumni, Buxton reminisced on playing at Memorial Stadium. In 1984, with a broken paw, he said the team was near midfield in a game when his number, 68, was wrongly called for holding. Actually, then-Sycamore Mike Simmonds was the lineman holding on this snap.

Buxton remembered Saturday being scolded by Raetz. Raetz stated that he simply went with the information he had.

There were a plethora of Sycamores who played at the next level in those years.

Buxton, a Sullivan native, was drafted in the eighth round by the Chicago Bears. Simmonds, a 10th-round pick in 1987 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hailing from Belleville, Ill., is now the co-offensive coordinator and line coach at UTEP and is in his sixth season there and 30th overall.

Center and guard Richard Dawson, one of several ISU Hall of Famers, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NFL. He was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference selection.

The top of the tier for that squad were the highest draft picks in school history, Raetz said.

In the 1985 draft, the late Wayne Davis — a cornerback — was selected with the 39th pick in the second round of the NFL draft and went on to play with the San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins over six seasons. Vencie Glenn, a safety, went with the 54th pick in the second round in the 1986 draft and played for the Chargers, New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants over an admirable 10-year NFL career.

Jeff Miller never got drafted in the NFL, but he was ISU's quarterback in 1983 and 1984 and ranks among the program's best ever at that position. Also, future ISU head coach Trent Miles — who has been an NFL and NCAA Division I assistant with several high-profile teams — was a wide receiver on both those squads.

"It's always nice to see guys that played for you and guys you know," said Raetz, who still lives in Terre Haute. "I have nothing but fond memories of Indiana State."