George Bork doesn’t sound any bit the Big Man on Campus his football legend suggests he should.
Nearly 50 years after his name filled the pages of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines and his image became the subject of a Christian Science Monitor cartoon strip, Bork would rather talk about Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch’s star power than he would of his own accolades.
Mention 1963 – the year Bork guided NIU to a 10-0 record and a College Division National Championship following the school’s first post-season bowl victory – a 21-14 win over Southwest Missouri State in the Mineral Water Bowl - and he initially brushes it off.
“That was a long time ago,” the former All-American quarterback and 1999 College Football Hall of Fame inductee said last week.
He would prefer to discuss NIU’s “almost unbelievable” upcoming Orange Bowl appearance than drudge up the season he became the first college quarterback in history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.
Bork appears somewhat uncomfortable with the fame he discovered at NIU, running a spread offense that defined the Huskies’ national championship season and introduced Bork to the nation.
But ask his teammates what made the Huskies’ Mineral Water Bowl championship team so special and they’ll start with Bork. They boast about his passing prowess, his athleticism and leadership. They’ll talk about his quick thinking and the accuracy when he threw to Hugh Rohrschneider and Gary Stearns, who ranked first and second nationally in receiving.
They remain amazed how proficient Bork was running NIU’s spread offense and Blitz-T formation schemes – an offense that was relatively unheard of in the college ranks at the time and run by a relatively anonymous quarterback.
Between Bork’s abilities and a coach in Howard Fletcher who rarely needed more than 2 minutes to inspire his team, the Huskies started to win, not stopping until they had reeled off 10 consecutive victories.
“For some reason, we just knew we were going to win when we left the locker room,” former NIU halfback Jack Dean said.
At the center of it all was Bork, who, at 6-foot-1, 178 pounds, was passed over by bigger programs that wanted him for his basketball skills rather than his ability to throw the football. Both Michigan and Northwestern offered him a spot on their basketball teams but when he inquired about also playing football, both schools backed off.
At NIU, Bork found a place to do both.
It wasn’t long before Bork’s quarterbacking abilities put not only himself, but also the Huskies, under the national spotlight. The New York Daily News produced a full-length feature story, highlighting the leader of a high-flying offense that made the Huskies a big-time story.
Bork called all the plays, relying 99 percent on the pass because “running wasn’t in my vocabulary”, said Bork, who threw for 3,077 yards and 32 touchdowns that season, taking advantage of a new-fangled brand of football well ahead of its time.
“We were on the cutting edge because we threw the ball all over the place and that kind of thing was unheard of at the time,” Bork said. “We were a really exciting team to watch.”
Fletcher was a bit of a cavalier, putting his players in full pads only once a week to avoid injuries. The rest of the week was spent on perfecting an offense just starting to be used by the San Francisco 49ers. It was Fletcher’s own schematic recipe that took bits and pieces of spread offense philosophy being developed by other coaches.
“Nobody knew how to defense it,” Dean said. “We’d have five receivers out there and people couldn’t defend us with a zone because (Bork) would just pick it apart and they couldn’t defend us with man (defense) because they couldn’t keep up.”
Bork, who broke 16 national passing records during the 1963 season, was clearly the star of the show. Although he had thrown a fair amount at Arlington Heights High School, it wasn’t anything close to what he did at NIU, when the Huskies lined up almost exclusively out of the shotgun, allowing Bork to work his magic, often turning nothing into positive yardage.
“If he was rushed, he’d throw off the wrong foot and still make the play, or he might be loping along and suddenly fire the ball with just a wrist snap,” Fletcher said in a Bork profile published years ago. “He also had the ability to take the shock of the biggest and roughest linemen breaking in on him. That was something you can’t teach. Some have it, some don’t.”
Bork, who played four years in the Canadian Football League, was unfazed by the success. In addition to the stories being written by national publications, NIU was getting plenty of television coverage – something Bork said was unheard of before then for the Huskies.
But the Mineral Water Bowl appearance nearly never happened. The game was scheduled to be played in the days after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. As the nation mourned, game officials debated whether the game – which NIU also appeared in and lost in 1962 - should be played.
They eventually agreed to allow the game to go on as scheduled and Huskies capped an unbeaten season – an accomplishment Bork said was couched with what was happening in the country at the time.
“It was almost weird because we were really excited about our team but there was this time of national mourning going on,” Bork said. “As excited as we were to be there, we were sharing in the grief everyone else was.”
All these years later, Bork has focused on his alma mater’s current success rather than looking back at his own. He marvels at the way Lynch operates NIU’s potent offensive attack and the way the Huskies earned an Orange Bowl berth.
He is still somewhat of a regular as Huskie Stadium, a venue sometimes referred to as “The House That Bork Built” and revels in the success of a program that has done more with less, often with players who - like him - were passed over for one reason or another.
Bork occasionally thinks back to 1963 – long before NIU was a post-season regular – and sees a common thread between now and then. He looks over players who weren’t known nationally before that season, but found a way to become something special.
“We had a lot of talented people,” Bork said. “We weren’t going out there and getting a lot of big-name recruits, but we were just fortunate that we all landed at Northern at the same time.”