Sports Legends: “We Want Dike”

Dike Eddleman, U of I’s greatest all-around athlete, excelled in football, track—and especially basketball

Dike Eddleman, U of I’s greatest all-around athlete, excelled in football, track—and especially basketball

A posed shot of Dike Eddleman in his uniform holding a basketball.

All-time great Dike Eddleman racked up his share of Illini records. His 88-yard punt against Iowa in 1948 remains the school’s best. He also holds the school mark for longest punt return, racing 92 yards in 1947 against Western Michigan. In basketball, Eddleman earned First-Team All-American honors from Chuck Taylor and Converse. (Image courtesy of UI Archives)

As the greatest all-around athlete in U of I history, Thomas Dwight “Dike” Eddleman, ’49 AHS, excelled in three sports during the mid-to-late 1940s. 

In football, Eddleman set longstanding records as both a returner and punter. In track and field, he was good enough to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. And in basketball, Eddleman was Big Ten MVP his senior year in 1948–49. 

No surprise, Eddleman went out a winner in his favorite sport. His final appearance as an Illini came in the 1949 NCAA basketball tournament. After a disappointing loss to power and top-ranked Kentucky in the semifinal in New York, Illinois flew across the country for the third-place game in Seattle.

The games were four days apart on opposite ends of the country. Playing against Oregon State for third place, Illinois took a 28-19 lead at halftime and held on for a 57-53 victory. Eddleman scored 11 points, second on the team to Wally Osterkorn’s 17.

“He just loved basketball,” said Dee Lenzi, who penned a biography about her dad in 1997.

Eddleman passed away on Aug. 1, 2001, at age 78. The Centralia, Ill., native was born in 1922. His 100th birthday is just after Christmas.

Dike Eddleman in letterman sweater seated on a table among his many awards and trophies.

Thomas Dwight “Dike” Eddleman among his many awards and trophies.

After leaving pro basketball, Eddleman went to work for Central Soya in Gibson City, Ill., where he stayed for 15 years. The job and community gave him easy access to his beloved Illini and Champaign-Urbana. Eddleman spent the last 24 years of his career as the executive director of the University’s Grants-in-Aid program, which provided financial aid for student athletes, placing the “greatest student athlete in U of I history” in charge of fundraising to support subsequent generations of student athletes.

Another one of Eddleman’s memorable games with the Illini came on Jan. 8, 1949, at Bloomington, Ind. During a jump ball, Eddleman got smashed in the face by his Hoosiers counterpart. He started to bleed profusely, and Coach Harry Combes, ’37 ED, MS ’42 ED,  took him out of the game despite Eddleman’s protests.

“The crowd started chanting ‘We want Dike,’” Lenzi says. “They just wanted to see good basketball. [Coach] Harry kept shaking his head. Finally, he let him go back in.”

Good move. Illinois won 44-42 in double overtime.