Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Mostly Historical, A Bit Personal

This is mostly historical, a bit personal.

It was 20 years ago today – Nov. 21, 1981 – that something happened in Kinnick Stadium at Iowa City that jolted the collegiate football world and touched off pandemonium in an entire state.

Iowa, which hadn’t produced a winning season since 1961 and had been showing plenty of signs of never being able to solve the “Big Two, Little Eight’’ mess the Big Ten Conference had become, pulled off what football have-nots always dream of doing.

On a brisk, late-November afternoon, Hayden Fry’s Hawkeyes got a huge assist from Ohio State and won a ticket to the Rose Bowl. Iowa did its part by mauling Michigan State, 36-7. Ohio State opened the door for Fry and his players earlier in the afternoon by winning at Michigan, 14-9.

Although Iowa and Ohio State both finished the regular season with 8-3 records and tied for first place in the conference at 6-2, the Hawkeyes got the bid to Pasadena because the Buckeyes had been to the Rose Bowl more recently.

I covered the Iowa-Michigan State game for the Des Moines Sunday Register and still vividly recall the bedlam in the stadium that afternoon.

In those days, Register sportswriters didn’t cover only one team for the entire season. We might cover Iowa one week, Iowa State the next week, Drake the week after that, Notre Dame next, then go back to Iowa. That provided us with a fresh outlook each week, and I can’t say it was faulty policy on the part of the editors.

I missed a game late in the season when I was in University Hospitals at Iowa City, recovering from a problem associated with my Type I, insulin-dependent diabetes. In 1981, I had already been a diabetic for 33 years. Now, in November, 2001, I’ve got more than 53 years of the disease behind me and, here I am, still enjoying college football and still writing about it.

On game day, Nov. 21, 1981, I remember my body being sore and a bit out of touch with what was going on around me.

But all of that was forgotten when Iowa leaped to a 16-0 first-quarter lead over Michigan State. I had a job to do. I planned to do it as well as I could.

What a wild day it turned out to be for all of us in that stadium.

Fry’s first two Iowa teams went 5-6 and 4-7, and no one expected his 1981 squad to perform any magic. Fry said later in his book, “Hayden Fry—A High Porch Picnic,’’ that he couldn’t disagree with preseason predictions that the Hawkeyes would likely finish somewhere in the middle of the Big Ten standings.

“We had no illusion about contending for the Big Ten championship,’’ Fry said. “We just wanted to win more games than we lost.’’

But something happened in the season opener that made people start wondering if this could be a special team. Iowa, which had been demolished by Nebraska, 57-0, the year before, rode its strong defense to a stunning 10-7 victory.

However, Iowa State brought the Hawkeyes back to reality the following week with a 23-12 victory. It was in the middle of three consecutive victories the Cyclones had in the series under Coach Donnie Duncan.

But Iowa continued to show that this would be a very big year by later beating UCLA, 20-7, and pulling off huge Big Ten road victories at Michigan, 9-7, and Wisconsin, 17-7.

I didn’t keep many sports sections from my working days, but I did hang onto the Nov. 22, 1981 Sunday Register. That’s the one that carried the headline “IOWA TO ROSE BOWL!’’

Next to that banner head were photos of two red roses. Considering the Sunday Register still had peach-colored paper and was called “THE BIG PEACH,’’ putting roses on that page took some doing.

In addition to my story of the Iowa-Michigan State game and accompanying photographs of Phil Blatcher, the Iowa back who ran for 247 yards, and Fry, who was clutching a rose, Page 1 also included accounts of games involving Iowa State and Drake, plus the newspaper’s high school All-State teams as selected by Chuck Burdick.

Buck Turnbull covered Iowa State’s 27-7 loss to Oklahoma State in the season finale at Ames. Turnbull wrote that the Cyclones “saved the worst for last.’’ Wayne Grett wrapped up a wonderful 10-1 season by Drake. The Bulldogs, coached by Chuck Shelton, rolled past Nebraska-Omaha, 53-0, on a field described by Grett as “a quagmire as a result of Thursday’s snow.’’

Both the Iowa State and Drake stories, as they say in the newspaper business, were below the fold. But at least the Drake story didn’t wind up “back by the tire ads,’’ as Shelton would often say of the Bulldogs’ coverage by the paper.

On Page 2, there were three other staff-written stories dealing with Iowa. Marc Hansen wrote about 20,000 Rose Bowl tickets being available to Hawkeye fans, Bob Dyer wrote a sidebar on the game -- quoting a number of Iowa players -- and then-sports editor Dave Westphal wrote that Iowa’s upcoming Rose Bowl game against Washington would be exactly 25 years after the school’s first trip to Pasadena.

Elsewhere on that page, there was an Associated Press story, headlined “Ray Praises Iowa, Drake,’’ that quoted Robert Ray, then Iowa’s governor, as saying, “Today was an historic day in the history of sports in Iowa. It’s been a long time in coming, but that only makes it that much sweeter.’’

Page 3 was made up entirely of photographs of the Iowa-Michigan State game, taken by Dave Peterson, Harry Baumert and the Associated Press.

Maury White’s account of the Ohio State-Michigan game was headlined across Page 4. In it, he quoted a disappointed Bruce (who had gone to Ohio State from Iowa State) as saying, “Well, we put Iowa in the Rose Bowl.’’

Page 5 carried a large advertisement, urging Iowa’s fans to stay at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. When the ad was placed, before the Nov. 21 fireworks, it appeared the Hawkeyes would wind up in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis. Instead, that’s where Ohio State went, and I’ll bet some of the Buckeye fans stayed at the Peabody.

Speaking of ads, a tour company from Iowa City had one in that paper, selling eight-day, seven-night trips to the Rose Bowl for $689 out of Des Moines. Nothing was in the ad, however, about Iowa being in the game.

The Rose Bowl came a few weeks later. Sadly, Washington won, 28-0. But that’s a story for another day.

This is a different season, and both Iowa and Iowa State – which face one another Saturday in Ames – are headed to bowl games.

I’ll be in the press box.

The good times are back for the Hawkeyes, the Cyclones and me.

For anyone who missed the Nov. 22, 1981 Big Peach, here’s another look at the Iowa-Michigan State game story:

[The Des Moines Sunday Register, Nov. 22, 1981]

NOVEMBER 22, 1981

Big Ten co-champs meet Washington on Jan. 1

Buckeyes jar Michigan,
Then Hawks romp, 36-7

Sunday Register Staff Writer

IOWA CITY, IA. – Make space in the football throne room for a 1981 Iowa team that defied all the odds, performed with a heart and soul unseen around here since the 1950s and Saturday charged into the Rose Bowl on one of the craziest afternoons the old Big Ten Conference has ever witnessed.

Hayden Fry’s gang of supercharged Hawkeyes, given a huge assist by Ohio State earlier in the afternoon, tied for the league championship and became the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl representative with a smashing 36-7 victory over Michigan State before a crowd of 60,103 that shook the footings of Kinnick Stadium with its wild-eyed excitement.

There have been some incredible football happenings over the years at this university in America’s heartland. Howard Jones had some excellent teams in the 1920s. Coach Eddie Anderson, Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick and the rest of the 1939 Ironmen certainly deserved every honor that came their way. So did the 1956 and ’58 Big Ten title teams coached by Forest Evashevski that went on to Rose Bowl victories.

But this unbelievable collection of athletes coached by Fry grabs its own spot in history by authoring quite a rags-to-riches story. Not only did this group become the first Hawkeye team to have a winning season since 1961, but then went for all the gusto and made it to Pasadena.

247 Yards for Blatcher

On a day when Phil Blatcher, a senior who began the season as a third-string tailback, blasted his way to a near-school record 247 yards rushing, Iowa earned the right to play Washington of the Pacific Ten Conference on New Year’s Day in the 68th Rose Bowl game.

“Doing something like this was beyond our wildest dreams,’’ said an elated Fry afterward.

The Texan who brought Iowa from football’s outhouse to the penthouse in just three years was holding a rose petal in one hand and had a rose decal stuck to his forehead.

“Yah-hoo!’’ the 52-year-old coach shouted as he began pondering when he’d be taking his players to Pasadena for Iowa’s first Rose Bowl game since Jan. 1, 1959.

“Shoot! I’d take my players to California tomorrow if I could,’’ he said.

When the band finally quit playing “California, Here I Come’’ and the fans finished tearing down both goal posts to celebrate the victory, Iowa closed the regular season with an 8-3 record and finished in a tie with Ohio State for the Big Ten title at 6-2.

Coming into the day, the Hawks knew it was going to take an unlikely set of events to get them to

IOWA WILL DISTRIBUTE AT LEAST 20,000 ROSE BOWL TICKETS. Page: 2D__________________________________________________________________________________
the Rose Bowl. Michigan, a 9-7 victim of Iowa earlier in the autumn, was in the driver’s seat. All the Wolverines had to do was win at home Saturday over Ohio State.

Favor From Bruce

But Earle Bruce, the Buckeye coach who spent a half-dozen seasons at Iowa State, and his Buckeyes did Iowa a tremendous favor by knocking off Michigan, 14-9, at Ann Arbor.

It took a while for Fry and his players to realize what all the cheering was about in the stands, but once they discovered why the Iowa fans were so excited, they were glad they asked.

“At first,” Fry said, “I thought all the drunks had gotten together in the stands. Finally, I went over to someone sitting there with a radio.

“But the guy was so uptight he didn’t tell me who was ahead in the game he was listening to.

“’Who’s got the ball?’’’ I asked.

“’The team that’s ahead,’ he answered.’’

Finally, Fry learned that Ohio State was ahead. A bit later, he, his players and everyone else were told by The Rev. Robert Holzhammer, the public address announcer, that Ohio State had won.

Seconds after the Ohio State-Michigan game was over, The Rev. Holzhammer was poised in the press box to make the announcement to the crowd. With him was Iowa Athletic Director Bump Elliott.

“I’ll say it when you tell me to,’’ he told Elliott.

“Say it now,’’ Elliott said.

So, with 6 minutes 14 seconds remaining in the first half and with Iowa in front of Michigan State, 16-0, the crowd was told that Michigan had been beaten.

Kinnick Stasdium exploded. The only bigger blast came when this game ended and many of the fans emptied onto the field in pursuit of their heroes.

“Rose Bowl! Rose Bowl!’’ the fans had chanted in the final minutes. Players were jumping up and down on the sidelines. Fry was smiling. His assistant coaches were carrying rose petals.

They said it would be a cold day before Iowa ever earned another ticket to Pasadena. Well, it was 30 degrees here Saturday. Yes, it was cold. And, yes, the Hawkeyes are going to Pasadena.

Coming into the game, Iowa’s best bet appeared to be a Liberty Bowl appearance against Navy. Two scouts from the Memphis, Tenn., game were here, prepared to issue Fry and the Hawks an invitation after the game.

However, with the result from Ann Arbor already in and with Iowa ripping Michigan State, the Liberty Bowl scouts left after three quarters.

It will be Ohio State that plays in the Liberty Bowl and Michigan that goes to the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, Texas.

397 Yards Rushing

Iowa, with a reputation for having a brilliant defense and a questionable offense most of the season, turned loose a running game that produced a whopping 397 yards against Michigan State.

And this was no patsy bunch of Spartans. They came here with a 5-5 overall record and had won four of their previous five games.

However, the Hawkeyes were ready for this invasion. They had no control over what was going to happen at Ann Arbor, but it was obvious they’d do their part.

On Michigan State’s very first scrimmage play, Bobby Stoops hit pass receiver Al Kimichik so hard after an eight-yard gain that he coughed up the ball. Andre Tippett grabbed it in mid-air and retired it seven yards to the Spartan 18-yard line.

In just two plays, Iowa was on the scoreboard. Blatcher, running all afternoon like he was shot out of a cannon, gained nine yards on first down, then crashed into the end zone from the nine with only 1:01 gone. Tom Nichol kicked the extra point that made it 7-0.

Hawks Get Safety

A bit later in the period, linebacker James Erb blocked Ralf Mojsiejenko’s punt out of the end zone for a safety. Erb hit the ball with such force that there was no chance for any him or any other Hawkeye to recover for a touchdown.

So with 7:27 to go in the quarter, Iowa was in front, 9-0. Then, with 2:18 left in the period, Eddie Phillips climaxed a 12-play, 46-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run that, along with Nichol’s kick, put Michigan State behind, 16-0.

Indeed, it was starting to take on all appearances of a cakewalk. But then came the commotion from the crowd over the Ohio State-Michigan score, and Iowa appeared to lose a bit of its intensity.

“When we heard the Ohio State score,’’ quarterback Gordy Bohannon commented, “it seemed to make us a little uptight. But then we settled down.’’

Michigan State got on the scoreboard on Bryan Clark’s one-yard pass to JimHodo with 1:28 remaining in the half before Iowa got its act back in gear. Morten Andersen’s placement made it 16-7 at intermission.

A very big defensive play for the Hawks was turned in by cornerback Tracy Crocker when the Spartans were seriously threatening to make the score even closer in the third quarter.

With third-and-goal on the Hawk five, Clark fired a pass directly at Crocker, who fielded it cleanly and returned the ball 16 yards.

Blatcher Again!

Nichol gave Iowa some cushion with a 26-yard field goal at 5:46 in the third period, then Blatcher – who now was unstoppable – sailed into the end zone for a touchdown with 43 seconds left in the period.

Nichol’s kick raised the Hawk lead to 26-7 heading into the final 15 minutes – and the crowd was thinking thoughts of roses.

Nichol pushed the lead to 29-7 on a 23-yard field goal with 10:52 left in the game, and No. 2 wingback Vince Campbell caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from No. 2 quarterback Pete Gales for a final touchdown with 2:49 left in the game and fans were ready to rip down the goal posts.

Fry and some of his assistants went onto the field with 7:44 to play when a donnybrook between some of the players erupted.

“A number of the Michigan State players were after Pat Dean (Iowa’s star noseguard),’’ Fry explained.

When the game ended, Iowa’s players had to fight their way through man fans to get to the locker room. The spectators who remained in the stands just stood there and watched. And cheered.

Dreams Become Reality

It was an historic moment. Indeed, there were undoubtedly many in the seats who have been coming here since the 1950s and were wondering if they’d live long enough to ever see another Iowa Rose Bowl team.

And most of those who are students at Iowa weren’t even born when Iowa went to the Rose Bowl in ’59 and walloped California, 38-12.

“How ‘bout those Hawks?’’ Fry shouted when he first came in to greet reporters at his press conference. “We’ve come of age.

“What a wonderful, wonderful day. Will somebody please tell Mr. (Bo) Schembechler (Michigan’s coach) that there was another game of meaning today.

“And I send my congratulations to the Ohio State Buckeyes. I understand Art Schlichter (Ohio State’s quarterback) wasn’t going to be denied on his last touchdown run against Michigan and that he thought they’d be in the Rose Bowl.

“But he forgot about Iowa.’’

Senior linebacker Mel Cole said a share of the conference title and a Rose Bowl berth “was a dream, but now it’s for real. We played our butts off all year long.’’

Cole admitted he thought “this would never happen’’ after a freshman season which saw Iowa win just two of 11 games.

“Greatest Feeling’’

“It’s amazing that, in three years, we could go from 2-9 to 8-3,’’ Cole commented. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world.’’

Bohannon, who completed eight of 16 passes for 71 yards, is an Iowa senior from Eagle Rock, Calif., who is looking forward to the Rose Bowl game as much as anyone on the squad.

“I live minutes from the Rose Bowl stadium,’’ he explained, “and I’ve been there to watch the last two New Year’s Day games when Ohio State and Michigan played there.
“I’ve dreamed about finally being able to play in the stadium, but I don’t know how much I actually believed it would come true.’’

The only Iowa player who has ever rushed for more yards in one game than Blatcher was Eddie Podolak, who piled up 286 against Northwestern in 1968. In Saturday’s show, Blatcher moved ahead of Dennis Mosley, who totaled 229 against Iowa State in 1979.

“That’s the most I’ve ever had in any kind of game,’’ said Blatcher, a 5-foot 8-inch, 188-pounder from New Orleans, La. “I took advantage of the holes that were made by my offensive line.’’

When practice began in August, Blatcher was the No. 3 running back behind J.C. Love-Jordan and Phillips. However, Love-Jordan was never able to play because of an injury and was redshirted, and Phillips got banged-up during the year.

Blatcher’s Day

“I got my chance,’’ Blatcher said, "and the guys up front picked a helluva time to block.’’

Fry said he hadn’t “had a back in I don’t know how many years run as hard as Blatcher ran today.’’

Iowa’s Reggie Roby had hoped to become the first player in National Collegiate history to finish the season with a punting average of 50 yards or more. However, had had only a 40.5 mark for his two kicks into the wind Saturday and – even though he led the nation and set an NCAA record – didn’t hit 50.

For the season, the junior from Waterloo closed with a 49.8 average. He came into the game with a 50.3 figure.

“I just didn’t hit either kick very good,’’ Roby said.

Fry said he and his players “had a lot of help from the man upstairs’’ and called his team the “chosen people.’’

The coach said his only expectation coming into the year was “a winning season.’’

But, he added, “when this all settles, this will turn out to be my biggest game because it took us to the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of ‘em all.’’

In the locker room, Fry gathered his players around him and said, “Wayne Duke (the Big Ten commissioner) telephoned me and invited us to the Rose Bowl.’’

Accepts, Of Course

Hayden mentioned that he’d accepted the invitation.

Fry said he plans to give his players two weeks off and that he plans to take his squad to Pasadena Dec. 22 or 23.

The idea of spending Christmas in California appeals to him.

“I think Iowa will be a great team to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl,’’ said Michigan State Coach Muddy Waters. “We have no excuses. We just got beat by a better team.’’

Waters said he had no objection to Iowa, with the game out of reach, going for another score in the final minutes.

“Fry had some people in there he wanted to play,’’ Waters said.

Waters said Iowa “has a great team – especially on defense.’’

It seems like we’ve all heard those words before.

[To send tickets for the 2002 Rose Bowl game to Ron Maly, or to contact him for any other reason, his e-mail address is]

Vol. 1, No. 7
Nov. 21, 2001