Iowa football: roses after long drought

There may be snow on the stubble-strewn cornfields, but in Iowa, everything is coming up roses. From Council Bluffs to Davenport, from Storm Lake to Keokuk, December hasn't just been the month of Christmas red and green, but of Hawkeye black and gold. And to top off their special season, thousands of Iowans and ex-Iowans will converge on Pasadena, Calif., New Year's Day while untold numbers more gather around television sets.

What's all the fuss? The University of Iowa, after 23 years and 20 consecutive losing seasons, is playing football in the Rose Bowl again, this time against the University of Washington.

The significance of this event may be lost on casual observers, but not Iowans. Two decades of poundings from the likes of Big Ten powers Michigan and Ohio State, and even from lesser foes, have brought a keen appetite for a winner to the Hawkeye State. Before the ecstasy surrounding this season's 8-3 squad, the nadir of despair came in 1973, when the team won nary a game in 11 trys.

It wasn't always thus. A few Iowans can still remember the ''Golden Age'' of Hawkeye football when running backs Aubrey Devine and Gordon Locke led the team to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1921 and 1922. The holes for their dashes were cut by tackle Duke Slater, a college hall-of-famer and one of football's first black stars. Slater was a ferocious tackler, too, and he gained another distinction: he played bareheaded, shunning even the flimsy leather helmet of those days.

Another brief flicker of gridiron glory came in 1939 when Nile Kinnick almost single-handedly led the Hawks to a 6-1-1 record, just missing the Big Ten championship. The versatile Kinnick ran or passed for 16 of the team's 19 touchdowns. He played nearly every minute of the season on offense and defense, and capped his amazing season by beating out Michigan's Tom Harmon to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation's best player.

Iowa fans had to wait until the 1950s, however, for the team to win another championship. Forest Evashevski, the blocking back for Harmon at Michigan, became the new Hawkeye coach and slowly built a title contender. His early teams were known for their powerful linemen, and one of them, Alex Karras, even finished second in the 1957 Heisman voting, an unheard of accomplishment for a lineman. Karras later became an all-pro with the Detroit Lions.

In those glory years, the Hawks used a version of the wing-T formation to terrorize opponents. Led by the pinpoint passing of Randy Duncan, the high-stepping running of Bob Jeter, and the two-way play of All-America end Curt Merz, Iowa's 1958 team headed for the Rose Bowl as the nation's top offensive team.

The Big Ten dominated the contest during this period, making the game against a Joe Kapp-quarterbacked California squad a bit anti-climactic. Iowa won, 38-12 , as Bob Jeter ran for 194 yards, averaging 21 yards per carry, both Rose Bowl records.

But that was to be the last time the Iowans, or precious few other Big Ten teams outside of Michigan and Ohio State, would smell the roses. The advent of two-platoon football in the early 1960s seemed to swing the pendulum toward those two football powerhouses, who could recruit large numbers of quality players.

''We always felt we had 14 or 15 players who could play with anybody,'' says Evashevski. ''But in the era of offensive and defensive specialists, you need at least 25 good players.''

Today, scholarship limitations have brought parity to major college football, helping Iowa to end a 12-year run by Michigan and Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Actually, the 1981 Hawkeyes weren't expected to reward their ever-loyal fans so handsomely. In 1979 Hayden Fry became the fifth Iowa coach in the post-Evashevski era, but initially did little better than his predessors with 5- 6 and 4-7 seasons. Even changing the team's uniforms to look like those of the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed only a futile attempt at imitating success.

Yet this season an experienced and aggressive defense paved the way to victories over some of the nation's best running teams (Michigan, UCLA, and Nebraska) as Iowa rose to No. 6 in the national polls.

After faltering at midseason, the Hawkeyes came on to grab a share of the Big Ten title with Ohio State. The Hawkeyes earned the Rose Bowl berth, since Ohio State made the trip more recently.

Complementing Iowa's defense is the punting of Reggie Roby, whose 49.8-yard average is a national record. As one coach described the problem playing Iowa: ''You don't get the football much, and when you do, it's over your head.''

When Iowa has the ball, quarterback Gordy Bohannon and tailback Phil Blatcher do most of the damage. Bohannon is effective both passsing and running from the shotgun formation; Blatcher was the Big Ten's third-leading rusher.

If the team from Iowa City comes up short, it won't be for lack of support in the stands. One unofficial count estimates that nearly one-third of the Rose Bowl's 100,000 seats may be occupied by Iowa partisans.

One of them will be Randy Duncan, now a lawyer in Des Moines. He'll bring his whole family to watch son Matt, a freshman on this year's team. Another will be Evashevski, Iowa's last Rose Bowl coach, who'll be broadcasting the game back by radio to ''the whole state of Iowa.''

And with old-timers gathering round, Sen. Roger Jepsen (R) of Iowa even invited the Hawkeyes play-by-play announcer from the early 1930s to attend, promising him a couple of hard-to-come-by tickets. But at this writing, the word is that former sportscaster Ronald (Dutch) Reagan will be too busy to attend.

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