At 47 years old, I am the graybeard on this staff and the only one who can actually remember the day Hayden Fry was hired. So of course I also remember Iowa's softly miraculous 1981 Rose Bowl season. More than that, I remember the summer of 1982.
In those days my dad was a district circulation manager for the Des Moines Register. I don't know how things are now but in those days circulation managers could win prizes for getting more subscribers, because it was possible for a newspaper to increase its circulation in 1982. Dad must have been pretty good at it because he almost always won something. He won a VCR back when they were exotic technology and the following year we got to spend a week at a Minnesota resort because of his job. So I wasn't shocked when Dad told me he'd won college football season tickets for the 1982 season. My little ten-year-old black-and-gold Hawkeye heart was deeply hopeful that I'd get to see my heroes in person. That's when Dad told me we'd be going to watch Iowa ... State.
Now, like a lot of native Iowans, I had relatives who had gone to, and were fans of, all three state universities. But my dad had degrees from Buena Vista and Morningside and, to the best of my knowledge, had never in his life watched a football game from beginning to end. He was truly a man of the great indoors. My mom was, and still is, an enthusiastic sports watcher, if not quite a fan. And she loved her Hawkeyes. So why were we going to Iowa State? Was this a reward, or was it a Glengarry Glen Ross- type second place prize?
I mean, I grew up in Fort Dodge, barely an hour from Ames, so that was why we were going to Iowa State and not Iowa. I am a tremendously proud Dodger and I still think of the Dodge as my home even though I haven't lived there since 1990. But I know no one considers my hometown a top travel destination unless they're into skydiving or gypsum mines. Usually when the town started feeling too small we'd head for Des Moines (the arcade at Valley West Mall was so choice). But if Dad was feeling bohemian, we'd go to Ames and spend the day in Campustown. I never minded, but the only things Ames had that Fort Dodge didn't were ISU and Taco Bell, and I wasn't really a fan of either place. Now we were going to spend half of our Saturdays there?
So I was torn. I was thrilled to death that I'd get to watch college football live. However, it meant watching what was already my least favorite team in a town that I considered only slightly more interesting than my hometown. And that year's Cy-Hawk game was at Kinnick, so I wouldn't get to see the Hawkeyes at all. Football is football, though, and I was obviously too young to stay home by myself, so I went.
Iowa State in those days was coached by Donnie Duncan, who you may remember from ... who am I kidding? You don't remember him. He was a longtime Oklahoma assistant who took over for Earle Bruce starting in 1979. The Cyclones were not without talent in those days. Duncan had coached the running back Dwayne Crutchfield into the NFL and now had a pretty solid quarterback (David Archer) and an excellent kicker (Alex Giffords). The 1982 Clones fought Tennessee hard in Knoxville during the season opener, coming up just short at 23-21.
The following week, Iowa State shut down Iowa, 19-7, in Kinnick. Lest you think that Hayden started beating down the Clones right away, he most certainly did not.
So it looked like we'd be watching a pretty good team when we went to the home opener against, um, Drake. You know you're old when you remember that Drake used to routinely play the likes of Iowa State. You know you're really old when you've been to one of those games. Unless you've seen Drake almost beat ISU, that is. The Bulldogs had been co-champs of the Missouri Valley the previous season, but the Clones rolled, 35-10, and most of the crowd left halfway through the third quarter before the line at Hickory Park got too long.
The next week Donnie Duncan's old school, Oklahoma, came to town, and ISU put up a valiant fight before losing, 13-3. But it was 10-3 at halftime, both offenses were playing like garbage, and the Cyclones were drawing penalties on every other play, so most of the crowd left halfway through the third quarter before the line at Hickory Park got too long.
ISU played a third straight home game, this time a 44-7 laugher over Kent State, which wasn't good then and isn't good now. Most of the crowd left halfway through the third quarter before the line at Hickory Park got too long.
Even if I was watching bad football, it was still fun, and it must be said that the ISU band in those days gave a great halftime show. I'd seen two victories over two sad-sack programs, and I'd seen a tough game against a traditional power. But I'd also missed two televised Hawkeyes games. Please recall that in 1982, the typical member of what was then called Division I-A wasn't on TV at all, and even the really good teams were only on three or four times. (That's part of why football fans got so up in arms about Notre Dame's deal with NBC back in the day; when that deal went into place, there were still a ton of untelevised games.) You could watch a telecast of every otherwise-untelevised Iowa game on IPTV of all places, but by rule they weren't allowed to start until after the 10:00 news was over.
ISU was on the road for the next two weeks, tying Mizzou and beating Colorado (it was Bill McCartney's first season). Iowa wasn't on TV either week. The end of October brought Kansas State to town.
I know what you're thinking: K-State before Bill Snyder was a swirling, white-hot vortex of ineptitude. That was generally true, but the 1982 Wildcat team had improved to mediocre, landing an Independence Bowl bid at the end of the season. (That was the first college football game ever broadcast on ESPN, by the way.) The two mediocre teams traded field goals all afternoon long, if you want to call 9-3 "trading field goals." The Clones lost and I was beginning to wonder why we were here doing this to ourselves. And why we didn't leave halfway through the third quarter, before the line at Hickory Park got too long, even though we never ate there. (I think we mostly ate at Minsky's.)
The games were fun, but the long wait everywhere afterwards was not. And we'd now spent four prime fall Saturdays in Ames. As the cold November winds began to swirl, I was actually looking forward to the end of the season and the last game against ....
November 13, 1982 was my first exposure to the Big Red Machine. To understand Nebraska fans back then, imagine Nebraska fans now, only with a team that was actually worth beclowning yourself for. A lot of the families who sat around us in our section had rather wisely cashed out of this game. But not us. We sat amidst an ocean of GO BIG RED in freezing temperatures. A few rows behind us was a fan so drunk he thought he was in Kansas. Nebraska rolled, of course, 48-10, and I think that day we actually did leave halfway through the third quarter. That was the last time I watched a game in person at Iowa State and, God willing, it's the last time I ever will.
Donnie Duncan resigned after that season; he would eventually resurface as Oklahoma's athletic director. ISU replaced him with Boise State head coach Jim Criner, boldly proclaiming ISU'S FINER WITH CRINER! (It was not.) Criner coached until there were two games left in the 1986 season, when he was fired. 1986 was his most successful season at 6-5, so why did he get the bum's rush? Because he and his staff got the school in trouble with the NCAA. Not serious trouble; the Clones lost four scholarships for one season and went on probation for two years. But I want you to look back at ISU football in the mid-1980s and realize ... they had to cheat to produce those results.
Looking back now, I don't regret the year I spent watching the Cyclones in person. It taught me the most important thing you can learn about college football, which is that the game is always better in person. Even now, with HDTV and all that, with jacked-up ticket and concession prices, with monetized everything and corporate sponsorship of urinal mints, anything that gets you outside and unplugged on a beautiful fall Saturday in the Midwest is a very good thing. And there's nothing that can compare with seeing the entire field. But I remain mystified as to why anyone who had a choice in the matter would ever, when faced with the choice of which of Iowa's two major universities to root for in football, pick the one in Ames.
Mind you, a great many of my friends and relatives have made that choice, mostly for bogus reasons like "I went to school there." I respect it even if I don't understand it. I mean, I like RC Cola and the Cincinnati Bengals, for crying out loud. But then they buck up and start talking smack like it hasn't been 46 years since their last first-round draft pick (it has) or like they've forgotten there is literally no one on the face of Earth who remembers their two conference titles (1911 and 1912, in the Missouri Valley of all places). I mean, their last conference title predates income tax in this country. Even if the Earth's polarity shifts and Cy starts beating the Hawkeyes every season, there's a pretty good chance they won't even up the series in my lifetime.
And I will remember that I was there as their team began their descent into the Dork Ages. Things are better for ISU football now, and that's actually a good thing from Iowa's point of view, but ... you just watch. Every game, right around the middle of the third quarter, you can see the visible quiver as the crowd starts weighing watching the rest of the game against beating the traffic and getting a Saucy Southerner. Same as it ever was.