When Iowa Was No Man's Land: The Early Days of Cy-Hawk

By Mark Hasty on September 8, 2021 at 10:00 am
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Des Moines Register file photo
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You've already heard it: this is the first Cy-Hawk game where both teams are ranked. That doesn't surprise you, given the history of the renewed rivalry. But what if I told you that at least a few of your ideas about the history of the rivalry aren't quite right? How deep of a dive have you done into the series history? And how much do you know about Our Actual Most Hated Rival?

I don't know how old anyone else on this staff is. I know I'll turn 50 during this season and I'm older than the rest of the crew. I think I might even have a decade or more on all of them. I don't mind, partly because I've looked like a 50-year-old man since I was about 24, and partly because I remember things no one else on staff does. For instance, I have lots of memories of the 1970s, so I remember the last time there was some doubt about which football program in Iowa was the best.

The Cy-Hawk game resumed in 1977. The Clones charged into Kinnick wearing snazzy BEAT IOWA jerseys and lost, 12-10. (Don't ask me why, but the first four games in the series were played in Iowa City.) I have to admit that I was just a kindergartener at the time of that game and have no memory of it. Nor do I recall the next one, in 1978.

But that game has one rather important distinction. Namely, it's the only Cy-Hawk game ever where Iowa wasn't ranked but Iowa State was. The Clones, behind Earle Bruce's leadership, were ranked #20 and dogwalked Bob Commings' Hawkeyes, 31-0. ISU finished the regular season 8-3, then lost to future conference rival Texas A&M in the Hall of Fame Bowl, 28-12. Commings, an Iowa loyalist who won and lost plenty of games he shouldn't have, was fired after a 2-9 season, paving the way for Hayden Fry.

Earle Bruce was gone after that season as well, hired to replace Woody Hayes at Ohio State after Hayes assaulted a Clemson player on national television. And that's something a lot of people either forget or never knew about Hayden Fry's first season: Iowa State had a new coach that year as well.

The Clones had hired Donnie Duncan, a long-time Oklahoma assistant. Cyrus also had recent momentum on its side, having been far more successful during the 1970s than Iowa had been. (They pretty much would have had to have been; those Iowa teams were not so good.) So heading into 1979, if you'd asked most Iowans which of the two teams was more likely to be successful over the next few years, just about all of them would have put their money on the Clones.

That just leads to another oft-forgotten fact about Hayden Fry: His first victory as Iowa's coach was over Iowa State! After he lost his first three games, that is!

"Yeah!" you're thinking to yourself. "Hayden used the Clones as a chew toy!" I remember those lopsided battles in the 1980s and early 1990s too, and they were fun for us Iowa fans to watch. You should probably know, though, that after beating ISU in his first season, Hayden lost the next three Cy-Hawk games. Yes, that means that Cy got over on us during the 1981 Rose Bowl season, even though the Hawks opened that season by taking down #7 Nebraska.

Not only that, but Donnie Duncan got ISU in the polls a whole year before Hayden got the Hawkeyes there. After a 5-0 start in 1980, the Clones held the #19 ranking (remember, the poll was only a Top 20 in those days). In true Cyrus fashion, that #19 ranking and undefeated record was a prelude to five straight losses and no bowl bid.

The rest of the 1981 season happened, though, and it meant that Hayden had one accomplishment Donnie didn't: a bowl bid. Still, if you'd asked any neutral observer on January 2, 1982 which coach had actually been more successful through his first three seasons, it would have been 50-50, because Iowa's Rose Bowl bid was viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime lucky break by a lot of people. Unfortunately the game outcome didn't do much to change their minds.

The 1982 season saw, like I said, yet another loss for Iowa in the Cy-Hawk game, but it was one of the few blemishes in Iowa's 8-4, Peach Bowl-winning year. It was also one of the few bright spots in Iowa State's 4-6-1 season, which saw the Clones lose their last four games. It's doubtful anyone could see what was coming in this rivalry, but maybe Donnie Duncan did, because he left Ames after that season and never coached again.

In his place, Iowa State hired Boise State's head coach, Jim Criner. Criner had been quite successful in Boise, even winning a national championship (the Broncos were still in the FCS ... erm, Division I-AA at the time). He looked like a can't-miss hire. ISU even promoted him with the slogan "ISU's Finer With Criner." (NARRATOR: "It was not.")

Granted, he did put Iowa State ahead of the rest of college football ... by becoming the first of several schools to regret hiring Boise State's coach. Criner couldn't even begin to pull even with his cross-state rival. He lost four straight Cy-Hawk games, never coming within five touchdowns of the Hawkeyes. He did manage to post a winning 6-5 record in 1986, but 34 NCAA violations sealed his fate. (The full details were never disclosed, but included such heinous acts of lawlessness as giving players meals and rides. Ames in the 1980s was such a den of iniquity.) He was gone, never to coach in college again, and the Clones hired Jim Walden out of Washington State.

Walden was the only ISU coach who ever approached Fry's level of popularity, even though he couldn't approach Fry's level of success. He was very comfortable around cameras and microphones, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. That's probably why he moved seamlessly into Des Moines sports talk after he was done at ISU. He coached from 1987 to 1994 and never beat the Hawkeyes, though he did manage to come within ten points four times. Cyrus could only put up with so much, though. After going 0-10-1 in 1994, Walden was let go. Enter Dan McCarney, who gacked his first three Cy-Hawk games before winning five in a row.

Mac's 1998 victory was ISU's first in the series in fifteen years. The long stretch of futility, coupled with the carpet-bombings the Hawkeyes unleashed on the Cyclones between 1983 and 1988, cemented the legend of the one-sided rivalry. You're not seeing things. It really does come down to six games you have to be ... oh, I don't know, but I'd say at least 38 years old to truly remember.

Mac joined Gene Chizik (LOL) and Paul Rhoads in pulling off something impressive: All three coaches went .500 against Iowa. Those three men account for almost half the time (21 of 44 seasons) of the renewed rivalry. So why do people still see it as so lopsided?

Of the eight coaches who have coached ISU since 1977, Donnie Duncan is the only one to have a winning record (3-1) against the Hawkeyes. Four coaches (Bruce, McCarney, Chizik, and Rhoads) each went .500 against them. The perception of a one-sided rivalry, then, is largely because of the three Iowa State coaches who have gone winless against the Hawks. Jim Criner, Jim Walden ... and Matt Campbell.

These are just facts, folks.

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