Hawkeye GOAT: Changing Hearts and Minds (As Well As Two Decades of National Irrelevance)

By HaydensDumplings on December 18, 2019 at 8:00 pm
three legends
University of Iowa Athletics

More than the exotics, the white pants, the “hope we didn’t hurt your boys too bad,” my defining Hayden memory: watching this video chronicling 100 years of Iowa football with my family (yes, my brothers and I were indoctrinated at a young age).

Growing up, my father tried to educate my brothers and I on the rancid stench pervading Iowa football during the 1960 and 1970s (I think he was trying to prepare us for a lifetime of Hawkeye suffering). Attending UI for undergrad and med school, my father’s formative years were defined by a player boycott, the Evy-Nagel feud, and  an 0-11 car crash of a season. For him and other Hawkeyes from that woebegone era, there was one question: Could Iowa field, like ever, a competitive team? For the better part of two decades, the Hawkeyes were Washington Generals-level bad. I mean, even the Iowa promotional video (scroll to the hour mark) describes the program as “nearly lifeless” following the Hawkeyes’ two decade descent into football hell.

Enter: John Hayden Fry. Masterminding the Hawkeye rebuild, Hayden transformed Iowa into a college football model. And, in the process, he accomplished the unthinkable for a generation of scarred Hawkeye fans: turning Iowa into a consistent winner. 

And for young, impressionable Hawkeye fans growing up in the 80s and 90s, Hayden completely reset the narrative. A 1980s baby, I only knew Big Ten respectability under the wily Texan. Upper division Big Ten finishes became the norm; bowl trips to sun-splashed destinations were annual traditions. He upended the Ohio State and Michigan duopoly -- at least on occasion. And Iowa, once a national afterthought, established recruiting pipelines in New Jersey, Texas, and Florida (not to mention enjoyed the national spotlight in several Kickoff Classic games).

But the most significant shift: While my father and his contemporaries rued Iowa football’s “lost generation” with a grim foreboding (for them, there was always a nagging sense that Iowa was one misstep from a return to its dark days), younger Hawkeye fans, like yours truly, questioned the relevancy of Iowa’s dismal past. Didn't Hayden -- who overhauled everything from the logo to Iowa’s weight training facilities -- represent a new generation of Iowa football? Why wasn't a respectable bowl game Iowa’s new baseline? And did Iowa really hire a high school coach in the 70s?

My understanding -- and appreciation for Hayden’s ditch digging--would come later. To fully appreciate Hayden’s herculean efforts, I needed more context than the Hawkeye history lesson on VHS (sorry, Dad). Hayden weaned me on two decades of Big Ten upper division finishes and poll appearances; Iowa football enjoyed a level of stability and success during these formative years. To understand just how fragile Hawkeye success could be, I needed to experience one dispiriting Hawkeye defeat after another -- a realization that Iowa could, indeed, devolve into its Frankenstein 60s/70s self with an ill-advised move (or 12). And as Iowa labored through the Hayden to KF transition, I would get that, umm, opportunity (for lack of a better word). During KF’s 1-15 landslide, I asked, “Is this what it was like to be a fan of Iowa in 60s and 70s?” The collective response: “You have another 18 and a half years to go--plus or minus 15 years of hopelessness.”

Their point, other than mocking my Hawkeye sniffling, was this: Hayden didn’t overcome two scuffling years; he overcame two decades of institutional incompetence. Before Hayden took over, Iowa had endured seventeen losing seasons in a row -- the nation’s longest streak. Attendance barely cracked 40,000. There was the Evy-Leahy power struggle; the 0-11 Lauterbur experiment; the failed high school coach (Bob Commings). When Iowa, in the midst of a 13 game losing streak, defeated a ranked UCLA team, even President Nixon, then in the throes of Watergate, commented on the stunning upset.

So, Hayden, consider this a 750-word thank you note from millennial Hawkeye fans--those 1980 and 1990s Kinnick kids who basked in Big Ten glory, Rose Bowl appearances, and Timmy D punt returns. Because of your two decade run of success (not to mention your treasure trove of assistant coaches, including a J. Kirk Ferentz), Hawkeye fandom for the past 38 years has been a stable and, dare I say, relatively pain-free existence. You provided the blueprint for Hawkeye competence -- a run that will soon enter its fifth decade. And for this Hawkeye homer, who grew up hearing ghosts about the dismal 1960s and 1970s, you ensured that those sobering Hawkeye history lessons remain just that: a history lesson consigned to that half-baked Hawkeye promotional video of my childhood.

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