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A History of Iowa Football PART VI: The Dark Times 1969-1978

(Bumped, of course. -- Ross)

PART 1 I PART 2 I PART 3 I PART 4 I PART 5

Ray Nagel, the man and team that could've been. Imagine you're AD Forest Evashevski and it's 1965 and you're looking for a new coach after Jerry Burns is strung up by angry villagers let go. This is not the Iowa of 1998, where the alumni wanted Bobby Stoops, AD Bob Bowlsby wanted Terry Allen (or so it is said), and others on the Search Committee wanted others, and let the internet insanity debate begin after that. (1) Not by a mile.

Because I have a feeling that this hire was solely Evy's call and no one--not a damn alum, not a goddamn search committee, not a fucking Regent--was going to tell him who will be Iowa's next coach. So Evy calls someone himself: hey it's Evy here, how 'bout the Iowa job, lot of talent coming back next year, any interest? No dice, they don't want the job. He calls another one, same spiel--sorry, Evy, just can't do it. A third man is called--nope. A fourth--naw, thanks anyway, good luck in '66.

Man, Evy can't frigging give this job away! Is it the university? The facilities? The growing streak of losing seasons? Evy sits and ponders and wonders why. And it never hits him, the reason.

It's HIM.

He and Burnsie never saw eye to eye, and the coaching universe is a small one, and word travels fast amongst that fraternity, and word was: go to Iowa and Evy will be a fucking pain in your ass, like a coked-up hemorrhoid with a flamethrower. Imagine Godzilla calling Tokyo to find a personal assistant--that's what it was like at the time.

Finally, Evy calls a fifth guy: Ray Nagel, the Utah coach. Oh, have I mentioned yet that Utah had gone all of 3-7 the year before?

And some people were pissed that Iowa took Kirk Ferentz over Bobby Stoops! Imagine if we'd taken a coach from way out west, red-hot off of a 3-7 season! I imagine that when Evy called, Nagel wasn't exactly sifting through the offers with a shovel. But Nagel could coach, and he coached-up the Hawkeyes in 1968 to a pretty damn impressive year, setting a Big Ten mark for points in a season. And 1969 was supposed to be the year. Hey, anyone remember 1969?

It was a really wild time in the ol' US of A back then, and not just because of the communes, free love, acid, weed, tie-dye, and mega-concerts on New York farms. (2) It was also a time of Black Power, and Black Panthers, and the mourning of Dr King. Students were in full-protest mode all over the place, occupying campus buildings, blowing up campus buildings, picketing campus buildings, spray-painting campus buildings (note: it was a tough time to be a campus building). (3)

So when two black Iowa football players were kicked off the team in the spring of 1969, people noticed. Now, they were not permanently gone--just suspended for Spring Drills. One, they said, for academics; the other, they said, for bad checks. They'd have a chance to perhaps talk themselves back onto the team in the fall.

If only it hadn't been 1969, a time of terror for campus buildings! A lot of people were on a lot of hair-triggers, and that included members of the Iowa Afro-American Student Association. Before you could say "Eldridge Cleaver," a bunch of black Iowa footballers were up in arms, and all of a sudden there was a boycott of black players. Sixteen of the team's twenty blacks refused to participate in spring practice, and since unexcused absences were treated with dismissal from the team, Ray Nagel....dismissed them. All sixteen. Just...like....that. (snaps fingers)

A couple of days passed, and a newly-formed entity called the "Black Athletes Union" then presented a letter to the press. I won't print the entire text, but it was full of red-hot rhetoric and unfortunate slave-master comparisons, plus provocative stuff about how the "black gladiator" is forced to perform "to thrill the white spectator masses," ending with the idea that the black man "is intended to be physically exhausted because....he represents the greatest threat to this society, politically and revolutionary (sic)." (4)

I'm going out on a limb and say that this kind of stuff probably didn't go over real well with the public or the university.

Three anxious days pass, then seven sheepish (or so I'm guessing) black freshman players meet with Nagel. They've quit the Black Athletes Union and want back on the team. Word leaks that Nagel had already agreed to change a few minor things with the program that were concerns of the Black Athletes Union, and so the boycott ends.

Word also leaks that Nagel had agreed to grant their requests some time ago, but that they boycotted anyway-- because, apparently, having boycotts is so much fun or something (so is protesting, so is occupying faculty offices, and so is barring people from entering campus buildings--all of which happened at the U of I in those turbulent, fun times).

Nagel said the players could apply for reinstatement in the fall--spring drills having been occurring all this time--and the team would vote on whether to let them back on again. Fall arrives and twelve players apply for reinstatement. Seven are voted back onto the squad, mainly underclassmen. The greatly anticipated 1969 season starts with a total of 14 players expected to contribute not on the team for one reason or other, including a motorcycle accident and a flunking out (just for variety).

I'm sure this was loads of fun for Coach Nagel! Somehow, Iowa posts a respectable 5-5 season, including a win against then-power Michigan State and a shellacking of Washington State. Perhaps Nagel thought the worst was over.

Nope! In December 1969, Iowa freshman-team coach Ted Lawrence writes a "fuck you I quit" letter to Nagel and quits. This would not be such a big deal if his son hadn't been talented QB Larry Lawrence. The father then blasts Nagel's coaching and practice methods. Nagel, I'm sure, loves all this to death. Lawrence's QB son, plus fullback Tom Smith, transfer to Miami, The U. But it's still not over.

In January, Nagel writes a "fuck you, you're fired" letter to assistant Gary Grouwinkel, citing "disloyalty." Now, things are getting crazy! Disloyalty? Are you kidding me? Is this a college football program or the fucking Corleone family? "Grouwinkel...you're dead to me now." Gary, don't take any Lake Tahoe rowboat rides--that's all I can say, man. Disloyalty? Fire a guy for being a shit coach, or for smacking a player, or for banging his secretary, but who the hell gets fired for "disloyalty"?

Crazier, it all turns out to be true. The roomie of QB Lawrence tells the athletic board that Evy--you'd forgotten about him, hadn't you!--in league with the Tataglia and Barzini families, has been plotting to take over the football program all this time. His plan: get Nagel shit-canned and appoint himself emperor of all time and space football coach once more. (5)

I swear on my mother's grave (6), I AM NOT MAKING THIS SHIT UP. Evy denies the charges (fingers crossed behind his back, I'm sure) and nothing happens. But then a van-full of meddling kids pesky auditor finds some cooked books in the department titled "Padded Expense Accounts," or something like that. Nagel's defense is that Evy personally showed him how to fill out those forms. Evy said it was Nagel's fault (surprise surprise!). Like a tennis match in a toilet, stinky brown balls of innuendo start flying back and forth, until the Iowa Board of Athletics decides the game has gone on long enough and flushes them both in May of 1970. Bon voyage, gentlemen!

Like bread placed between two activated electric heating elements, Evy is toast. But Nagel will not go gently into this good night. He's pissed. To add insult to injury, at some point during this debacle, he is declared dead by someone in the press, and the rumor takes hold: Nagel is dead. He is an ex-human. He sings with the choir invisible. Nagel has to pull a Mark Twain to insure people that while the program appears dead as a stone, rumors of his own demise are greatly exaggerated. (7)

Miracle of miracles, Nagel is rehired (Evy remains deep-sixed, and eventually goes into radio broadcasting). But the damage is done: the Hawks go 3-6-1 in 1970 and Nagel, regaining his sanity, does not seek a new contract.

So when 1971 starts, Iowa has a new coach, Frank Lauterbur. Successful at Toledo, with a great offensive attack, he turns the program around from 3-6-1, taking it straight to 1-10. Undaunted, the next year he goes 3-6-1. Fully prepared to get things finally moving, the Hawks have a fully unblemished season in 1973--unblemished at 0-11--and my parents stop getting season tickets. Yes, my very own parents had been getting them since 1965, when they first moved to IC, and it took an "oh-fer" season to finally unhinge them from their seats.

This was common in those days! Hawk fans tolerated boycotts, Evy's madness, repeated blow-outs by Ohio St and Purdue and nearly everyone else, but when that oh-fer season came along, Kinnick actually began to look a little empty at times (attendance often barely cracked 40,000). That 0-11 season was the last straw for many. But if you were a little kid--like me--it was HEAVEN.

With attendance down, a kid could buy a "knot-hole" ticket for $4. For that, you sat in the wooden south endzone bleachers, and fucked around all game: you could roll down the grassy hills (just don't hit any hippies making out or smoking weed), you could run around under the stands looking for change or cool stuff people dropped, you could watch the band, or, if you were desperate enough, you could even watch the game! (8)

Everything was different back then. West of Kinnick was married student housing in quonset huts that made the place look more like a Marine base than a football stadium. South of it was the tennis courts (to sneak in: climb the tennis court fence, drop over into Kinnick, then RUN!) East of it was the baseball stadium, the outfield of which bordered Melrose. And north of it was basically nothing except the practice field (until the Rec Building was built). There was partying during games, lots of booze and beer, but oddly I don't remember people much getting out of control. There was a LOT of grass being smoked, and even as a seven year old kid I soon learned to recognize the smell. And a kid over twelve could sell pop or popcorn and watch the game for free! (and make a few bucks along the way) The team was shit, but I wouldn't trade those days at Kinnick for a Rose Bowl Championship.

And occasionally, they won! I was at the 1974 upset of UCLA, a victory of such astounding proportions (the Bruins were the 12th-ranked team at the time, while we were on a 13-game losing streak) that even Richard Nixon, up to his ears in Watergate-gate, mentioned it the next day. In 1976 we beat Penn St at Happy Valley. In 1977, the ISU series was resumed--and ISU went to bowls back in those days, so they were pretty good--yet we were led to victory at Kinnick by QB Bob Commings Jr (the coach's son) and tailback Dennis Moseley, who had 100 yards that day (or so I recall). The excitement over that ISU game was unbelievable. Everyone in the state picked a horse in that race, and as will be seen, it seems that the greatest of Iowa victories is usually by the score of 12-10. (9)

And yet....despite the fun of rolling down the grassy hill, and selling popcorn, and watching a streaker run the length of the field holding Evy's severed head an Iowa pennant, and watching fans run down the field during a play (!) at the end of a rare win against Wisconsin in 1977 (10), some fuddy-duds didn't care about those things and wanted victories, of which Coach Bob Commings wasn't supplying them in any significant supply (final season: 2-9).

By 1978, Iowa had had seventeen losing season in a row. Seventeen, longest streak in the nation. They'd lost every game to OSU during that time, plus every game to Purdue during that time. I don't think they beat Michigan during that time, and they'd lost plenty to the Illini and MSU, too, during that time. But they also lost to other teams, and that's where the rumor of "Evy's Revenge" comes in.

Remember, Evy was AD until 1970, when a dude named Chalmers Elliott took over. I looked over the old schedules, and in the fifties there was a pattern: we played ND, we played a Pac 8 team or two, and we played a Big Ten schedule. This continued into the sixties, though some years we played three Pac 8 teams, usually Oregon St, Washington St, Cal, or USC, or some combo thereof. We'd throw in an Idaho, or a series with TCU on occasion.

In the late sixties, there was a bit of a change. We dropped ND and started to pick up stronger teams overall. There might be the occasional Oregon St, or Syracuse, or Arizona. But for the most part, our non-conference opponents began to morph into Penn St, USC, UCLA, Oklahoma, and Nebraska with disturbing frequency into the seventies and early eighties (in addition to ISU after 1977--and remember, they were good at the time). Maybe I'm kinda' wimpy, but when you're a team coming off a squad-wrecking boycott, and your coach is declared dead by the press, and your players are quitting or being kicked-off in droves, maybe you want to schedule a patsy or two? (11)

Ah, Evy. Those of you looking for spent rifle shells on grassy knolls in Dallas might also wonder if, as a final F-U to the U of I, ol' Evy decided to schedule a Murderer's Row of powerhouses for his AD successor (and his poor football coach) to deal with. I don't know if there's any truth to that, but I recall a string of 49-0 defeats to the likes of USC or PSU year after year, so.....who knows? I wonder what Evy thought as he broadcast those games on radio back in the day....and whether as USC piled on another Student Body Right TD run, he might secretly have been smiling.....

So Bob Commings is let go, and the search committee--God Bless 'Em!--looks elsewhere. No more legendary high school coaches (Commings). No more Iowa assistants (Burns). No more mid-major coaches (Nagel). When Chalmers "Bump" Elliott wanted a coach, he went for someone with....cajones. Hell, he was the guy who hired Dan Gable, ex-Iowa State and Olympic wrestling legend, to coach the Iowa team! He was the guy who hired Lute! Lute! Lute! all the way from Long Beach! (12)

And he must've heard something, at some point, about some guy down in Texas that intrigued him. Funny name the guy had, like Texas names often are. But the guy could coach--took SMU to the Cotton Bowl, kicked-ass at North Texas State. And he had balls. He played the first black player in the Southwest Conference! Cripes, that'll get you death threats.Huge balls this dude had!

And for some reason I still can't figure out, even thirty-plus years later, this brash, confident Texan with a drawl came to lowly-old Iowa, to the conference of "Three yards and a cloud of dust," of the "Big Two and Little Eight," of the seventeen losing seasons--and was a perfect goldarn' fit.

His last name was Fry. But to us, he was always "Hayden."

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(1) Even now a topic of irrational contentious debate, it still is not clear to me whether Stoops was ever offered the job, ever wanted the job, or ever even personally talked with anyone at Iowa about the job. And people still talk about it, like what if Hitler won WWII, or what if the paper clip hadn't been invented.

(2) The late sixties were full of people doing crazy shit for no apparent reason other than to pleasure themselves or piss off others. Contrary to legend, most people remained normal. Contrary to legend, the sixties also weren't as "awesome" as people from that era pretend they were. Also, one quirk about Woodstock: in addition to such cutting-edge acts as The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ten Years After, and Country Joe and the Fish, also appearing at Woodstock was Sha-Na-Na, the fifties throwback band. This never fails to blow my fucking mind. You've got Jimi, Pete Townsend, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar--and BOWSER?? Fuck me, man, who invited HIM to the party?

(3) Even Iowa had campus protests and "sit-ins" and building occupations. Truth be told, 95% of the population thought these people were absolute morons, though the press loved to show and talk about them. At Iowa, things stayed peaceful. At Kent St--we all know what happened. And at Wisky, when a building had a protest-terrorist bomb explode in it, people were killed. It wasn't all fun and games and peace and love.

(4) I have formed the opinion that some if not many of the boycotting football players were probably being manipulated by people with another agenda--the one that's in that unfortunate letter. So after the letter comes out, they soon realize that and try to get back onto the team: some successfully, others not so successfully. I don't know what issues needed addressing by Nagel, but I've never heard of any ill-treatment of players, black or white, and Nagel (who's in his 80's now) isn't talking. The whole episode is a sorry one for the history of the university, a real embarrassment at a time when the team might actually have gotten good. Nevertheless, while it's best to forget it, it shouldn't be forgotten.

(5) I know you may think I have something against Evy, but in all of my research I have come to one inescapable conclusion: he was not one of the good guys. He was a great coach, but that doesn't make you a good person. Maybe he was a great husband and father--that's entirely possible. Maybe I've just been looking in the wrong places. But so far, I have yet to read a single positive personal attribute about the man, other than that he was a great football player/coach. And I find that sad.

(6) My mother is still alive and well, and plays a lot of pickle-ball. She is a terrific Texas-Hold-Em player, too. I'm only trying to make the point that I'm not making this shit up. Also, don't tell my mom I used her in a blog post.

(7) I can't find any articles on it now, but I know there was a time when somehow it was reported that Coach Ray Nagel was dead. Maybe they were talking about his future prospects, but I clearly remember reading this someplace: Ray Nagel, Iowa Coach, dead. If you know anything more, tell me!

(8) Maybe it's because I was a kid, but going to Iowa games was more fun back then than it is now. First of all, you never expected to win, so anything but a blow-out loss was a bonus. Also, you could go alone with your friends even if you were nine or ten, since back then kids went all over without their parents, and no one ever got murdered or turned into a rural basement sex-slave. I got to run out onto the field after the first artificial turf game, and I saw the streaker, too, who ran right under where I was standing in the south bleachers. And back then the crowd loved HEY JUDE. There was no canned music, no Jumbotron, no replays, no 35-second play-clock to look at, and the games started at exactly 1:05 pm. These were great times.

Also, you almost never saw the Hawks on TV! I remember a USC game once on TV (a blow-out), and the 1977 ISU game was on TV, but until the eighties that was just about it. If you wanted to see the Hawks, you went to Kinnick. Otherwise--and this lasted well into the eighties--you listened on radio. Gondor, Zabel, Brooks, Claussen--those were the guys. I liked Gene Claussen, who we got even way up north in Decorah when I was in college. It was really only in the 90's that all of Iowa's games were on TV. So when I hear people bitch that a certain game "Isn't even in HD!", I shake my head. Kids these days!

(9) I cannot overstate how important and exciting this game was in the state of Iowa. Iowa was the underdog, but the game was at Kinnick, which helped. Alas, it sold out so fast I could not get tickets, but thank God this one was on TV. When Iowa won, it was a big deal--as big a deal as us winning the Orange Bowl. No, it was bigger. I think this is a stale series now, and am of a mind that we might want to play it every other year or something (or 2 out of 4) to jazz it up, but in 1977, it was a monster. And really competitive--the underdog won most of them those first five years.

(10) That was in Bob Commings' last game at Kinnick, and we beat Wisky. With about 45 seconds left in the game (and Iowa way ahead), about a thousand drunk students ran down the field during a play to celebrate the impending win. I repeat, this was DURING a play. I was sitting in the south stands laughing my ass off. Players, officials, and coaches went scattering, and the officials (wisely) just let time run out. A week later, Bob Commings' time also ran out.

(11) While Iowa was bad, they played some outstanding teams that I'll never forget seeing in person, and that was a plus: Ricky Bell's USC team, for instance, or Tom Cousineau's OSU team, with Woody Hayes on the sidelines. We always got stomped, but got to see legendary players like Archie Griffin in person. On the other hand, we also lost to Utah 13-9 at a time when Utah was terrible, in a game we should have won. So we lost to the patsies, too. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference! But even at the time, there were mumblings of "how Evy screwed us" with yearly  killer non-conference schedules.

(12) Bump Elliott was a helluva' AD. If we don't have anything named after him yet, it's a crime. There was a time in the 80's when football, basketball, AND wrestling were all #1 within just a couple of years of each other. He knew what he was doing.

Unless otherwise expressly indicated by BHGP editors, this FanPost is strictly the viewpoint of the author and is not endorsed by BHGP in any way.

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