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Bad Calls, Hurled Fruit, and Thrown Punches: Why Iowa Stopped Playing Illinois In Football

If you've ever taken a look at the series history between Iowa and Illinois, one thing probably stands out: despite being comrades in the Big Ten for over a century, Iowa's played fewer games against Illinois (69) than all but two other members of the Big Ten's century club (Ohio State and Michigan).  That's a little strange considering they're border rivals that have been in the league together since 1900.  Of course, a big reason for that discrepancy is the fifteen-year gap in the Iowa-Illinois series between 1952 and 1967:


So what caused that fifteen-year break?  Did Iowa suspect the other UI of being full of vile communist infiltrators and godless pinko spies and thus refuse to allow them to set foot on the pristine, America-loving Iowa City campus? Well, probably (and any campus that would allow Ron Zook to hang around for six years and counting is still one that's not to be fully trusted), but that's not the actual reason Iowa and Illinois didn't clash on the gridiron for the better part of a generation.   Fortunately, Friend of the Pants Scott Dochterman produced an exhaustive article on the topic this weekend and we strongly encourage you to give it a read.  A few highlights:

The split-second incident involving [Rocky] Ryan and Wolfe swirled at the epicenter of conflict and commotion that day. It involved questionable officiating, a record-breaking passing performance, unsportsmanlike conduct and a thunderous right-hand punch. The game and the ensuing chaos forever changed a border rivalry between Iowa and Illinois’ football programs. The residue lingers to this very day.

So how bad did things get that day?  Well, opinions vary pretty wildly.  Says former Illinois student manager Charlie Finn:

"As we left the field, one of the coaches said, ‘Run.’ So we were running," Finn said. "The fans came out of the stands and attacked the team. There were no security guards around there, like there is today.

Yes, having the fierce PER-MAR security forces of today would certainly have made quite a difference.  Finn continues:

"Anything they could throw — apples, oranges, cans, bottles. It was really bad. I’ve never seen anything close like that happening over here."

"It was like a riot," Finn said. "It was very, very ugly. An unseemly incident, one of the worst in the history of Big Ten sports."

On the other hand:

Iowa starting center Jerry Hilgenberg struggled to recall most of the day’s events, other than a few apples tossed at the field.


Longtime Iowa broadcaster Bob Brooks, who called the game on KCRG radio that day, said the incident didn’t "require the police or anything like that."

"It was not what I thought, in broadcasting the game, an ugly scene," Brooks said. "It wasn’t close to a riot or anything like that. I don’t think a lot of people saw the Illinois player hit the Iowa fan because the game was over. They were coming off the field. But it was serious enough that they discontinued the series."

The Big Ten didn't penalize Iowa for the incident, which would seem to support the viewpoint of Hilgenberg and Brooks.

But, oh yeah, the punch:

Illinois left end John "Rocky" Ryan, known as one of the team’s toughest players, also walked toward the locker room. Both O’Connell and Finn recall Ryan as a feisty competitor with a mean streak.

"Rocky was a tough Irishman and had a tough temper," O’Connell said. "Terrible. But he was a good football player."


"Our coaches took us out and asked us to get off the field because players were getting pretty violent," Ryan said. "This fan came out and grabbed my shoulder pad and turned me around. I thought, ‘Well,’ and I hit him because he was going after me. Of course he was stupid for picking on me."

Wolfe immediately went to the hospital. His jaw was reset and wired virtually shut. Wolfe’s family was notified of the incident, Schau recalled.

Honestly, it's hard to feel too much sympathy for Wolfe in this particular incident; you go on the field and confront a player, you deal with the consequences.  And if you start mouthing off to a guy named Rocky, well, expect to get punched in the goddamn face.  (That said, Wolfe went on to have a pretty remarkable life, as Doc notes in the article.  I strongly advise reading it to get even more great details and some excellent vintage photos.)

So one thrown punch and a few apple cores later, the Iowa-Illinois series was no more.

The Big Ten did not sanction Iowa for the incident. The schools were set to rotate off one another’s Big Ten schedules for the 1953 and 1954 seasons. Both Illinois and Iowa athletics officials then agreed to a "cooling-off" period through at least 1958. That hiatus was extended multiple times until they agreed to meet again in 1967. The 15-year pause tied for the longest break among Big Ten schools since World War II.

Iowa and Illinois are now in the midst of the longest gap in the series since that 15-year hiatus, but there are no impertinent fans, jaw-breaking punches, or thrown apple cores to blame this time -- just the inscrutable decision-making of the Delanybot 9000 and its scheduling system.  Iowa and Illinois won't play again until 2015 (barring an unlikely clash in the Big Ten Championship Game), thanks to the addition of Nebraska to the league and the subsequent scheduling issues that created. 

And that's still a damn shame, even if Iowa-Illinois isn't quite on par with Iowa's other local rivals.  It doesn't have the immense history or marvelous trophy that mark the Minnesota rivalry, nor the intensely competitive (and even) nature of the Wisconsin rivalry, nor the seething hatred and big brother/little brother dynamic that characterizes the Iowa State rivalry.  Hell, it doesn't even have the lingering dislike or prestige of the impending Nebraska rivalry.  That said, there's no love lost between fans of Iowa and Illinois (especially in basketball) and the fact that so many Illinois natives flood into Iowa City to attend our UI adds a few extra layers of fun and intrigue to the Iowa-Illinois clashes.  Plus, as this article demonstrates, there's a pretty colorful and dramatic history between the two schools.  Iowa's going to play Pittsburgh more times than they'll have played Illinois between 2008 and 2014 -- hell, they'll have played Northern Illinois more times in that span than they'll have played Illinois by the time 2014 rolls around -- and that just seems a little wrong.  So roll around in a forgotten bit of Iowa football history for a while; someday Illinois will return to the schedule and it's good to know why that actually means something.