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IOWA AND THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED COVER CURSE

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A history of Iowa's appearances on Sports Illustrated's cover and all of the really bad stuff that followed.

Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The cover curse.

A superstitious belief that a person or team will suffer some sort of bad luck upon appearing on the cover of a publication or video game. The Madden NFL Cover Curse has been highly publicized over the years, as players that have appeared on the cover went on to suffer injuries or poor play in the following season. In 2002, Marshall Faulk appeared on the cover after amassing 2,150 total yards and 21 total touchdowns in 2001. Faulk would be hampered by injury all season, the Rams finished 7-9 and Faulk only combined for 1,490 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 2003, Michael Vick fractured his fibula in a preseason game within a week of appearing on the cover. In 2005, McNabb had to eventually undergo season-ending sports hernia surgery. In 2006, Shaun Alexander broke his foot three games into the season. In 2011, Peyton Hillis reverted back to being Peyton Hillis.

As it turns out, the Sports Illustrated Cover Curse is such an extensive superstition that Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated to it. Notable examples include Tom Brady's knee getting shredded after appearing for the 2008 NFL season preview, Mo'ne Davis and Pennsylvania losing to Nevada and eventually being eliminated from the Little League World Series after her 2014 profile, and the Chicago Cubs collapsing in the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins.

The Iowa Hawkeyes have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated a total of six times. Thrice nationally and three times regionally. Nationally, the Hawkeyes haven't appeared on SI since December 2nd, 1985. Regionally, they've been on the cover as recent as February 8th, 2016. How did things turn out for the Hawkeyes after they appeared on the cover? Well, let's take a walk down memory lane.

September 27th, 1954: Calvin Jones

LOOK: A digital copy of the magazine from Sports Illustrated's Vault

The Lead Up: The opportunities to talk about Calvin "Cal" Jones are few and far between so apologies for the thoroughness of this lead-up. Jones grew up on the south side of Steubenville, Ohio and played for the Steubenville High School Big Red with his close friends Eddie Vincent and Frank Gilliam. By the time they were set to graduate in the spring of 1952, all three were being courted by Big Ten programs and Jones ended up with an offer from none other than Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Buckeyes.

It's worth noting that Hayes had just finished his first season in Columbus and didn't have the Buckeyes rolling yet, but if you're a good football player from Ohio, there's a good chance you're committing to Ohio State. And that's what Jones did. He committed to Ohio State.

His friends, Eddie Vincent and Frank Gilliam, weren't so fortunate. They didn't receive offers from Hayes or Ohio State but they did receive an offer from incoming Iowa head coach Forest Evashevski. Evy was coming off a successful 7-3 season at Washington State, spent time in Iowa City with Iowa Pre-Flight and was tasked with improving a Hawkeye team that hadn't won a Big Ten Championship since Howard Jones roamed the sidelines in 1922.

Per Jones's Des Moines Register Hall of Fame biography, when Gilliam (Shag) and Vincent stopped to say goodbye to Cal, they were pleasantly surprised:

"We stopped at his home just before leaving town, to say we'd see him around Thanksgiving," recalls Shag. "[Jones] said 'I'm going with you,' ran upstairs, packed a bag and rode to Iowa City in our car."

The sudden change of mind by Jones led to an investigation by the Big Ten into possible impropriety by Iowa. The Hawkeyes were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing and according to Iowa Alumni Magazine, when asked about the switch Jones reportedly told Big Ten Commissioner Kenneth "Tug" Wilson, "I'll tell you why I came out here. They treated me like a white man, and I like it here. I'm going to stay."

That's the story of how Calvin Jones ended up playing football for the University of Iowa.

By the time September 27th, 1954 rolled around, Evy had taken Iowa from 2-7 in 1952 to 5-3-1 in 1953 and the Hawkeyes were ranked #12 in the preseason polls. They finished out the '53 season with a 14-14 tie against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a game that would live in infamy as the Domers would be labeled the "Fainting Irish" for some of their less than sportsmanlike tactics.

Jones, who played both sides of the line, appeared on the cover as part of SI's "college football preview." He was the first college football player and black man to appear on the cover of SI. Curiously, he isn't mentioned at all in the actual magazine. No, really. Calvin Jones appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated but there was no actual story on him or the Iowa Hawkeyes. He was simply credited in the table of contents and that was the end of it.

Aftermath: Jones supposedly broke his wrist in practice prior to the first game against Michigan State scheduled on September 25th but managed to keep it a secret for the entire season. Iowa finished 5-4 and Jones was named a consensus first-team All-American. In his 1955 senior season, the Hawkeyes slumped to 3-5-1 but Jones was once against named a first team All-American and he became the first black man to win the Outland Trophy. He also finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting. As a lineman.

Jones was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the ninth round of the 1956 NFL Draft (the Draft was 30 rounds as there were only 13 teams) but supposedly refused to sign with the team as the NFL paid black players less than white players. This wasn't the case in the Western Interprovincial Football Union, a precursor to the Canadian Football League. Jones signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and was named an all-star in his first season.

By 1956, Evashevski had Iowa playing in their first Rose Bowl, thanks to Ken Ploen and Cal's old friend Frank Gilliam. The story goes that Jones planned to return to Winnipeg and then he'd eventually fly to Pasadena to watch the Hawkeyes play. On December 9th, 1956, he slept through his morning flight in Vancouver and rescheduled with Trans-Canada Air Lines for a flight later in the evening. The flight was Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 810, which crashed into Mount Slesse in British Columbia due to, among other factors, severe icing. Jones, along with 61 others, were killed.

Iowa defeated Oregon State in the Rose Bowl by a score of 35-19.

January 24th, 1966: George Peeples

LOOK: A digital copy of the magazine from Sports Illustrated's Vault

The Lead Up: While the cover depicts George Peeples laying the ball up, the story is actually about Iowa head coach Ralph Miller and the Hawkeyes competing for a Big Ten Championship. Written by Frank Deford, the piece is titled Ralph Miller of Iowa: Prophet of Pressure". After twelve straight winning seasons at Wichita (they didn't have the "State" just yet), Miller came to Iowa in 1964 and inherited a program that had gone stale under Sharm Scheuerman. Miller ran things a bit differently than his predecessor, who preferred his games to move at a slow, methodical pace. Miller insisted on a full court press, fast breaks and per the piece, had his team taking 85% of their shots from within 10 feet. He went 14-10 (8-6) in his first season and by the time January 24th rolled around the Hawkeyes were sitting at 8-3 (2-2).

Aftermath: Iowa won their game on the release date but dropped their next two Big Ten contests against cellar-dweller Purdue and middling Northwestern. The Hawkeyes bounced back with four straight wins, including victories over Michigan and Minnesota, but couldn't manage to sweep the Wolverines in Ann Arbor or beat the Fighting Illini in Assembly Hall. They'd finish the season 17-7 (8-6), good for third in the Big Ten and miss out on the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa would eventually win a shared Big Ten Championship in 1967-68 but still missed out on the NCAA Tournament as Ohio State held the tiebreaker. Miller's only NCAA Tournament appearance at Iowa came in 1969-70, his final season, when the Hawkeyes finished 20-5 (14-0) and averaged more than 100 points per game in conference play. They lost their first NCAA Tournament game to Jacksonville but bounced back with a win over Notre Dame in the third-place game. Miller left Iowa the following year to take the head coaching job at Oregon State. Iowa fell back into mediocrity under Dick Schultz and would not challenge the Big Ten again until Lute Olson arrived in 1974.

December 2nd, 1985: Chuck Long, Bo Jackson and Joe Dudek

LOOK: A digital copy of the magazine from Sports Illustrated's Vault

The Lead Up: The 1985 Iowa Hawkeyes and Chuck Long should be well known to Iowa fans, so we won't dwell too much. The short story is that Iowa thrashed Texas in the 1984 Freedom Bowl, Chuck Long announced he was returning his senior season and the Hawkeyes were a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten, if not the National Championship. They had Long, Ronnie Harmon, Jay Norvell, Larry Station, Mike Haight and Devon Mitchell. They started out the season 7-0 and were the best team in the nation for five weeks, prior to losing to Ohio State on November 2nd.

Long's senior season was nothing short of amazing. He completed nearly 66% of his passes, threw for 2,978 yards and 26 touchdowns. He, along with Auburn running back Bo Jackson were front-runners for the Heisman Trophy. He would ultimately win the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien Awards. But...it was the Heisman that really mattered.

The piece was written by none other than Rick Reilly, who naturally took a contrarian and sarcastic view about why Plymouth State University running back Joe Dudek should win the Heisman. The argument was more or less that Dudek was the best player in college football, Jackson and Long weren't even the best positional players in their conferences and it doesn't matter that Dudek plays for an FCS team. Apparently it also didn't matter to Reilly that Jackson averaged 6.6 YPC and amassed 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Aftermath: Bo Jackson went on to win the Heisman Trophy over Long and Dudek, who finished 9th in the voting. Jackson's victory over Long was, at the time, the closest vote in Heisman Trophy history. The Hawkeyes and Long went on to lose the 1986 Rose Bowl to UCLA by a score of 45-28. At the half, it was 24-10 and Ronnie Harmon had fumbled the ball four times. Ronnie Harmon fumbled once during the regular season.

Ultimately, Long would never match his collegiate success in the NFL and was out of the league by 1991. Bo Jackson was arguably one of the most exciting and dominant athletes to play sports until the 1991 AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Los Angeles Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals, when Jackson's hip was injured on a routine tackle, causing avascular necrosis and effectively ending his football career. Dudek played a couple of games for the Denver Broncos in 1987 and rode off into the sunset.

November 9th, 2009: Derrell Johnson-Koulianos

LOOK:

The Lead Up: 2009 feels like it was yesterday, doesn't it? When Iowa needed two straight blocked field goals to beat an FCS team, even if that FCS team was Northern Iowa, people weren't exactly enthused. And then the Hawkeyes thrashed Iowa State in Ames, shut down Penn State in Beaver Stadium, and 7 got 6 in East Lansing. The Indiana game, for some reason, is forgotten in the eyes of many.

By the early third quarter, Iowa was down 21-7 and the Hoosiers were only three yards away from making the score 28-7. The Hawkeyes undefeated season was on the line and Iowa needed a stop, badly. Enter: Tyler Sash. Ben Chappell drops back to pass (by the way, calling a passing play on the three-yard line is so Indiana), is hit as he throws, the ball pinballs and somehow ends up in Tyler Sash's hands. He takes it back all the way for a touchdown. The score is now 21-14.

On Iowa's next possession, Ricky Stanzi threw an interception, setting up Indiana at Iowa's 24 but the Hawkeyes were able to hold them to a field goal. On Iowa's next possession, Ricky Stanzi threw another interception. Finally, early in the fourth quarter, Iowa was backed up against its own end-zone when Ken O'Keefe called a naked boot (in the end-zone...which is foreboding)  and Stanzi found a streaking Marvin McNutt. Marvin took it all the way, making the score 21-24. Iowa held IU to a three and out next possession and the Hawkeyes scored again, this time by a 66-yard pass to DJK. Iowa scored on their next two possessions and suddenly it was 42-24. 28 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes.

This wonderful comeback was the inspiration for the regional cover, which displayed DJK hurdling Wade Leppert (?) and featured the Hawkeyes in a piece called "Good and Lucky" by Albert Chen. A line that sticks out:

"Is our luck going to run out? Maybe," junior left tackle Bryan Bulaga said on Saturday. "But as long as it keeps going, we'll keep riding it. They say it's better to be lucky than good."

Aftermath: Technically, the Sports Illustrated issue didn't hit the stands until November 9th but the cover had been released as early as November 4th, so we knew what was coming. What was coming?

Woottonocalypse was coming.

On November 7th, Iowa took on Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium. The Wildcats were 5-4, fresh off a beating at the hands of Penn State and bowl eligibility looked to be in doubt with Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin remaining on the schedule. When Iowa came out and scored a touchdown in exactly one minute, things looked dire for the Wildcats. Northwestern tightened up, however, and by the end of the first quarter, it was only 10-0 in favor of the Hawkeyes.

Early in the second quarter, Iowa was pinned deep in their own territory and Brandon Wegher had just been stuffed up the middle, as he had been the majority of the game. O'Keefe then called a similar, if not the exact same play he called against Indiana a week prior and had Rick Stanzi run a naked bootleg in the end-zone. The difference was that Corey Wootton was waiting for him.

It's worth pointing out that Stanzi didn't fumble because of the injury. Wootton actually stripped the ball prior to ripping Stanzi down by the facemask and severely spraining his ankle. Northwestern fell on the ball, making it 7-10 and nothing was the same, as James Vandenberg simply couldn't get the Iowa offense clicking. Northwestern ended up winning 17-10 and Iowa's shot at the BCS National Championship was over. Vandenberg would play the game of his life in another loss a week later, against Ohio State in Columbus. The Hawkeyes finished 10-2 and defeated Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

November 30th, 2015: George Kittle

LOOK:

The Lead Up: Much like 2009, Iowa was undefeated in November when it was announced that they'd be featured on the regional cover of Sports Illustrated. They'd beaten everyone in their path, including #19 Wisconsin and #20 Northwestern and needed a win over Nebraska on Black Friday to finish the regular season 12-0. The magazine wasn't scheduled to be released until three days after the "Heroes Game", so, at least they couldn't use the cover as an excuse if Tommy Armstrong suddenly morphed into a competent quarterback. Spoiler: Tommy Armstrong didn't morph into a competent quarterback and Iowa won 28-20.

The article, titled Knock, Knock, was once again written by Albert Chen and profiled not only Iowa but also North Carolina and Florida as potential Playoff contenders. For Iowa: all the Hawkeyes needed to do was beat Michigan State to make the College Football Playoff.

Aftermath: Iowa didn't beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. Instead, there was some sort of interception off of a Michigan State player's back as Iowa was about to score. There was Shilique Calhoun. There was a 9:04, 22 play, 82-yard drive by Michigan State that culminated in an LJ Scott touchdown with only 27 seconds remaining in the game. In a game of equals, Michigan State was victorious by a score of 16-13.

The 2016 Rose Bowl wouldn't be so close and the wounds are still fresh, so here's a video if you enjoy pain:

Final score: Stanford 45, Iowa 16

February 8th, 2016: Jarrod Uthoff

LOOK:

The Lead Up: Iowa basketball wasn't supposed to be this good in 2015-2016. They were picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten by most publications. They were a bubble team. They didn't have anyone who could score. The absence left by Aaron White was too large.

Or not.

Iowa stormed out to a 16-3 record and notched wins over #1 Michigan State, twice. They beat Purdue, twice. Their only losses were to Dayton, Notre Dame, and Iowa State. They had essentially locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament by mid-January and were ranked third in the nation when they lost to Maryland in College Park. They were #1 in KenPom. There was talk of a one seed. They were getting first place votes.

This was primarily due to the ridiculous play of Jarrod Uthoff, who was featured in Brian Hamilton's story, "Reeling in the Wins." Uthoff was averaging 21 points per game, shooting 43% from the field and a brilliant 47% from three. He was making 86% of his free throws, blocking shots and rebounding well. He was doing everything. Even after losing to Maryland on January 28th, the Hawkeyes bounced back and won three games to make it to 19-4. Their next game following the release of the Sports Illustrated cover was at Indiana on February 11th.

Aftermath: Iowa lost to Indiana and would finish the regular season losing five of the last seven games. They'd also lose to #12 seeded Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, the same Illinois team that went on to get slaughtered by Purdue 89-58. Iowa was 19-4 prior to the release of the Sports Illustrated. After, they'd go 2-6 and finish the season 21-10.

Jarrod Uthoff didn't see much of a drop in his points per game but the numbers didn't lie when it came to his shooting percentages. His FG% dropped from .431 in January to .380 in February. His three-point percentage went from .474 to .244. And he wasn't the only one. Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Dom Uhl and Nicholas Baer saw hits across the board in their numbers. Only Peter Jok and, to some extent, Adam Woodbury improved their numbers in February. That's saying nothing of the disaster against Illinois, where Jok played arguably the most brilliant game of his career and aside from Uthoff, everyone else played their worst.

So do you believe? Is it real or is it superstition? The results may seem like confirmation bias to some and legitimate evidence to others. I take no position. I'm just giving you the facts.

Additional Sources: The African American Registry, Marc Morehouse and the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Sports Reference.