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Floyd of Rosedale’s Most Important Game

A game between Iowa and Minnesota in 1960 set the stage for modern college football as we know it

Minnesota v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

This week the Iowa football team prepares to play its 112th game against the University of Minnesota in what is easily the Hawkeyes’ longest running rivalry. This matchup features two teams with 3-1 records both attempting to rebound from deflating losses to open conference play, and the outcome of the game should have significant ramifications on both teams’ prospects of winning the Big Ten West. Hawkeye fans tend to take all of their rivalry games seriously, but this coming contest against the Golden Gophers feels particularly significant in determining the trajectory of Iowa’s season.

While Iowa’s upcoming game against Minnesota is certainly an important one, it pales in comparison to the most consequential battle for Floyd of Rosedale, a game which has unfortunately faded from the collective memories of most Big Ten fans. The 1960 game between Iowa and Minnesota was different than the 53 preceding ones in large part due to the stakes. Iowa came into the game ranked #1 in the nation having already defeated five ranked opponents that season. There is actually a surprising amount of video footage of the 1960 squad that gives you a sense of how talented legendary Iowa coach Forest Evashevski’s final team was.

The Hawkeyes, boasting arguably the most potent rushing attack in the nation, hoped to continue their winning streak against a Minnesota team that had shocked national pundits by rising to the rank of #3 in the AP poll after having won only two games the previous season. Gopher fans, captivated by the intensity and importance of this particular game, sang “We don’t give a damn for the whole State of Iowa,” which sounds an awful lot like an early version of the incessantly childish “Who hates Iowa/We hate Iowa,” refrain that will certainly be heard in TCF Bank Stadium this Saturday.

Even more remarkable than the strength of the teams in the 1960 Iowa/Minnesota game were the quarterbacks who would lead them. Wilburn Hollis of Iowa and Sandy Stephens of Minnesota were quickly establishing themselves as two of the top signal callers in the country. While neither player was a particularly accurate passer by modern standards (both had completion percentages below 40% on the season), each of them had strong arms, were dangerous runners, and effectively piloted high-powered offenses that were stacked with play makers.

They also both happened to be black.

Though the Big Ten certainly wasn’t as entrenched in segregationist practices the way the SEC was in 1960, the Hawkeyes and Gophers were still among the first major college football teams to start an African American at quarterback. While Iowa had in many ways been ahead of its time by prominently featuring black stars such as Archie Alexander, Cal Jones, Duke Slater, Emlen Tunnell, and Ozzie Simmons, Minnesota football had long been plagued with racist attitudes towards African Americans. The Gophers inflicted wounds that ultimately led to the death of Iowa State’s trailblazing black athlete Jack Trice in 1923, while their brutalization of Simmons in 1934 is what prompted the initial wager of Floyd of Rosedale in an effort to reduce the simmering tensions between the Hawkeye and Gopher fanbases. That Stephens starred at quarterback for Minnesota was a testament to both his talent and the initiative of the Gophers’ head coach Murray Warmath to actively recruit black players, in part to try and close the talent gap between Minnesota and Iowa.

Equally talented was Iowa’s Wilburn Hollis, a powerful runner with such a strong arm that Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall contends his low completion percentage can be attributed to the fact that, “receivers sometimes couldn’t hold onto the bullets coming at them.” Hollis became a renowned figure on Iowa’s campus due to his heroics in the Hawkeyes’ 1960 home win over #12 Wisconsin, in which he connected with running back Sammie Harris for a 34-yard game winning touchdown with less than a minute to go despite the pass being partly deflected by Wisconsin defensive back Bill Hess. Hollis’ college career was unfortunately cut short due to a severe wrist injury in a win against USC during the early stages of the 1961 season, but when healthy he proved to be one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in Hawkeye history.

Minnesota ultimately got the better of the Hawkeyes in 1960. Despite holding a 10-7 lead early in the second half, injuries along Iowa’s line ultimately wore the Hawkeyes down, causing the Gophers to pull away to win the game 27-10. Iowa would win the remainder of their games that season, soundly defeating #3 Ohio State 35-12 the following week before pounding Notre Dame 28-0 in South Bend in the final game of the season. Minnesota, meanwhile, would lose two of their next three games and finish 8-2, yet would somehow finish the season ranked #1 in final AP poll (Iowa, to their credit, finished #3 in the AP and #2 in the Coaches Poll). Stephens and Hollis would both be named All-American quarterbacks, with Stephens becoming the first African American QB to be named first team All-American and lead his team to a national championship.

Iowa may have lost to Minnesota in 1960, but the legacy of that game and the ground-breaking quarterbacks who played in it inspired generations of future African American stars. Because of the prominence of the two teams involved, the game received significant coverage by national media outlets. Millions of young African Americans were exposed to stories and images of exceptionally talented black athletes who were not only playing the position of quarterback but were doing it better than any of their white peers that season. Legendary figures such as Tony Dungy (the first black head coach to ever win a Super Bowl), Marlin Briscoe (the first black quarterback to start a game in the AFL), and Warren Moon (the first black quarterback inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame), all cited Wilburn Hollis, Sandy Stephens, and the performances of those two men in the 1960 Floyd of Rosedale game as significant inspirations to them in their collegiate and professional careers. Before there was Brad Banks and Tony Dungy, or even contemporary stars like Kyler Murray or Dwayne Haskins, there was Wilburn Hollis and Sandy Stephens showing the country exactly what black quarterbacks were capable of.

After the game, Warmath called his victory over Iowa “the most important game that any team of mine has ever played.” If only he knew how right he was.