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The Cy-Hawk Legacy of Clyde Williams

Clyde Williams might be Iowa State’s greatest football coach. He was also a Hawkeye.

Iowa v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Iowa State’s head football coach Matt Campbell is the reigning Big 12 coach of the year and has some optimistic Cyclone fans hoping that he can help their program reach a height that has eluded them for over one hundred years: winning a conference championship. While Iowa State has seen its share of legendary coaches make brief pitstops in Ames (Johnny Majors, Earle Bruce, and even Pop Warner himself all coached there before departing for greener pastures), arguably their most successful coach was Samuel “Clyde” Williams, who led the Cyclones to consecutive Missouri Valley championships — the only such conference championships in school history — in 1911 and 1912. Truly these were the glory days of Cyclone football, and so revered was Williams for his contributions as Iowa State’s coach and athletic director that the Cyclone faithful saw fit to name their old stadium after him.

However, as significant as Williams’ coaching contributions were to the Cyclone football program’s storied history (read that phrase with as much sarcasm as you’d like), Williams truly shined as a collegiate quarterback from 1898-1901. Throughout his career, Williams compiled an incredible record of 23–0–3 as a four-year starter and was the first college football player west of the Mississippi to be named an All-American. Walter Eckersall, a prominent sports writer for the Chicago Tribune who was himself a three-time All-American at quarterback, considered Williams to be one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Williams was a true champion at quarterback for a championship-caliber team.

Unfortunately for the good people of Ames, that team was the University of Iowa. Long before he took over as the head football coach at Iowa State, Clyde Williams was leading their in-state rivals to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1899 and 1900 while directing one of the most potent offenses in college football. Williams assumed the starting role midseason in 1898 after an event known as the “Blackmore Revolt,” in which a number of Iowa’s upperclassmen quit the team in frustration after a loss against UNI (which, coincidentally, is the only time Iowa’s football team has lost to the Panthers in program history). With no choice but to play his freshman quarterback, first-year head coach Alden Knipe gave the reins of his offense to Williams, whose excellent play ensured that he would not cede that position in the coming years. Since Williams played in the era before the legalization of the forward pass, his role was primarily that of a blocker and signal caller, though he is also said to have been particularly dynamic in the return game.

In Williams’ sophomore campaign Iowa played the mighty Chicago Maroons (coached by the legendry Amos Alonzo Stagg) to a draw, dismantled Nebraska 30-0, and concluded the season with a 58-0 beatdown of Illinois, only to win its first three games of the 1900 season by a combined score of 172-0. Williams and the Hawkeyes might have added to this absurd margin of victory in their fourth game, scheduled for October 19, had it not been canceled. The opponent, naturally, was Iowa State. Iowa’s football media guides are unfortunately vague about the rationale behind the game’s cancellation, but considering what Iowa had done to its previous opponents that season, one suspects that this particular game was cancelled for reasons other than poor weather.

The two most important wins of Williams’ career came in 1900 when he led Iowa to victories over Western Conference powers Chicago and Michigan in consecutive weeks. These wins not only established Iowa as a force to be reckoned with in its first year competing in the Western Conference, but also helped the Hawkeyes secure their first of many conference championships in what would eventually become known as the Big Ten.

Ironically, Williams’ final game as an Iowa quarterback came in 1901 when he led the Hawkeyes to victory over Iowa State a decade before he would direct the latter program to its first conference title. Williams, who also excelled in baseball, basketball, and track while at Iowa, was deemed ineligible minutes before kickoff of Iowa’s game against Minnesota the following week after it was determined that he had played professional baseball in South Dakota under an assumed name. With Williams out of the lineup, the Hawkeyes sputtered to a 3-3 finish during their final six games, and the Hawkeye offense struggled to match the torrid scoring pace it had been accustomed to in previous seasons under Williams’ direction.

Clyde Williams’ career holds a number of implications on how one might think about Iowa/Iowa State rivalry. On one hand, the hall of fame legacy that Williams left at both schools affirms the intimate and longstanding connection between the state of Iowa’s two most prominent programs. Iowa State’s preeminent football coach was also “Iowa’s First All-American”, was the only Hawkeye athlete in school history to earn ten varsity athletic letters, and was presumably the only thing Iowa and Iowa State fans could agree on during the early days of college football, save for a mutual disdain for teams like Minnesota and Nebraska. Prior to the 1912 gridiron clash between Iowa and Iowa State, Williams was given copies of Iowa’s plays, but famously chose to tear them up without reading them, prioritizing honest competition over the chance to pull one over on a rival. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cyclones 20-7 in 1912, and one week later the Cyclones, undaunted, would clinch their second and final conference title with a win over Drake. Clyde Williams loved both Iowa and Iowa State, and he symbolized the best of each institution. Maybe Williams’ legacy can serve as a reminder to fans of each team that, come Saturday, win or lose, we’re all Iowans in the end, and that’s a bond that is certainly worth celebrating.

On the other hand, not all of us can be Clyde Williams, and they call it “Hate Week” for a reason. With that in mind, once Iowa State eventually realizes that Matt Campbell isn’t as firmly entrenched in Ames as they hoped and finds itself on the market for his replacement, Hawkeye fans can helpfully remind their fellow Iowans that the best way for the Cyclones to finally compete for a conference championship again is to hire a former Hawkeye.