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The Greatest Coaching “What-Ifs” in Iowa Athletics History

What if these coaching legends had stayed in Iowa City a bit longer?

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Ferentz vs. Stoops: A hiring dilemma that any athletic director would kill for, and the impetus for one of college football’s greatest “what if” questions of the 2000s. Iowa interviewed Bob Stoops for the recently vacated head coaching job, did not extend an offer at the conclusion of the interview (athletic director Bob Bowlsby wanted to interview Ferentz before making a decision), Stoops accepted an offer at Oklahoma, and Iowa announced Kirk Ferentz as its new head coach shortly after. Stoops won a national championship in his second season with the Sooners and collected ten Big 12 titles during his tenure in Norman, while Ferentz completed the laborious task of rebuilding Iowa from the ground up and transforming the program to a model of consistency, winning four Big Ten coach of the year awards and becoming the dean of college football coaches in the process.

Fans can endlessly debate whether Iowa football have fared better or worse under Bob Stoops than Kirk Ferentz, but no amount of speculation will ever provide a real answer to this enduring question. However, this is far from the only great coaching “what if” in the history of Iowa athletics. While entire books could be written on the history of Iowa’s coaching successions, this list of five great unanswered coaching questions will have to do for now.

1. What if Forest Evashevski had stayed on as Iowa’s head football coach in lieu of becoming athletic director?

The Hawkeyes have had several fantastic football coaches throughout the history of the program, but Evashevski might have been the best. The former Michigan star established Iowa as a national powerhouse throughout the 50s, posting a 52–27 record and winning three Big Ten titles, two Rose Bowls, and one national championship. He recruited and coached some of the greatest players in Iowa history, including Randy Duncan, Alex Karras, Cal Jones, and Kenny Ploen.

Then in 1961 Evashevski decided to step down as head coach and assume the role of Iowa’s athletic director. While Evy’s skills as a football coach were indisputable, he proved to be an absolute disaster as an AD. After promoting his former assistant coach Jerry Burns as his successor, Evy was accused of undermining his regime at every turn. Legendary journalist Al Grady’s book 25 Years With The Fighting Hawkeyes, 1964–1988 quotes a former Burns assistant as saying,

“From the moment he became athletic director, Evy cut down the cost of maintaining the football program to the bare bones. He cut down on traveling expenses for recruiting, phone calls, entertainment of prospective recruits, you name it…The football players knew Jerry couldn’t make it because of Evy’s attitude towards him. It was a very antagonistic situation right from the start that got worse through the years.”

The football program’s misery continued after Burns was fired, and the rest of Evy’s tenure as AD was marked by poor hires, player revolts, and an expense account scandal which ultimately led to his dismissal. Things got so bad that the Iowa Attorney General wrote a report concluding Evy, “did the university and people of Iowa, many of whom have almost worshiped him, a great disservice,” which shows you how bad things had gotten if elected officials felt the need to weigh in on the state of the program. Instead of solidifying Iowa football as a permanent power alongside Michigan and Ohio State, Evy’s departure and subsequent mismanagement of the program produced two of the darkest decades in Hawkeye football history.

2. What if the men’s basketball coaches had avoided tragedy and misfortune in the 1950s?

Evashevski’s contemporary as men’s basketball coach at Iowa was Bucky O’Connor, who led the team to heights not reached at any other point in program history. O’Connor’s “Fabulous Five” Hawkeye teams made consecutive Final Fours during the 1954-55 and 55-56 seasons, losing the 1956 championship game to Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons. These teams were hardly flashes in the pan either, as O’Connor also led the Hawkeyes and their All-American center Chuck Darling to a 19-3 record in 1951-52. Tragically, O’Connor’s promising career was cut short when he was killed in a car accident in 1958 at only 44 years old, denying him the opportunity to continue building a formidable basketball program in Iowa City. Iowa’s basketball team would not return to the NCAA tournament for over a decade after O’Connor’s death.

Poor fortune also befell the coach O’Connor replaced during the middle of the 1949-50 season. From 1942-50, Lawrence “Pops” Harrison won an impressive 70% of his game as head coach of the Hawkeyes, including a 17-1 Big Ten championship season in 1944-45. Buoyed by the stellar play of Murray Wier, a consensus All-American who led the nation in scoring as a senior, Harrison’s teams were regularly among the class of the Big Ten. Harrison likely would have continued his successful run as Iowa basketball’s head man had kidney surgery and a subsequent illness not forced him into premature retirement in 1950.

Both Harrison and O’Connor proved that they could take the Hawkeye basketball program to heights never before achieved by their predecessors. How high the program might have climbed under either of their stewardships had their careers been allowed to continue will unfortunately remain unknown.

3. What if Iowa basketball had retained Lute Olson and C. Vivian Stringer?

In 1983, Lute Olson and C. Vivian Stringer were among the hottest coaches in the men’s and women’s collegiate game. Olson, fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance and only a few years removed from leading the Hawkeyes to the Final Four, was departing Iowa City for greener (read: warmer) pastures in Arizona, while Stringer was arriving as the purported savior of the Iowa women’s program having led tiny HBCU Cheney State to a championship game appearance in 1982. Stringer would spend the next 12 years as the coach of Iowa’s women’s team before eventually leaving to take a job at Rutgers.

While Iowa basketball found success under Olson’s successors (George Raveling and Tom Davis) as well as Stringer’s (Angie Lee and Lisa Bluder), neither the men’s nor women’s program has made it back to the Final Four since Olson’s magical run in 1980 or Stringer’s dominant 1993 season. In fact, both programs have made it past the Sweet 16 only once since the departure of these legendary coaches, with the men’s program making the Elite 8 in 1987 under Tom Davis and the women’s program doing the same in 2019 under Bluder. Meanwhile, both Olson and Stringer managed to reach greater heights at their new jobs than they did at Iowa, with Olson winning a national title in 1997 and Stringer finishing as the runner-up in 2007. One can’t help but wonder whether these coaches might have been able to replicate those feats had Iowa managed to keep them under contract.

4. What if Howard Jones had remained at Iowa?

Speaking of contracts, Hawkeye fans were devastated when the university failed to reach an agreement to renew the contract of legendary football coach Howard Jones in 1924. If Evashevski wasn’t the most accomplished head coach in program history, then Jones is certainly deserving of the title after leading Iowa to consecutive undefeated seasons in 1921-22 and being crowned national champions in 1921. Even after stars Aubrey Devine, Duke Slater, Gordon Locke, and Lester Belding had all departed from the program, the 1923 team still managed a respectable 5-3 record during a “rebuilding year,” and was set for another strong campaign in 1924 with the return of standouts such as John Hancock and Lowell Otte.

However, by 1924 Jones had been named the new coach at Trinity College (now Duke University), a one-year pitstop before moving on to USC where he would win four national championships between 1925-1940. What drove Jones to leave his burgeoning midwestern powerhouse? Jones, who also served as athletic director, was irritated that Iowa intended to combine the athletic department with its physical education department, and who can blame one of the best football coaches in the country who made his living working with world-class athletes for not wanting to preside over tetherball and squash classes? Furthermore, reports were that Jones’ wife was unhappy in Iowa City, which is why the new five-year contract he proposed to Iowa allowed him to spend five months of the year away from the university.

Iowa failed to reach an agreement with Jones on a new contract even after the resignation of athletic board chairman Byron Lambert (the brilliant mind behind the much-maligned P.E. merger), and the Hawkeyes have not had an undefeated season since. Within five years, the Hawkeyes fell from being the toast of the Big Ten to being suspended from the conference after an investigation revealed the existence of a slush fund to funnel illegal payments to athletes in a futile attempt to keep the program from deteriorating under Jones’ successor. While Jones won championships and brought glory to USC, Iowa was mired in the lost decade of the 1930s, begging the question of what might have been had the Hall of Fame coach stayed with the Hawkeyes.

5. What if Alden Knipe hadn’t been run out of Iowa City by an army of prudes?

Iowa football has had only four undefeated seasons in program history: two under Howard Jones in 1921-22, and two under former Penn halfback Alden Knipe in 1899-1900. Led by star quarterback Clyde Williams, the first college football player west of the Mississippi River to earn All-America honors, Knipe’s Hawkeyes went on an absurd 23-0-3 winning streak, posting gaudy margins of victory (the 1900 team beat it’s first four opponents by a combined score of 198–0) and winning convincing victories over Western Conference powerhouses in Michigan and Chicago. Knipe’s win percentage of .711 remains the highest of any coach who Hawkeye coach who spent more than three years with the program.

Why then did Knipe abdicate his head coaching duties after the 1902 season? The Hawkeyes’ play had begun to slip a bit since Williams departed from the team, but Knipe’s divorce from the university was actually precipitated by a divorce of another kind. Knipe, who had previously been seperated from his wife, remarried after the 1902 season, which led to a good deal of pearl-clutching by the tender-hearted members of Iowa’s athletic board, who feared, “whispered talk such a marriage would provoke would be bad for Iowa,” according to Bert McCrane and Dick Lamb’s excellent book 75 Years With The Fighting Hawkeyes. Pressure from the board ultimately led to Knipe’s resignation and retirement from coaching to pursue a career writing and illustrating children’s books (no, I’m not making that up).

Iowa would win 24 games over the next three seasons under the direction of John Chalmers, but would go winless in conference play over that stretch and watch the program fall into chaos as Chalmers was forced to share coaching duties with assistant coach Mark Catlin. Iowa football would languish in mediocrity for much of the next decade and half, returning to prominence only under the stewardship of Howard Jones. Iowa may not have been able to keep up with Fielding Yost and the Michigan “Point-a-minute” teams of the early 1900s, but one can’t help but wonder whether Knipe might have helped solidify the Hawkeyes as a major player in the Western Conference had university officials been a bit more open minded.