Iowa v. Notre Dame: Remembering a Time When College Football was Canceled

May 21, 2020

Written by Rick Brown

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Pride. Joy. Victory.

Those three words sum up a picture that appears on page 167 of the 1964 University of Iowa Yearbook.

It shows Iowa football co-captains Paul Krause and Wally Hilgenberg carrying Floyd of Rosedale off the Iowa Stadium field after a 27-13 victory over Minnesota on November 9, 1963.

Standing next to Krause is a beaming Mike Reilly, who is looking at the bronzed bacon with affection.

All three players would make it to the NFL. Krause was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection at defensive back who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998. Hilgenberg, a linebacker, played 12 of his 16 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. Reilly played six NFL seasons at linebacker, most of them with the Chicago Bears.

That yearbook picture is also a reminder that there are no sure things, in life or sports. It turns out that the Minnesota victory was the final home game for Krause, Hilgenberg, Reilly and 11 other Hawkeye seniors.

Thirteen days later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Iowa was to close the 1963 season the following day at home against Notre Dame.

The immediate reaction was to play the game. Wind and rain forced Iowa’s final practice of the season that Friday afternoon into Iowa Fieldhouse. The Notre Dame party was already in Iowa City.

Early that Friday night, Iowa athletic director Forest Evashevski and Notre Dame counterpart Moose Krause said the game would be played the following day. Kickoff was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

“I served as President Kennedy’s physical fitness advisor for the Peace Corps,” Evashevski told reporters Friday evening with Krause at his side. “I know the president would have wanted the game to be played because it represented the ideals which he advocated. The young men representing Notre Dame and Iowa represent the very thing in which the late President Kennedy believed.”

But both athletic directors were overruled, and the game was cancelled early Saturday morning. University of Iowa President Virgil Hancher and Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame issued a joint statement canceling the game. Rev. Hesburgh had been in Colorado at a meeting, and his return to Chicago was delayed. That pushed back a meeting he had scheduled with Iowa officials.

Francis Graham, Iowa’s business manager, issued the Hesburgh-Hancher statement at 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning, 13 hours before the scheduled kickoff. 

All Big Ten, Ivy League and Big Six (now Pac-12) conference games were cancelled or postponed that day. The NCAA let schools do as they saw fit, but requested that those playing games did so with appropriate opening ceremonies and a halftime memorial tribute to the late president.

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Attempts were made to reschedule the Iowa-Notre Dame contest.  Iowa’s Board in Control of Athletics requested that the game be moved to Nov. 29. But Notre Dame already had a game scheduled against Syracuse on Thanksgiving Day.

Notre Dame officials suggested the game be played Dec. 7, but Iowa’s Board in Control nixed that idea.

“The board determined to extend the season two extra weeks would interfere with class work and other university activities,” the statement read.

“I can’t blame Iowa for not wanting to wait two weeks to play the game,” Notre Dame Coach Hugh Devore told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “This football game is really insignificant compared to what happened yesterday.”

A crowd of 55,000 had been expected, and fans who had already purchased tickets were issued a refund. The ticket that day cost $5.

Iowa and Notre Dame had closed the regular season annually since 1951. Kennedy, then a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, had attended Notre Dame’s 20-19 victory over Iowa on Nov. 21, 1959 in Iowa City. Kennedy, the guest of Iowa Governor Herschel Loveless, had not yet declared himself a presidential candidate. He made an appearance before a crowd of 2,000 at the Iowa Memorial Union on the Iowa campus before the game. He left Iowa Stadium with 10 minutes remaining to fly to Carroll for a speaking engagement that evening.

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Pride, and saying goodbye to seniors, was on the line that ill-fated Nov. 23, 1963.  A winning record wasn’t.

Iowa, picked to finish last in the Big Ten when the season started, was 3-3-2. Notre Dame had won just twice.

The Hawkeyes actually flirted with a good season. They opened at home against a Washington State team that had lost to Texas Tech in the season opener. Iowa was favored to beat the Cougars and win a season opener for a 10th straight year.

At a campus pep rally Thursday night, Iowa Coach Jerry Burns later admitted he got caught up in the excitement when he told the crowd, “I’ll guarantee you Saturday will be No. 10.”

Iowa took a 14-0 lead 25 minutes into the game but couldn’t deliver the knockout punch and settled for a 14-14 tie.

After victories at Washington and at home against Indiana in the Big Ten opener, Iowa hosted No. 2 Wisconsin. Trailing, 10-7, with less than 2 minutes to play, Burns called for a fake field goal. Krause gained 15 yards on the play but was knocked out-of-bounds a foot short of a first down at the Badger 17.

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Road losses at Purdue (14-0) and Ohio State (7-3) followed.  After beating Minnesota in what proved to be the final home game of the season, Iowa rallied to tie Michigan in Ann Arbor, 21-21, after a 25-yard fourth quarter scoring strike from quarterback Gary Snook to Krause. Iowa’s 3-3-2 record included a 2-3-1 Big Ten mark.

Nov. 23 was to be a big day for Reilly, the pride of Dubuque.  In addition to playing his final home game, his home town had plans to honor him afterwards. Dubuque Mayor James Kean had proclaimed it “Mike Reilly Day.”

Dubuque fans planned to travel to the game on chartered buses. Reilly, who was to serve as honorary co-captain that day, was to return home by caravan.  His day was canceled after Kennedy’s death.

Reilly, who played guard and linebacker, punted and was nicknamed “Hammer,” was a first-team all-Big Ten selection. Krause was a second-team choice and Hilgenberg, also a guard and tackle, was a third-team pick. Reilly was also named Iowa’s most valuable player.

Reilly’s play was been exceptional all season. There was no better example than that Minnesota game, when he celebrated by escorting Floyd of Rosedale off the field and into Iowa’s locker room.

Little did Reilly know what was coming. A special team meeting was held, and his teammates voted to give him the game ball. That was Mike Reilly’s kind of day.

——-

The father of this story’s author, Rick Brown, was to have covered the 1963 game between Iowa and Notre Dame. Bob Brown served as sports editor of the Fort Dodge (IA) Messenger from 1956-93.

Here’s the press pass he was set to use for that game:

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