Best of Fry: 1985 Win Over Michigan State

July 30, 2018

Written by Jon Miller

We begin a series of 20 trips down memory lane…looking back at 20 of the most significant, important or memorable wins from the Hayden Fry era, as Fry retired from Iowa 20 years ago.

These might not be the 20 games you would choose, but that’s OK. These games were and are important to me for a number of reasons, of which I will share with you as we move on down the list. The first on my list, which is one of the most important wins in Iowa football history, was Iowa’s thrilling 35-31 win over Michigan State in Kinnick Stadium in 1985.

Iowa came into the game having just ascended to the top spot of the AP rankings, which was the first time that had happened for 25 years. By the way, it’s been 32+ years and counting since that time, and Iowa has yet to be ranked #1 in the AP poll since.

The year before, a game also played in Iowa City, Iowa dropped a close one 17-16, when Iowa went for a two-point conversion as the game was coming to an end. Hayden Fry called an option play to the short side of the field…nearly the identical spot of the ball where Iowa would line up one year later, with the game on the line and :31 seconds to play. As you can seen in the video below at around the 1:15 mark, Long chose to keep the ball and if instant replay were used back then, who knows.

I can’t help but think that Iowa’s failure to run it in in 1984 didn’t play a part in the success of Long’s run for the win in 1985.

I had the occasion to share dinner once with the late Norm Parker, Kirk Ferentz’s first Defensive Coordinator, who was also the linebackers coach at Michigan State in 1985. He told me several stories, but his retelling of the 1985 Iowa-Michigan State game, from his perspective, was my favorite. He referred to Hayden as ‘old white pants’ and still seemed to have a bitter taste in his mouth recalling ‘old white pants over there, jumping up and down. And we knew it was going to be a bootleg.’

Parker’s statement of knowing the bootleg was coming has been corroborated throughout the years. This snippet, from a Lansing State Journal article a few years back (the link is now broken, but BHGP pulled the quote) that chronicled the Iowa-Michigan State series:

Michigan State called a timeout with 37 seconds left and installed its goal-line defense. All-Big Ten senior safety Phil Parker was removed for a lineman, and he came off the field and immediately said to his coaches: “It’s gonna be a bootleg.”

No. 1 Iowa trailed unranked MSU 31-28, but the Hawkeyes had the ball at the Spartans’ 2-yard line. It was Oct. 5, 1985 at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.

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MSU head coach George Perles, defensive coordinator Nick Saban and linebackers coach Norm Parker warned their players of a “bootleg,” a quarterback run after a fake handoff. The Spartans bit, anyway. Iowa quarterback Chuck Long faked to fullback Ronnie Harmon, sprinted to the outside and trotted into the end zone.

“I saw Chuck at a golf outing this summer and I told him that’s the lowest thing that’s ever happened in my life as a coach – to get beat by Chuck Long on a bootleg,” said Norm Parker, who is now Iowa’s defensive coordinator. “Chuck Long couldn’t beat Jud Heathcote in a foot race, but he beat us on a bootleg.”

Yes, that same Phil Parker who is now Iowa’s Defensive Coordinator was playing for Michigan State in 1985.

Thinking back to the bootleg, again, take yourself back to the end of the 1984 game, when Long chose to keep the ball on the veer call to the short side. Long noticed the defensive end drifting outside with his running back assignment. If the DE crashes on the QB at that point, you make the pitch. If he drifts parallel with the RB, then the decision was somewhat made for you; the quarterback keeps it. The hole wasn’t filled and it was a footrace to the goal line, which the Michigan State linebacker (for whom Long was his key) won.

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To think that the Michigan State staff was expecting a bootleg, and telling their players to look for the bootleg, and the fact that the bootleg still worked despite Long’s lack of…let’s say natural foot speed…well, it’s still something that brings a HUGE smile to my face all these years later. I was in the stadium that day…and it remains one of my all time favorite memories.

I mean, long walked into the endzone untouched. Watch the defensive end lined up on Iowa’s right side…he bites on the ball fake to the great Ronnie Harmon, and that defensive end would never have impacted the play to the middle. He never could have gotten a fingertip on Harmon, yet be bit hard.

Which makes me wonder…is the Michigan State retelling of this story what really happened on the Michigan State sidelines before that play took place? Or is it a ‘the older I get, the better I used to be’ misremembering of events? Because the Michigan State defense sure didn’t play that as though they were expecting a bootleg. There is barely any pursuit of Long. At one point on the ball fake, Long’s right foot comes near the nine-yard line. So it wasn’t just a two-yard scamper for long. It was nine-yards, untouched and without a Michigan State player even five-yards from him.

Iowa’s former Sports Information director Phil Haddy laid the first paws on Long, in the form of a bear hug. Haddy wasn’t the main guy at that time, and was working for the late George Wine.

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Watching the ensuing celebration on this sideline just makes me feel like a kid again. Hayden Fry wore his emotions on his sleeve, or his white pants…he held nothing back.

That was one of the more gutty calls he ever made…Fry referred to it as the greatest fake in the history of college football. Considering Fry and Long had that negative memory from one year before, at the very same spot on the field, to call for Long to attempt a naked bootleg right there is just incredible…but then again, it’s the type of thing you could not imagine the opponent being ready for, considering how things transpired in 1984.

Michigan State said they knew it was coming..but they didn’t play like it…and the Hawkeyes remained atop the charts for another week…and 14 year old kids in West Branch proudly wore their black and gold windbreakers.

NOTES: Chuck Long threw for 380 yards in this game, adding to his Heisman Trophy caliber resume. Long would finish second in the Heisman voting that year to Auburn’s Bo Jackson, then the closest Heisman ballot in history….MSU RB Lorenzo White, one of the best running backs to ever play in Kinnick Stadium, ran for 226 yards and two scores. MSU redshirt freshman QB Bobby McCallister threw for 275 yards…MSU took a 31-28 lead with 4:06 to play.

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