Forest Evashevski, Hayden Fry Pave Road to Success for Iowa Football

September 17, 2020

Written by Rick Brown

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – First Avenue in Coralville, between Interstate 80 and Highway 6, is a popular routes for fans headed to Kinnick Stadium. It is named Hayden Fry Way.

Immediately north of the stadium is Evashevski Drive. How fitting. 

Because Forest Evashevski and Hayden Fry took over Iowa football programs under constant construction and drove them into the fast lane.  And they left as legends because of it.

In the 12 seasons that had followed Dr. Eddie Anderson’s rags-to-riches 6-1-1 Ironmen team in 1939, a season that saw Nile Kinnick win the Heisman Trophy, Iowa had just two winning seasons before Evashevski’s arrival – 6-4 in 1942 and 5-4 in 1946. In a three-year period starting in 1943, the Hawkeyes had gone a collective 4-20-1.
Evashevski left following the 1960 season. Iowa was 5-4 under Coach Jerry Burns in 1961. Then the program ran off 17 consecutive non-winning seasons. That included marks of 1-9 in 1965, 1-8-1 in 1967, 1-10 in 1971 and 0-11 in 1973. Welcome, Hayden Fry.

Paul Brechler hired Evashevski away from Washington State in early January, 1952.  Evashevski signed a five-year contract that paid him $14,000 annually to replace Leonard Raffensperger, who had a year remaining on his contract.

“I don’t know much about the material but I understand they lost 15 lettermen at Iowa,” Evashevski said. “All I know is the 1951 record (2-5-2) and we’ll have a rebuilding job to do. It’s a challenge.”

Fry signed a five-year deal worth $45,000 annually.

“We have only one place to go and that is up,” Fry said at his introductory press conference in December of 1978. “I have been extremely impressed with the people from this institution who have told me that they want a winning team. I have done my homework to see that Iowa will make the commitment needed to have a winning team and I have been assured this will be done.”

Fry said he had been promised all the financial, facility, promotion and fund-raising means to turn a doormat program into a winner.

“We are prepared to compete in the Big Ten with those teams that have been winning,” Fry added.

On New Year’s Day, 1952, an Associated Press dispatch out of Pullman, Wash., reported that Evashevski, coming off an overachieving seven-win season, had talked to officials at Iowa and Indiana and wasn’t expected to return to Washington State.

Less than a week later, he was introduced as the Hawkeyes’ new coach. Iowa City was not new turf for him. While in the Navy, Evashevski had played football for the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks in 1942. 

He favored the single-wing offense he had played at Michigan under Coach Fritz Crisler (1938-1940), with some T-formation thrown in. And it was Crisler who gave Evashevski a ringing endorsement after he had returned to Big Ten turf.

“A lot of coaches know football, but they can’t teach it,” Crisler said. “Evy can. He has a fine personality and his relationships with everyone will be excellent. Everyone will like him. He’s not a man to pretend. He’s just Evy.”

Football wasn’t Evashevski’s initial career choice. He had decided to pursue a law degree in the fall of 1946. But he couldn’t find a two-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor, Mich., which he needed to house his wife and two children.    So he took a job as an assistant football coach at Syracuse.  Six years later, he landed at Iowa.

Four weeks before his first game as the Hawkeye coach, 

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the Des Moines Register summed up the state of his new program in 10 words:

Losing Is an Iowa Grid Habit —  Can Evashevski Change It?

A picture that accompanied the story showed Evashevski sitting at his desk surrounded by four of his assistant coaches:  Bump Elliott – the man who hired Fry – Archie Kodros, Whitey Piro and Bob Flora.

Evashevski’s first team went 2-7 overall and 2-5 in Big Ten play. But Evy’s program opened some eyes when the Hawkeyes stunned Ohio State, 8-0, on Oct. 25. The Buckeyes had beaten Iowa the previous two seasons by scores of 83-21 and 47-21.

After two winning seasons, the Hawkeyes slipped to 3-5-1 in 1955, and some had doubts where the Evashevski regime was headed.

But all that changed in 1956. Iowa went 9-1, including a 6-0 victory over the Buckeyes and a 48-8 drubbing of Notre Dame in the final two games of the regular season. Iowa earned a spot in the 1957 Rose Bowl and took care of Oregon State,  35-19.

That was the first in a three-season stretch that saw the Hawkeyes lose a total of three games . Iowa was 7-1-1 in 1957 and 8-1-1 in 1958 including a 38-12 victory over California in the Rose Bowl. The Football Writers Association of America crowned that 1958 team national champions. Two seasons later, Evashevski left Iowa and the coaching profession with another one-loss team in 1960.  

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He then replaced the man who had hired him, Brechler, as athletic director at Iowa.  Evashevski and Brechler had an acrimonious relationship late in Evashevski’s coaching career. Brechler resigned to become commissioner of the Skyline Conference, opening the door for Evashevski to succeed him. Later, Evashevski had a public feud with football Coach Ray Nagel. Elliott replaced Evashevski as athletic director in 1970.

Evashevski did radio analysis of Iowa football games on WHO in Des Moines, working alongside Jim Zabel. Many times, Evy’s name was floated as a man who would be interested in becoming the Hawkeyes’ head coach once again. 

That never happened. But Iowa fans who dreamed of finding another Evashevski finally got their man in Fry. The search only took 19 seasons.

Iowa’s streak of non-winning seasons grew to 19 after two seasons under Fry, but it became obvious that he brought more than charisma, salesmanship and a dose of psychology to town.

He turned things around by, in his own words, “plowing up snakes and killing them.” That included a change of culture. The athletic department was banking on him, too. The tickets to home games that 1979 season had a picture of Fry, superimposed over Kinnick Stadium.

In his first game, fans were downright giddy at halftime. Iowa led Indiana, 26-3. But the Hoosiers rallied to win, 30-26. 

“We’ll probably do some things this season you’ve never seen before and I’m darn sure we’ll do some things you hope you’ll never see again,” Fry said after that stinging loss.

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Iowa traveled to Oklahoma the following week. The Hawkeyes hung tough but lost, 21-6. 

Fry sensed that coming close was being embraced. And he put an end to that, after a reporter asked him if he thought his team had played pretty well.

“I just talked to my players about that,” Fry bristled. “First we got our asses kicked, then we get complimented. I just told thet team that if I see one single man with a smile on his face, I’m going to bust him in the mouth. Losing is losing and we didn’t play well. These kids have been pampered so much when they lose that it makes me sick. Losing and looking good is a bunch of crap.”

That culture change was marching full speed ahead. 

The streak of non-winning seasons ended in the most unexpected way possible. The 1981 Hawkeyes won a share of the Big Ten title and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl for the first time since Evashevski roamed the sidelines. 

By the time he was done, Fry’s teams had been to three Rose Bowls, and earned a share of three Big Ten titles including an outright championship in 1985. Fry took his teams to 14 bowl games and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1990.

Evashevski’s Iowa teams also won a share of three Big Ten titles, including outright crowns in 1956 and 1958. He remains the only Iowa coach to win a Rose Bowl game.

Evashevski had five teams finish in the Top 10 of the Associated Press poll: ninth in 1953, third in 1956, sixth in 1957, second in 1958 and third in 1960.

 Fry had 10 teams finish in the AP Top 25, with the 1985 and 1991 squads landing in 10th.

Fry and Evashevski were the program’s winningest coaches until Kirk Ferentz passed both of them. Fry was 143-89-6 overall and 96-61-5 in the Big Ten during his 20-year run. Evashevski was 52-27-4 overall and 33-21-2 in the Big Ten during his nine seasons.

The stuff that legends are made of.


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