IOWA CITY, Iowa - I took on the assignment with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. The Des Moines Register sent me to Mankato, Minn., in August of 1986, to write a story about new Minnesota Vikings head coach Jerry Burns.
I knew I’d have to ask Burns some tough questions about his failed five-year run as the head coach at Iowa (1961-1965). I got lucky. Burns not only answered my questions, he did so with humility and candor. I never forgot that.
And I thought of that interview Wednesday, when Burns passed away at 94 years of age. I was three months shy of 33 years old when I approached Burns after a morning practice. He was 33 when Hawkeye coaching legend Forest Evashevski hand-picked Burns, an assistant coach, to be his successor. It was announced on the final day of the 1960 season.
“When I was at Iowa I was too young for the head coaching position, and I knew it at the time,” Burns told me. “Nevertheless, the job was offered to me. I had no alternative but to accept it, because if I had turned it down where would that have left me? The age factor was against me. I would have preferred to have had the chance in a later year, when I had more maturity and experience dealing with people, the press, alumni and all those things you must be involved with at the college level.”
To understand the position Burns found himself in, you’ve got to understand the success of the man he replaced and the expectations he left in his wake.
Evashevski resigned at Washington State to take the Iowa job in 1952. Seven of his nine Iowa teams were ranked in the Top 10 during the season. His 1956 and 1958 teams won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. His 1960 team reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in program history, and spent three weeks there until losing at No. 3 Minnesota, 27-10. That team shared the Big Ten title with the Gophers. Evy’s final five teams were a combined 37-8-2, and that includes a 5-4 record in 1959.
Evashevski was at odds with athletic director Paul Brechler in the latter stages of his coaching career. Brechler would eventually resign to become commissioner of the Skyline Conference. Evashevski left coaching to replace Brechler as athletic director.
On Nov. 19, 1960, the same day Iowa put the wraps on an 8-1 season by blanking Notre Dame, 28-0, Burns was named the next head coach. A former quarterback at Michigan, Burns joined Evashevski’s staff in 1954. He had been in charge of the defense since 1958 and led the program’s recruiting efforts since 1959. Evashevski actually recommended Burns to the Board in Control of Athletics with two games remaining.
The day after the coaching change was made public, Evashevski sat down with Bert McGrane of the Des Moines Register to discuss his decision to give Burns the job. Asked what characteristics Burns had that impressed him the most, Evashevski said, “His great ability to organize. His fine football mind. His industry and his capacity for hard work. He is perceptive and he commands the respect of the squad. Yes, he certainly has the respect of the squad. It wouldn’t do much good to have everything else if you didn’t command that respect.”
The Burns Era started at the top. Literally. Iowa’s 1961 team was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll. This was a team loaded with offensive weapons, like quarterback Wilburn Hollis, all-America running back Larry Ferguson and receiver Paul Krause. The Hawkeyes were still No. 1 on Sept. 25, even though they had not played yet, and remained there after opening the season with a 28-7 victory over California. But Ferguson was lost for the
season with a knee injury. Iowa won at USC in its second game, 35-34, but Hollis broke his wrist and was lost for the season. The Hawkeyes dropped to No. 2 in the poll.
After a 4-0 start, Iowa lost four straight games and fell out of the rankings. It did secure a winning season by beating Notre Dame in the season finale, 42-21.
That would be Iowa’s last winning season in football until 1981, when Hayden Fry’s third Hawkeye team went 8-4, won a share of the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl. That was also the first team to be ranked in the AP poll since that 1961 season.
Burns could never get traction at Iowa. He went 4-5 in 1962, 3-3-2 in 1963 and 3-6 in 1964. On the eve of the 1965 season, Playboy Magazine picked Iowa No. 1 in the nation, and predicted a 9-12 record. The Hawkeyes went 1-9. Iowa had lost 12 consecutive Big Ten games when Burns was asked to resign with a game remaining. He refused, and was fired. Burns’ coaching career got a second wind from a legendary source. Green Bay’s Vince Lombardi hired him as his defensive backfield coach, and Burns was part of the Packers’ 1966 and 1967 Super Bowl teams.
Bud Grant hired Burns the next year to be offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, a position he held for 16 seasons. When Grant retired after the 1983 season, Burns was the expected successor. But the front office went with Les Steckel instead.
Burns thought he’d done enough in the years following his bad experience at Iowa to get another shot as a head coach.
“Yes, I was disillusioned,” he said that day in Mankato. “After you’ve been fired, there’s a period of time that you have to go through before you reestablish yourself. I felt I had, having been at Green Bay for two Super Bowls and with the Vikings for four Super Bowls. But when there were no jobs forthcoming, I pretty much gave up any hope that I’d get another head coaching job.”
Burns remained on staff as Steckel’s offensive coordinator, but quit with six games remaining after Steckel took away his play-calling duties. Steckel was gone after the season, Grant returned as head coach and talked Burns into staying with a new title - assistant head coach. One season later, Burns was hired to replace Grant.
Instead of a youngster of 33 taking over for Evashevski at Iowa, Burns was 59 and older than every NFL coach but Tom Landry at Dallas and Don Coryell at San Diego. “I don’t think I’m going to be like Casey Stengel and fall asleep in the dugout,” Burns joked. He also cringed when told that Sport Magazine picked him to be NFC Coach of the Year. Visions of the Playboy prediction in 1965 danced in his head.
“I suppose they (Sport) have to go out on a limb with somebody,” Burns said. “But why me?” Remembered as an innovative offensive mind with a colorful personality during his time with the Vikings, Burns coached Minnesota to a 55-46 record and three playoff appearances over six seasons before retiring after the 1991 campaign. He is a member of the Vikings’ Ring of Honor. “I’m going to miss him,” Grant, 93, said.