IOWA CITY, Iowa - Notre Dame’s powerful football team came to Iowa City undefeated and ranked No. 3 nationally in November of 1939.
Before the season started, the seventh opponent that season looked like nothing more than a formality for the Irish. Iowa had gone 1-7 and 1-6-1 the previous two seasons, and seemed no match for one of college football’s blue bloods.
But a former Irish player by the name of Dr. Eddie Anderson had taken over as Iowa’s new coach in 1939. And with the “Cornbelt Comet,” Nile Kinnick, leading the way, the Hawkeyes had risen from the football graveyard by the time Notre Dame came calling on Nov. 11. Iowa was 4-1. This depth-challenged team would go on to become one of the most beloved in program history, creating a legacy that still lives. The Ironmen. These were the days of single-platoon football, and guys like Kinnick, “Iron Mike’ Enich, Wally Bergstrom, Al Couppee, Erwin Prasse and Bruno Andruska rarely left the field.
The headline in the Des Moines Register the day of the Notre Dame game read: “HAWKEYES DEPEND ON “IRON MEN.’ ”
Anderson’s team had caught the attention of Notre Dame Coach Elmer Layden, an Iowa native. Asked early in the week about the chances of the Irish going undefeated, he told the Metropolitan Football Writers Association, “At the moment, the rest of our schedule is Iowa. That’s all I know about, and all I want to know about. With Nile Kinnick in there, those Hawkeyes will be plenty tough.”
Tough they were. Iowa recovered a fumbled Notre Dame lateral late in the first half. Kinnick ran for a 3-yard touchdown on third down, and then added the point-after dropkick to give Iowa a 7-6 halftime lead. The score stood up. Enich squashed Notre Dame’s hopes of a late rally in the final minute by breaking through the line and sacking Irish quarterback Harry Stevenson for a 24-yard loss.
Eight Hawkeyes played all 60 minutes that day. Kinnick didn’t miss a play for a fifth straight game, and the triumph over the Irish gave him momentum in the race for the Heisman Trophy. But Iowa’s first victory over a rated opponent was significant for another reason. The first Associated Press college football poll appeared in newspapers across the nation on Oct. 20. 1936. Minnesota was No. 1 in a landslide, as 32 of the 35 voters representing newspapers across the land selected the Gophers No. 1.
Iowa’s first taste of playing a rated team came on Nov. 7, 1936, when it traveled to Minneapolis and got pummeled, 52-0.The Hawkeyes lost their first five games against rated teams. That changed in 1939, at Notre Dame’s expense.
The Hawkeyes were rated for the first time the following week, jumping to 15th on the strength of the Notre Dame conquest. Iowa made that ranking stand by beating No. 20 Minnesota the following week in Iowa City, 13-9.
Iowa got as high as No. 8 that season, finished the season 6-1-1, and ended up No. 9. The Hawkeyes had won a total of five games over the three previous seasons. Other polls have come along since 1936. Many of them have disappeared. But the AP poll is the gold standard, being a part of college football talk for 85 seasons. It paints a profile of each Division I football program in the nation.
The size of the poll has fluctuated over the years. It ranked 20 teams from its inception in 1936 to 1960. It dropped to 10 teams from 1961 to 1968, jumped back to 20 teams from 1969 to 1988 and then expanded to 25 teams in 1989.
Since breaking through in 1939, Iowa has been ranked in 341 polls over 43 different seasons. That includes 11 weeks at No. 1, 53 weeks in the Top Five and 123 weeks in the Top 10. Three Iowa teams - 1960, 1961 and 1985 - have reached the No. 1 spot in the poll. The 1961 Hawkeyes are the only team to be a preseason No. 1. Iowa has an 8-2 record as the top-ranked team.
The 1985 Big Ten champs are the last team to reach No. 1, a spot they occupied for five weeks. The Hawkeyes jumped from No. 3 to No. 1 after beating Iowa State, 57-3, in the third game of the season.
“We heard more about being No. 1 on campus than we did around the football building,” said quarterback Chuck Long, who went on to be the Heisman runner-up to Auburn’s Bo Jackson. Fry, a mastermind with the mental game, did all he could to keep his team focused as the nation’s top-ranked team.
“His big message was, “Hey, you can’t take any game for granted,’ ” Long recalled. “The Michigan State was a great example of that. They almost beat us. That gave Coach Fry a “Hey, I told you.’ ”
The Spartans nearly ended Iowa’s spot on top of the poll after one week. Michigan State had a 24-13 lead in the third quarter, and was nursing a 31-28 advantage as the game moved to the final minute. With the ball on the Spartans’ 2-year-line, Iowa pulled the game out when Long faked a handoff to Ronnie Harmon, kept it and scored on a bootleg around right end with 27 seconds to play.
“I tried to talk him out of that play,” said Long, who threw for four touchdowns that game. “We had never practiced it in the five years I was there. We never talked about it. It wasn’t in the game plan that week. He just made it up.”
When Long questioned the play call on the sideline, Fry told him, “Charlie, I’ve been coaching for 40 years. Just trust me, it’s going to work. It worked.”
Fry told his team they’d have to work harder to stay No. 1.
“He said, “We’ve got a long way to go,’ ” Long recalled. “You guys have got to keep working. It’s a long year, and everyone will be gunning for us. We have to stay more focused than ever before.”
Iowa won at Wisconsin, 23-13, to set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup against Michigan the following week in Kinnick Stadium. Iowa won, 12-10, on Rob Houghtlin’s walk off 29-yard field goal.
After blasting Northwestern the following week, 49-10, Iowa fell out of the No. 1 spot with a 22-13 loss in the rain at Ohio State. In the ultimate sign of respect, Buckeye fans stormed the field after the victory against a program that had ended a streak of 19 consecutive non-winning seasons just four years earlier.
The 1960 team beat No. 10 Purdue and No. 19 Kansas as the No. 1 squad, but lost to No. 3 Minnesota the following week. After starting the 1961 season No. 1, Coach Jerry Burns’ team beat California in the opener, but dropped out of the top spot after a 35-34 victory at USC. That is one of 76 times in AP poll history that a team lost its top ranking after a victory. But Iowa has also made two of the biggest jumps in poll history. The 2009 team went from unranked to 13th on Sept. 27 after a 21-10 victory at No. 5 Penn State. And the 1986 team went from unranked to 15th on Sept. 23rd after starting 3-0.
Six different Iowa coaches have had at least one of their teams ranked. But three of those coaches - Forest Evashevski, Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz - can take credit for 322 of the program’s 341 appearances.
Evashevski-coached teams spent 66 weeks ranked over eight seasons. Each of his final five teams spent time in the Top Five. Fry saw his teams ranked 133 times over 14 different seasons. Eight of his teams reached the Top 10. And Ferentz-coaches teams have been ranked 123 times, also over 14 seasons. Seven of his teams have reached the Top 10. Both Evashevski and Ferentz had five teams finish a season in the Top 10. Fry’s teams ended the season in the Top 10 on two occasions.
Fry and Ferentz, whose teams represent 75 percent of Iowa’s appearances in the AP poll, have both guided teams back to the nation’s elite after dry spells.
In 1979, Fry inherited a program that had suffered through 17 consecutive non-winning seasons. That streak grew to 19 under his watch. But that all changed in 1981, when the Hawkeyes went to the Rose Bowl and finished 8-4.
Home victories over No. 7 Nebraska and No.6 UCLA at home, sandwiched around a loss at Iowa State, got Iowa back in the Top 25 for the first time since 1961. That drought covered 21 seasons, 202 games and five coaches.
When Iowa landed at 18th in the poll on Sept. 28, 1981, it was the first appearance for the Hawkeyes since they were ninth on Oct. 30, 1961.
“That’s super,” Fry said when told his team was ranked. “That’s great.”
The last time a Fry-coached Iowa team was ranked came on Nov. 10, 1997, when they were 22nd. The Hawkeyes didn’t return until Sept. 29, 2002, after a 42-35 overtime victory at Penn State. Iowa was 24th in the next poll, ending a streak of 48 empty polls.
Under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes also went through a streak of 68 empty polls from Nov. 10, 2010 to Oct. 4, 2015. Iowa has been ranked every season since then, and has finished in the final Top 25 in 2015 (9th), 2018 (25th), 2019 (15th) and 2020 (16th).
Iowa is tied for 24th overall with 25 appearances in the final AP poll. Michigan leads that list with 61, and Ohio State is tied for second with 60. Other Big Ten schools ahead of the Hawkeyes are Nebraska (48), Penn State (43), Michigan State (27) and Wisconsin (26). Only two of Nebraska’s appearances (24th in 2011, 25th in 2012) have come since it joined the Big Ten. Iowa teams have defeated an opponent ranked No. 2 through No. 20 since the inception of the AP poll.
The Hawkeyes are 0-9-1 against No. 1. They came just short against Ohio State in 1964 in Iowa City, 21-19. And there was that famous 14-14 tie against Notre Dame’s “Fainting Irish” in 1953. The Hawkeyes have more Top 10 victories over Michigan than any other school. They have defeated the Wolverines as the No. 2 team in 1985 and 2016; No. 5 (1981); No. 8 (2002); No. 9 (2003) and No. 10 (1990). Iowa has four Top 10 victories over Wisconsin and Ohio State and three over Notre Dame and Penn State.
Evashevski had a 22-16-2 record against rated foes. Fry was 15-46 and Ferentz is 27-47 heading into his 23rd season.
Ferentz’s first victory against a Top 25 opponent as Iowa’s head coach came on Nov. 11, 2000, when his second team knocked off No. 12 Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium, 27-17.
But it was another victory five weeks earlier, against a Michigan State team that was a notch outside the AP’s Top 25, that got the Ferentz era it’s first shot of momentum. Iowa defeated the Spartans, 21-16, ending a 13-game losing streak and a 14-game Big Ten skid. “It was really big because it was our first Big Ten win,” Ferentz said. “Start there. It was a Big Ten win, And then the next thing I would say is don’t look too close to the statistics. Because we got slaughtered statistically.”
Michigan State rushed for 466 yards. T.J. Duckett had 248 of them in 30 carries. Iowa rushed for 85 yards. The Spartans had a 466-231 advantage in total yards. But after Michigan State took a 16-7 lead with 1 minute 22 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Iowa’s Kahlil Hill returned the
ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. And when quarterback Jon Beutjer hit Kevin Kasper for a 43-yard touchdown late in the game, Iowa had ended its losing streak.
The players presented Ferentz the game ball, and his emotional response brought tears. “We found a way to get it done,” Ferentz said. “And as I recall, that was the same day that everyone looked at their program to see who No. 33 (Bob Sanders) was. So a lot of good things happened that day. And then we got our first legitimate win on the road, at Penn State. And the next week, the Northwestern game.”
Penn State was the fourth game after the Michigan State upset, a 26-23 double-overtime triumph. After returning home and beating Northwestern, the Hawkeyes nearly finished the season with a three-game losing streak. But Minnesota pulled out a 27-24 victory in Minneapolis.
“We lost at Minnesota, and Bob (Sanders) gets hurt,” Ferentz said. “His backup lined up 20 yards off the ball, took two steps forward because the quarterback (faked a handoff) and got beat down the sideline on a coverage he should have had. On one hand you’re like, “OK, that was a winnable game. And then, in my own weird way, I somehow found a way to pause it and make it a positive. It’s probably better we didn’t win that, because it would have been three straight to make us 4-8. It gave us a reminder that we were not there yet. It was a good teaching moment for us.”
Evashevski coached his rated teams to a record of 37-14-1. Fry was 59-33-2 and Ferentz is 67-28.
Iowa teams have defeated an opponent ranked No. 2 through No. 20 since the inception of the AP poll. In the days ahead, HawkeyeNation will single out some of Iowa’s noteable victories over ranked teams. The lone exception will be a tie with No. 1 Notre Dame in 1953. The first game to be featured will be a 13-9 victory over Minnesota in 1939. These are the other games to follow:
19 - Iowa 10, No. 19 Wisconsin 6, Madison, Wis., Oct. 3, 2015.
18 - Iowa 27, No. 18 Mississippi State 22, Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 2018.
17 - No. 13 Iowa 37, No. 17 Florida 17, Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 2004.
16 - No. 2 Iowa 38, No. 16 California 12, Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, 1959.
15 - No. 6 Iowa 31, No. 15 Notre Dame 21, Iowa City, Nov. 22, 1958.
14 - Iowa 8, No. 14 Ohio State 0, Iowa City, Oct. 25, 1952.
13 - No. 11 Iowa 16, No. 13 Ohio State 9, Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 2, 1991. 12 - No. 11 Iowa 30, No. 12 LSU 25, Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1, 2005
11 - Iowa 7, No. 11 Penn State 6, State College, Pa., Sept. 25, 1976.
10 - No. 3 Iowa 35, No. 10 Oregon State 19, Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, 1957.
9 - No. 10 Iowa 24, No. 9 Georgia Tech 14, Orange Bowl, Jan. 5, 2010. 8 - No. 9 Iowa 25, No. 8 Purdue 14, Iowa City, Nov. 6, 1954. 7 - Iowa 10, No. 7 Nebraska 7, Iowa City, Sept. 12, 1981. 6 - No. 7 Iowa 6, No. 6 Ohio State 0, Iowa City, Nov. 17, 1956. 5 - No. 13 Iowa 54, No. 5 Illinois 28, Champaign, Ill., Nov. 3, 1990. 4 - No. 13 Iowa 21, No. 4 Wisconsin 9, Madison, Wis., Oct. 18, 1958. 3 - Iowa 24, No. 3 Penn State 23, Iowa City, Nov. 8, 2008. 2 - No. 1 Iowa 12, No. 2 Michigan 10, Iowa City, Oct. 19, 1985. 1 - Iowa 14, No. 1 Notre Dame 14, South Bend, Ind., Nov. 21, 1953.