Brown: Appreciating the Late Matt Szykowny
IOWA CITY, Iowa – My dad was a sportswriter, and one day I heard him discussing Iowa’s starting quarterback for the 1962 season.
He kept saying, “Mattszykowny,” and I was intrigued.
I asked dad what Mattszykowny’s first name was. He laughed at me.
“His first name is Matt. Last name Szykowny. Matt Szykowny.
For that reason alone, this nine-year-old followed Szykowny’s senior season in 1962. He was much more than a catchy name.
Turns out he was quite an athlete for the Hawkeyes. Szykowny earned seven letters at Iowa, and started on the football, basketball and baseball teams during his career. He was also selected by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1963 NFL Draft, got a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates and played minor league baseball in the Minnesota Twins organization.
Matthew Thomas Szykowny, 79, passed away in Las Vegas, Nev., on July 27.
He was a star athlete at North Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, Pa., scoring 1,852 points during his basketball career. It is still the record. His coach, Don Graham, called him the best player he ever coached.
Szykowny quarterbacked his football team to three Pittsburgh Catholic League titles from 1956 to 1958. His coach, “Rip” Scherer, called him the best player he ever coached. He also lettered in baseball.
The fact that Szykowny was able to letter in three sports at a Big Ten school speaks to his talent and versatility.
Szykowny played football for two coaches at Iowa, Forest Evashevski (1960) and Jerry Burns (1961, 1962). The Hawkeyes won the Big Ten title in 1960. He threw 290 passes over those three seasons for 2,038 yards, with 14 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. He led Iowa in passing yardage in both 1961 (1,078) and 1962 (737).
He had a hand in five touchdowns in a 47-15 Homecoming victory over Wisconsin in 1961. He threw nine straight completions in the first half, and was 14 for 17 for the game. Three of those passes went for touchdowns. He ran for two more. Szykowny started that game in place of Wilburn Hollis, who was out with an injury.
“Matt resembles a pro passer,” Wisconsin Coach Milt Bruhn said.
Badger assistant Paul Shaw, who had scouted the Hawkeyes, piled on the praise.
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“Matt, on what we saw today, is out of this world,” Shaw said.
Szykowny’s 80-yard completion to Larry Ferguson against the Badgers in 1962 is tied for the 12th longest pass play in school history.
Szykowny is also the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only Iowa quarterback to beat Ohio State and Michigan in the same season?
Beating either of those teams has never been easy for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 15-42-4 in the series with Michigan, and 15-47-7 with Ohio State.
Eleven of those Michigan victories have come since 1981. Coach Hayden Fry beat the Wolverines four times. Coach Kirk Ferentz has done it seven times. Fry beat the Buckeyes three times. Ferentz has done it twice.
Szykowny did it twice in a span of 14 days, in 1962 by identical 28-14 scores.
Ohio State came to Iowa City on Nov. 3 with the nation’s second-best running game under Coach Woody Hayes. Oddsmakers favored the Buckeyes by 14 points.
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Burns, in his second season as coach, had an underachieving 2-3 team at the time and wasn’t the most popular man on campus. In fact, he had been hung in effigy twice the week of the game.
But he was carried off the field by his team after the victory. And it was
Iowa’s running game, not Ohio State’s, that earned headlines. The Hawkeyes had 243 yards on the ground. Ohio State had 174.
“We showed a lot of people we could do it,” said Szykowny, who scored on a pair of 1-yard runs. “Once we proved our running game would work, we used it decisively.”
Szykowny threw just four passes the entire game.
“We only passed four times?” Burns said. “Why, I out-Woodied Woody.”
The Michigan victory also came in Iowa City, against a coach who was familiar to Iowa fans and would become very popular in Iowa City in the years to come.
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Bump Elliott had been an assistant to Evashevski at Iowa, and would later serve as the Hawkeyes’ athletic director for 21 years.
Iowa entered the game a 14-point favorite. The contest was tied at 14-14 in the fourth quarter when Szykowny found Sammie Harris for a 47-yard touchdown pass that broke the Wolverines’ back.
Szykowny was a teammate of all-American Don Nelson on Iowa’s basketball team. He started for the 1960-61 team that tied for second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State. Szykowny averaged 9.3 points.
He came off the bench in 1961-62, averaging 7.5 points in what would be his final season. He played a significant role off the bench.
He scored 14 points in a 59-51 victory against Michigan State, and figured out how to get the ball to Nelson in the post.
His teammates had tried to lob to ball inside to their star, but the Spartans were able to tip most of those passes away. When Szykowny came in, he fired chest passes to Nelson, who was able to catch them and make a move before Michigan State’s defense had a chance to react. Nelson scored nine straight points late in the game to give Iowa the winning edge.
Szykowny also guarded Spartan star Pete Gent, limiting him to just two points.
Szykowny played second base for the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten runner-up baseball team as a senior. He also lettered in baseball as a sophomore. He led the league in fielding as a senior, but batted just .204. But the Twins still signed him to a contract and gave him a look at third base.
Szykowny, who majored in Civil Engineering at Iowa, worked for John Deere in Moline, Ill., and U.S. Steel in Chicago. He was living in Las Vegas at the time of his death.