Iowa was a dead program when Hayden Fry took over in 1979. No Rose Bowl appearances since 1958 and not even a winning season since 1961. Fry didn’t break either streak his first two years, going 9-13.
So when 1981 Iowa football opened the season by upsetting seventh-ranked Nebraska 10-7 it came out of nowhere. When the Hawkeyes lost at Iowa State the following week, it was just Iowa returning to earth. Then Iowa pulled another big non-conference upset, stunning sixth-ranked UCLA 20-7. This upset got Fry’s team into the rankings at #18. But who were these guys?
There was some good talent on defense, most notably defensive end Andre Tippett. He would make the NFL, convert to outside linebacker and become a Hall of Fame player for the New England Patriots. Iowa defensive back Lou King was a ballhawk, intercepting eight passes.
A balanced running attack, with Phil Blatcher and Eddie Phillips—who ranked fourth and sixth among Big Ten runners respectively—worked in tandem with the defense and with All-American punter Reggie Roby to control field position.
Iowa’s quarterback was Gordy Bohannon, who didn’t throw a lot, but he was reasonably effective. His 51 percent completion rate was acceptable by the standards of the time, and his 7.0 yards-per-attempt was pretty good.
So could this Hawkeye team sustain the magic during Big Ten play? Iowa started by crushing Northwestern 64-0—the Wildcats were awful to be sure, but that sort of beatdown was normally reserved for the Michigans and Ohio States, who had represented this league in Pasadena every year since 1967. Iowa then beat Indiana 42-28 and moved up to #12 in the polls.
A road trip to fifth-ranked Michigan was next and the formula of defense, punting and running the ball was able to get it done. The Wolverines made the game’s biggest error—a fumbled punt that set up a field goal. Iowa’s offense used clock-chewing drives to get two more field goals and they pulled out a 9-7 upset.
That was three wins against Top 10 teams with brand-name pedigrees, but games against Minnesota and Illinois didn’t go quite as well. The Hawks lost 12-10 and 24-7 respectively. The Illini, we should note, were a good team and joined the Hawkeyes and the Wisconsin Badgers as teams challenging Michigan-Ohio State hegemony in the conference. Iowa’s loss to Illinois was also on the road.
Iowa bounced back with a 33-7 home win over Purdue. There were two games left and the Big Ten race was complete chaos. Of the five contenders mentioned above, four were tied in the loss column with two defeats apiece and Illinois had three losses.
The Hawkeyes faced a must-win game in Wisconsin. Blatcher ran for a pair of early touchdowns and Iowa took a 17-0 lead. Fry turned the game over to his defense and Roby.
An ultra-conservative strategy meant the Hawkeyes only got seven first downs for the game. But Roby dominated, airing out seven punts that averaged nearly 54 yards a pop. Fry insisted the game be put in the defense’s hands and they delivered 17-7—with the UW touchdown coming only in the late moments.
Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan all had two losses, but due to unequal scheduling, the Wolverines played one more conference game and thereby had a half-game lead. Iowa needed to beat Michigan State and hope Ohio State beat Michigan.
If that happened, the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes would be co-champs. They had not played head-to-head, and the Big Ten’s next tiebreaker would be to simply send the team that had waited the longest since last going to Pasadena. Iowa owned this tiebreaker.
And they got what they wanted. Ohio State won 14-9, while Iowa easily rolled Michigan State 36-21. The improbable season of the 1981 Iowa Hawkeyes was going to end in the Rose Bowl.
Maybe it was asking too much for Iowa to continue the magic against Washington in Pasadena. The Hawkeye offense never got untracked. The defense kept them in the game through three quarters, at a deficit of 13-0. But a couple fourth-quarter TDs for the Huskies finally blew it open in a 28-0 final.