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Keeler: Arbitrator’s ruling set the stage for Iowa’s most revered football game

[ 6 ] September 10, 2010 |

Before we toss another kielbasa on the grill Saturday, let us — both sides, Iowa fans and Iowa State fans alike — raise our glasses high in a toast:

To Patrick J. Fisher. To the best $345.38 the Board of Regents ever spent.

“We were all in agreement in having to abide by his decision,” Stanley Redeker, the Boone businessman and former president of the board, says when asked about the Big Game, and Fisher’s role therein, some 40 years ago. “At that point, we would not have gone any further with it.”

A lot of people, good people, take credit for getting the ball that is the Iowa-Iowa State football game rolling again. Bill Reichardt championed his fight through the legislature in the 1960s. Forest Evashevski and Clay Stapleton grabbed a hold of the flag and were instrumental in carrying it to the top of the hill. Gov. Robert Ray greased the skids that led to an extension, signed in 1979, that basically cinched the game as a rite of our fall passage.

Iowa coaching legend Forest Evashevski discusses football with former Hawkeye Randy Duncan. Evashevski later became Iowa athletic director before being ousted. He agreed to an annual game against Iowa State during his tenure. Register File Photo.

And yet, with just 22 words in April 1971, Fisher — an attorney from Indianapolis — also helped chart the course of the Iowa-Iowa State football rivalry as we know it.

“The State University of Iowa,” Fisher wrote, “is obligated to play four football games with Iowa State University in the years 1979 to 1982.”

Just like that, a two-game series, an experiment, became a heck of a lot more than that.

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“I guess I noticed they were still playing it,” Fisher says. He’s 96 years young now, bless him, and still living in Indy, where he practiced law for more than half a century. “Which I think was a good thing. I think intrastate rivalries are good, in all locations.”

A Notre Dame grad, Fisher was brought into Iowa-Iowa State lore largely because he didn’t have a dog in the fight. Also, he was pretty good at his job — in the early 1970s, he was a renowned arbitrator, having settled disputes, by his count, in 49 states.

It was this reputation that drew him to the attention of Redeker, who, in the fall of 1970, found himself sitting on a political hand grenade.

Thanks to the efforts of Evashevski and Stapleton, Iowa and Iowa State were contracted to play in 1977 and ’78, the first meeting on a football field between the schools since 1934. Bad blood and controversy had soured the series since its inception in 1894; with a larger stadium and following, the University of Iowa’s Athletic Board of Control didn’t see what the school had to gain by starting it back up again. (Neither, for that matter, did Iowa fans. Some things never change.)

To many, though, it smacked of pure hubris. At any rate, Iowa’s board begrudgingly relaxed its no-Cyclones policy somewhat, and arrangements for those first two Iowa-Iowa State games were reportedly agreed to in 1968. Furthermore, Evashevski and Stapleton, then Iowa State’s athletic director, announced in 1969 that they’d agreed to extend the series four more games, through the 1982 season.

But over the next year or so, the situation in Iowa City would become significantly more complex. Evashevski, the former Iowa coach-turned-athletic-director, was feuding with his board and with the Hawkeyes’ current football coach, Ray Nagel. Things came to a head in the spring and summer of 1970, which saw Evashevski out as athletic director, Chalmers “Bump” Elliott brought in, and the future of the Iowa-Iowa State series in limbo.

In November 1970, Iowa’s athletic board declared that Evy didn’t have the authority to schedule the remaining four games with the Cyclones, and that there were no plans to extend the series beyond 1978. Iowa State officials were livid.

“Iowa blundered,” Stapleton said at the time, “and blundered badly.”

Were the oral agreements between Evashevski and Stapleton binding? The matter went to the Regents, but given the sensitivity of the situation, Redeker elected to bring in a third party to settle the dispute.

“So I called (Patrick) and told him the situation,” Redeker recalls. “And he said, ‘I can’t believe that you want to have an arbitrator,’ or words to that effect. I explained to him that, ‘This was a big deal, and that the worst part of it is, we don’t have any money to spend for it.’ ”

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After some thought, Patrick consented. The hearing began in Des Moines on March 26, 1971, with attorney Bill Tucker representing the Hawkeyes and Ames lawyer Don Smith representing the Cyclones. Smith recalls Iowa calling several witnesses, while the bulk of his case stemmed from written testimony.

A couple of pieces proved to be of particular interest. The first was a three-page affidavit from Evashevski himself, asserting that he had full authorization, as athletic director, to set future schedules.

“In many ways,” says Smith, who thinks to this day that the board was intimidated by the iconic former football coach, “the arbitration hearing was between the (board) and Evashevski.”

But the second piece, in hindsight, is probably what swung the decision in favor of Evy — and in favor of the series being extended. It was a January 1969 letter from Samuel Fahr, a law professor at Iowa and director of the athletic board, to John Mahlstede, chairman of the Iowa State athletic council.

Smith refers to the letter as “the smoking gun,” as Fahr had written the following passage:

“The way we work it here is that the (athletic) Director makes the schedules and they are ordinarily approved by our Athletic Board. I don’t recall a case where his recommendations have been turned down by the Board. Neither the Board nor the Chairman of it, however, enters into the negotiations ordinarily, because we found that procedure very cumbersome some years ago.

“I have told Mr. Evashevski to go ahead and represent us at your convenience in further athletic scheduling. I suppose that means he would work directly with Clay Stapleton…”

With testimony and Smith’s papers in hand, Fisher returned to Indianapolis. Less than a month later, he sent his judgment — just 22 words — back to Redeker and the Regents.

The Evy-Stapleton agreement was gospel after all, setting the stage for a generation.

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And Fisher’s judgment wasn’t the only big news that day. After the arbitrator’s decision was announced, Iowa State officials told reporters that if the Cyclones had a stadium with a seating capacity of 50,000 or more by the time of the 1979-82 games, at least one of those contests would be played in Ames. Cyclone Stadium — now Jack Trice Stadium — opened for business in 1975.

“An agreement is an agreement,” Fisher says now. “That’s all there is to that. The facts were very clear to me. Evashevski had made a deal. So that was it.”

Well, almost. The Register reported in May 1971 that going to arbitration with Fisher had cost the universities about $6,000 — given inflation, that comes out to roughly $32,000 by today’s standards. Of that $6,000, Fisher’s fee was just $345.38; the lawyers got the rest.

When you suggest that he might’ve come up a bit short on that end of the deal, Fisher just laughs.

“I should,” he says, chuckling, “I should re-bill them.”

A toast. To bargains.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Sean Keeler: Sean Keeler has been a sports columnist at The Des Moines Register since 2002. Got a story tip, comment, complaint? E-mail him at skeeler@dmreg.com. You can follow him on twitter at twitter.com/seankeeler or on Facebook at facebook.com/smkeeler. View author profile.

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