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Special look back: Iowa vs. Nebraska, 1981, part one (The game that changed everything)

[ 2 ] November 20, 2011 |

By KEN FUSON

Special to the Register

They hated the losing. All of them — the coaches, the players, everyone.

They were sick of it. When they heard or read a story about their University of Iowa football team, they knew what was coming: Nineteen straight years without a winning season …

Fans forget. Or they’re too young to have witnessed it. People look at the success Iowa football teams have experienced the past 30 years — winning or tying for five Big Ten titles, playing in 23 bowl games, winning 12 — and they may assume it was always so.

But the players and coaches of the 1981 Iowa football team remember.

Traditions don’t just happen. They have to start somewhere. They have to be earned.

As Iowa prepares to play Nebraska this Friday, the first game in which both schools are members of the Big Ten, it’s a good time to remember the 30th anniversary of another Iowa-Nebraska game.

“We’re part of history,” says Andre Tippett, the Iowa all-American and NFL Hall of Fame member. “As long as we live, and probably well after we’re gone, we’ll still be an important part of the talk whenever people ask, ‘When did it all start?’ ”

Their story begins a year earlier.

Sept. 20, 1980

Memorial Stadium

Lincoln, Neb.

As one of the Iowa football captains, Bryan Skradis faced the unenviable postgame task of talking to reporters.

Nebraska 57, Iowa 0. A defensive lineman, Skradis had played valiantly, recording 15 tackles.

But the game was a nightmare. Skradis was a senior — from Omaha, no less. Fifty friends and family members attended the game in Lincoln. This would be his last chance to show the Big Red they had been wrong not to offer him a scholarship.

“What happened?” a reporter asked.

“Didn’t you see it?” Skradis snapped. “They kicked our ass out there.”

The next week, against Iowa State, Skradis suffered a knee injury that ended his season. He was awarded a medical redshirt, which meant that he could return for the entire 1981 Iowa season.

Nebraska would be the first opponent.

One more chance.

Sept. 12, 1981

Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Pregame

“Hi everyone, welcome to Iowa football 1981. This is Jim Zabel, with Forest Evashevski, in Kinnick Stadium. And in just a few moments, we’ll be talking with Iowa coach Hayden Fry about today’s opener against Nebraska.”

This marked WHO radio’s 50th year, and Zabel’s 32nd, of broadcasting Iowa football games — “and I’ll have to say that in those years, the Hawkeyes haven’t faced many more rugged openers than they do today.”

Nebraska arrived in Iowa City ranked No. 7. It had finished in the top 10 in seven of the previous eight years. In the eight years since Tom Osborne became head coach, the Cornhuskers were 75-20-2.

During the same period, Iowa was 27-61. The Hawks had suffered 19 straight non-winning seasons. Four head coaches tried to turn the program around. All had failed.

Texan Hayden Fry took over in 1979. He changed the uniforms to resemble those of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He introduced the “Tiger Hawk” logo. He charmed Iowans with pet phrases like, “Scratch where it itches.”

But Fry’s first two seasons were losing ones, too, despite some tantalizing teases. In 1979, the Hawks led Nebraska by a touchdown after three quarters, but lost 24-21.

“We saw that we could play with those guys,” says Tippett, a defensive end, and now executive director of community affairs for the New England Patriots.

Then came 57-0, one of the low points of the 4-7 season in 1980.

That next summer, most of the defensive starters and backups remained in Iowa City to work out together. A common occurrence now, it was rarer then.

“The bonding and camaraderie that we had was phenomenal,” says Brad Webb, a defensive end and senior co-captain.

They all seemed to have a nickname. Tippett was “Tip.” Webb was “Packy.” Pat Dean, the combustive noseguard, was “Gonzo.” Linebacker Mel Cole was “Reverend,” earned for his pregame motivational talks. Linebacker Todd Simonsen was “Simo.”

“That group in the front seven, there was a bunch of nasty guys up there,” says Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma head coach, who was known as Bobby when he started as an Iowa defensive back in 1981.

They tortured the scout team, the underclassmen who ran an opponent’s plays against the first-team defense.

Stoops says defensive lineman Mark Bortz once went out of his way to flatten the scout team coach. Bill Brashier, the defensive coordinator, says he had to threaten his players with extra running.

“A lot of times I’d get in the huddle and say, ‘Look, you guys, quit abusing the scout team. They’ve got to run all these plays, and after all, they’re on our side.’ ”

They still didn’t stop. Tippett pitied the scout team quarterback.

“That poor guy, we beat him so bad, we made him good,” he said.

The player? Freshman Chuck Long, who would finish second in the Heisman Trophy balloting four years later.

Of the 11 Iowa starters on defense in 1981, nine were seniors or fifth-year seniors. Bortz and Stoops were juniors.

“They may not have been the fastest or greatest athletes in the world, but I would put them against anybody in Iowa football history from a toughness perspective,” says Lon Olejniczak, a wide receiver and kicker. “Those were some downright mean and ornery guys.”

Coming into the 1981 season, most scouting reports predicted Iowa would have a stout defense and a powerful weapon in punter Reggie Roby.

But questions remained about the offense, particularly the offensive line, coached by assistant Kirk Ferentz, then in his first year at Iowa.

“We had a great game plan,” says Ron Hallstrom, who had been moved from the defense to offensive line. “We weren’t going to do anything fancy. We were just going to take it to them.”

For a team that had lost the previous year by eight touchdowns, the Hawks were surprisingly confident.

“All those big boys at Nebraska, they didn’t like the heat,” Skradis says. “We were well-conditioned. We knew we were going to win before the game ever started.”

Says Olejniczak: “We weren’t intimidated by Nebraska. And quite honestly, we were sick of losing. We made a commitment as a group to say, ‘You know, enough is enough. The Hawks are good enough, and we belong, so let’s go show the world.’ ”

The night before, as was the custom during home games, the players walked from the Hillcrest Hall dormitory to the pharmacy building, where they watched a movie. Hallstrom remembers it as “The Wild Bunch,” a bloody Western.

“Hayden was a cowboy, so it was always a Western,” he says, laughing.

On game day, in the locker room, it fell to linebacker Mel “Reverend” Cole to prepare the troops.

“He’d talk about Kinnick Stadium, and how it’s our house to protect,” says Joel Hilgenberg, then a sophomore back-up center. “He was outstanding. It was always very motivational listening to him.”

Ferentz, now Iowa’s head coach, recalls running on to the Kinnick Stadium field for the first time, as 60,160 fans — a record at the time — roared their approval.

“It was absolutely unbelievable.”

First quarter

Game-time temperature was in the mid-80s, with a light wind and a clear, sunny sky.

Skradis didn’t care how hot it was. He was angry.

The injury he had suffered the year before cost him a starting position on the Iowa defensive line. He still played, substituting for Webb, but it gnawed at him. To get more action, he volunteered to be on the kick-off team.

Nebraska won the toss. Roby, Iowa’s extraordinary kicker, sent the ball sailing to Irving Fryar, one of 17 Cornhusker players on the 1981 roster who would play in the NFL.

Skradis sprinted, carrying the frustration of not starting, the anger of all those losing seasons, like a torpedo locked in on its target.

Fryar reached the 13- yard line.

“I ran right through him,” Skradis says. “You ever see one of those plays where a guy’s running and he just gets erased? He was running, and I think James Erb, he got down there first and kind of flashed at him.

“So Fryar kind of hesitated and stopped. I didn’t break stride. I put my helmet in his chest and I just de-cleated him. It was one of those hits you dream about. I clocked him.”

It was Skradis’s only tackle of the game, but it sent a message: This was a new season.

“It set up the rest of the day,” says Dan McCarney, the defensive line coach who now coaches North Texas. “The way Bryan Skradis went down and covered that kick, that’s the way our defense played for the rest of the day.”

The 1981 Nebraska Cornhuskers followed the school’s traditional script for success: Place exceptionally fast running backs, like Davenport native Roger Craig, behind enormously big linemen, like center Dave Rimington, and march down the field. It was like trying to stop a bulldozer.

And that’s how the first drive began.

Craig gained five yards. Then four. Then one and a first down. Then three more.

“Boy, he was tough,” Stoops says. “He came through that line, his knees were up over your head. He was snorting and fighting for everything.”

On the next play, Nebraska quarterback Mark Mauer — the cousin of Joe Mauer, the Minnesota Twins star — recovered his own fumble, losing 10 yards. Craig then gained eight, but the Huskers were forced to punt.

Now it was Iowa’s turn, and Fry had a surprise for the Cornhuskers.

During his previous head coaching jobs at Southern Methodist and North Texas State, Fry had pulled off upsets by featuring an unbalanced offensive line, which simply means putting more lineman on one side of the center than the other.

Good teams get set in their ways, he says. The idea is to show them something they haven’t seen on their scouting reports.

“So you wait until you get up against a real good ballclub, knowing that their pride and their success in what they’ve been doing means they’re not going to change or adjust real quick,” he says. “That’s what we did. I don’t know if Nebraska ever adjusted.”

Olejniczak recalls the reaction of Jimmy Williams, the Nebraska defensive end.

“He looked up and said, ‘What’s this?’ And we just smiled,” he said. “ We knew we had caught them off guard.”

Iowa’s offense began its first drive on the Nebraska 44. Seven running plays later — two by quarterback Pete Gales and five by running back Eddie Phillips — and the Hawks owned a 7-0 lead.

That’s one more point than Nebraska had given up in all the first quarters of the previous season.

The next time Nebraska had the ball, Bortz recovered a Craig fumble. The time after that, Webb intercepted a Mauer pass.

“I think Mel Cole tipped it and it bounced off of somebody’s leg,” Webb says. “I was falling down to the ground and grabbed it in the air.”

Eight plays later, the Hawks were in field goal range.

Second quarter

On the first play of the quarter, Olejniczak kicked a 35-yard field goal. Iowa 10, Nebraska 0.

The game then evolved into a sloppy, defensive slugfest, exactly the sort of game the bullies on Iowa’s defense relished. Mauer fumbled again, killing a Nebraska drive. Later in the quarter, kicker Kevin Seibel missed a field goal.

But Iowa, too, was struggling on offense.

Three and out.

Three and out.

Two plays and a Phillips fumble, followed two plays later by a Craig fumble that Stoops grabbed.

“The ball bounces your way and you recover it,” he says, matter of factly.

Nebraska, a team that had averaged 506 yards in total offense per game the year before, returned to the locker room having not scored a point.

“I think they took us real lightly,” Hallstrom says. “They probably looked at us like they were playing some junior college, especially after the year before.

“After that first half, I think they knew they were getting their ass kicked. It was only 10-0, but they were getting beat pretty hard.”

Fry’s teams at Iowa had led good teams at the half before, only to sputter.

In Perry, 21-year-old Bob Paterson was supposed to be watching a friend play in a slow-pitch softball tournament, but he spent the afternoon sitting in his 1979 Blazer, listening on the radio to Zabel’s call of the game.

Like most other Iowa fans, Paterson was stunned.

This was Nebraska. How could the Hawks possibly hold on?

NEXT: The second half of “The Game That Changed Everything” unfolds.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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