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Iowa’s Last Great Champions: The Sixtieth Anniversary of the 1958 Hawkeyes

As Ohio State and Northwestern prepare to square off for the Big Ten Championship tonight, Hawkeye fans find themselves excluded from the festivities in Indianapolis and lamenting the season that could have been. Under those circumstances, it seems fitting to revisit better days when the Hawkeyes not only competed for but won conference championships. Despite more recent examples of Iowa teams that fit this description, the present moment makes for a particularly timely occasion to celebrate one of the best teams in program history, one that coincidentally celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

The 1958 Iowa Hawkeyes were without question one of the most accomplished teams to ever take the field in Iowa City. Crowned national champions by the Football Writers Association of America, the 1958 team finished 8-1-1 after navigating what Sports Reference retroactively rated as the second most difficult schedule in the nation, resulting in them having the highest SRS rating of any team that season (SRS is a metric that ranks teams by accounting for their average point differential and strength of schedule). The Hawkeyes faced off against six ranked teams, including three opponents (TCU, Wisconsin, and Northwestern) ranked in the top ten.

Unlike modern Hawkeye teams which have historically been led by their defense, the 1958 Hawkeyes were considered an offensive juggernaut. Led by Heisman runner-up and future NFL number one overall draft pick Randy Duncan at quarterback, the Hawkeyes boasted the fourth highest scoring offense in the country. Future NFL and AFL starts Curt Merz and Don Norton served as Duncan’s primary targets in an offense that was, by 1958 standards, fairly pass-heavy, and the duo fittingly earned the nickname “The Gluefingers Gang” for their sure-handedness.

Still, like nearly all Iowa teams, the running game remained the focal point of the offense. Iowa boasted three star running backs in juniors Ray Jauch and Bob Jeter and sophomore Willie Fleming, the latter of whom played only one year with the Black and Gold before turning pro. Coached by Forest Evashevski, the man who literally wrote the book on the Wing T offense, the Hawkeyes generally featured three running backs on the field at all times and used their stable of talented ball carriers to power one of the most potent rushing attacks in the nation.

While Iowa won most of its games by comfortable margins (including a 37-14 shellacking of the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor), the Hawkeyes’ 26-20 win over 8th ranked Northwestern stands out as a particularly hard-fought game which, considering Iowa’s recent woes against the Wildcats, is worth revisiting. This game provided what was arguably the play of the season when a scrambling Randy Duncan found Curt Merz for a spectacular one-handed catch in the end-zone for what turned out to be a decisive score in a six-point contest. Duncan sent his Heisman campaign in full swing after completing 14-18 passes for three touchdowns, while the Hawkeyes assumed the #2 ranking in the following AP poll.

Despite being the class of the Big Ten, the 1958 Hawkeyes still found themselves unable to navigate their difficult schedule unblemished. Iowa’s sole defeat came at home against #16 Ohio State, but the Hawkeyes also tied Air Force 13-13 in the second game of the season. This surprising hiccup might have spelled trouble for the Hawkeyes’ national perception had Air Force not surprised national pundits by finishing undefeated on the year, and Evashevski even credited Iowa’s struggles against Air Force for their later success in conference play.

The pinnacle of the 1958 team’s success came in its 38-12 destruction of the University of California in the 1959 Rose Bowl, Iowa’s second appearance and second victory in the game in the previous three years. The Hawkeye offense overwhelmed the Golden Bear defense en route to setting Rose Bowl records for total offense (516 yards), rushing offense (429), rushing yards by a single player (Bob Jeter with 194), and longest rushing play from scrimmage (Bob Jeter’s 81-yard touchdown run in the third quarter). The Hawkeye defense led by captain and star linebacker John Nocera also played admirably during the rout, holding a Cal offense led by future Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Kapp scoreless through the first half. Fortunately, video of the game still exists:

Little was said by the university or the fandom in general to honor the 1958 team this season, which is somewhat surprising. Sixty years is hardly an anniversary that triggers an automatic celebration, and it’s entirely possible that the university intends to honor the team in 2019 in accordance with the sixtieth anniversary of its Rose Bowl victory. Still, it is unfortunate that more casual Hawkeye fans aren’t as aware of the triumphs of the 1958 team as they are more recent success stories such as the 1985 squad which played during an era where broadcast television created greater exposure for the sport and allowed fans outside of eastern Iowa to follow the program with greater ease.

One cannot help but look back wistfully on the level of consistent national success the Iowa program was able to achieve during the peak of the Evashevksi era. Younger Hawkeye fans such as myself were blessed with three consecutive years of real national prominence during the early Ferentz years and have witnessed isolated resurgences throughout the remainder of his time at the helm. For many Iowans of my generation it was the 2002-2004 Ferentz teams that solidified their lifelong fandom. Still, to people like my father who moved from Michigan to eastern Iowa in 1959 and was regaled with stories of the dominant, nationally feared team that made residence just thirty miles north of his new home, the siren song of the black and gold must have been even more difficult to ignore.

The Iowa fanbase is a deeply passionate group and embedded in the fabric of the fandom is a strong desire for national success at the highest levels of competition. Iowa football has had so few teams that can legitimately make a claim to have been the best in the nation in any given season, and teams such as the 1958 squad that can do so are worth celebrating. While Iowa will not have a chance to compete for a Big Ten title or a Rose Bowl berth this weekend, the 60th anniversary of the 1958 Hawkeye football team serves as a reminder to fans of exactly what the program is capable of when it performs at its best and can hopefully inspire the returning players to strive to match those heights in 2019.

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