Leistikow: Revisiting Iowa's 1987 'soap-opera' QB derby
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that several times in the past few months, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has brought up the 1987 season as it pertains to who will be his 2017 starting quarterback.
It was 30 years ago this month that one of the program’s most (in)famous quarterback competitions unfolded in Iowa City.
Ferentz had a front-row view of it then as Iowa’s offensive-line coach, with decision-makers Hayden Fry and Bill Snyder stringing it along — all the way into October.
“It became kind of a soap opera,” Chuck Hartlieb, the man that ultimately won the three-man race for the job, recalls.
It’s not an approach that Hartlieb would suggest Iowa’s current regime try to repeat.
But at the same time, Hartlieb — now a wealth-management adviser in Des Moines — acknowledges playing multiple quarterbacks can be a program's best long-term strategy.
That's because perhaps the biggest lesson that can be drawn from 1987 — in which Hartlieb started out as the No. 3 guy, behind Dan McGwire and Tom Poholsky — is that game day is sometimes the only way to find out who’s truly your No. 1.
“You don’t really get a chance to see how a kid’s truly going to be as a quarterback,” Hartlieb says, “until you see what he can do on a Saturday. It’s such a different atmosphere.
“For some reason, I just tended to play better on Saturday than I did during the week. … I just was not a good practice player. I always joked, it wasn’t any fun having to turn around after every snap (in practice) and have Hayden Fry and Bill Snyder staring you down. I liked it on the field, where I didn’t have to worry about those guys, and (I could) just be with my teammates and try to make plays.”
Without that three-man competition, Hartlieb doesn’t go down as one of the most prolific passers in Hawkeye and Big Ten Conference history.
His 3,738 passing yards in 1988 still stands as the school’s single-season record.
He still owns the conference record for touchdown passes in a game (seven, at Northwestern in 1987), and his 558 passing yards against Indiana in 1988 remain the second-most in a game by any Big Ten quarterback.
Perhaps most impressive: Hartlieb’s 3,092 yards in 1987 rank No. 3 at Iowa all-time, despite him not wrestling away the No. 1 quarterback job until halfway through the season.
The QB race was so jumbled, that Fry gave all three guys snaps in the season-opening Kickoff Classic against Tennessee in East Rutherford, N.J.
“It was crazy,” Hartlieb says. “But that was Coach Fry at times.”
McGwire started the game and was given the first 20 or so snaps. Then Hartlieb got his scripted chance. Then Poholsky.
Hartlieb’s errant pitch-out turned into a 96-yard Tennessee touchdown the other way. Iowa lost the game, 23-22, on a late field goal.
“It really was tough on the team, and tough on all of us,” Hartlieb says. “The cohesiveness of the offense is critical. And when you’re uncertain who your leader is, it can be challenging for the rest of the offensive unit. That inconsistency can show up in penalties, turnovers and a lack of execution.”
The next week, McGwire got the start against Arizona. Iowa fell behind, and Hartlieb was summoned to lead a come-from-behind, 15-14 win.
Hartlieb got the start the next two games in blowout wins over Iowa State and Kansas State, but then Fry curiously named McGwire the starter entering the Big Ten opener against Michigan State.
McGwire got hurt in that game, a 19-14 Hawkeye loss. The next week, Hartlieb led Iowa to a 31-13 win at Wisconsin, and he had Fry’s full confidence going forward.
Hartlieb would post a 10-2-3 record in Big Ten games as a starter.
McGwire would transfer to San Diego State.
Fast forward to today. The 1987 derby parallels to 2017 are pretty striking.
McGwire was the hot-shot true sophomore with a big arm and big upside. He had played sparingly the year before behind a senior starter in Mark Vlasic.
Hartlieb was the redshirt junior who says the light bulb finally went on for him entering Year 4 in the program.
That sounds a lot like the dynamic between Nathan Stanley (the true sophomore who was C.J. Beathard's backup) and Tyler Wiegers (the redshirt junior who's paid his dues), who were – as Ferentz puts it – a coin flip apart entering fall camp, which began Sunday.
And maybe there’s a dark-horse third candidate, too, in Ryan Boyle or true freshman Peyton Mansell.
As 1987 showed, you never know.
One piece of advice Hartlieb has for Iowa's contestants: Your legs are there to make good plays and avoid bad ones.
“If you can extend a drive with your feet by scrambling on third-and-6, or just stepping up the right way and buying yourself some time, those are huge drive-savers,” Hartlieb says. “The QB making plays with his feet is a big, big deal that obviously needs to be watched with these guys in the early part of the season, especially with (Iowa’s) challenge at the receiver position.”
Hartlieb jokes that “probably the smartest thing I did (in 1987) was buy beer all summer long for my offensive linemen, and get those guys in my corner.”
While slow-fermented adult beverages aren't likely on the Chris Doyle-approved list, the point is valid: Getting the team unified behind one starter is an important step in the QB-selection process.
Hartlieb remembers watching the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2, 2015, in which Iowa alternated series with Beathard and Jake Rudock. It was awkward and unsuccessful, but it did ultimately lead to Ferentz naming Beathard his 2015 starter.
Behind Beathard, Iowa went 12-2 in 2015. Rudock transferred to Michigan.
Ferentz has a history of this. In 2008, after some non-conference juggling and rough moments while alternating between Jake Christensen and Ricky Stanzi, he finally landed on sophomore Stanzi, who would go on to lead Iowa to three bowl victories.
“That’s the last thing that you want to do with the quarterback spot,” Hartlieb says. “This is probably going to be one of those years where the non-conference schedule might have some challenges, just because they don’t know who’s going to be able to get it done on a Saturday.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.