Given where they stand and what looms ahead, it’s no stretch to argue every game until season’s end holds weight that Iowa football has never carried in the program’s 127-year history.
At 11-0, the Hawkeyes have already reached a place no other Iowa team has gone. They’re on the precipice of the school’s first 12-win season.
They’re chewing on national championship dreams at Thanksgiving. No other Iowa team has done that, either.
There’s no page in the Hawkeye playbook for any of this. The best they can do is dig into their archives and learn from Iowa’s football past.
The Hawkeyes held the nation’s No. 1 ranking for five weeks during the magical fall of 1985 when Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long quarterbacked a clutch team that started 7-0 before its unbeaten run washed away in the rain at Ohio State.
They were 9-0 and in the national title chase in 2009 until an ill-fated bootleg left quarterback Ricky Stanzi crumpled in the end zone under a Northwestern defensive end, with a right ankle injury that required surgery.
Long and receiver Bill Happel have had 30 years to reflect on the historic highs of the 1985 season and that agonizing afternoon in Ohio Stadium. The memories of 2009 are still fresh for linebacker Pat Angerer and offensive lineman Dace Richardson.
What would they change if they could go back in time? What advice would they lend to the 2015 Hawkeyes?
The passages below are their thoughts, as told to Andy Hamilton.
Chuck Long, quarterback, 1985 Heisman Trophy runner-up
I don’t care who you are or what level you play on, it’s hard to go undefeated. I’ve been involved in organized football for 40 years, and I’ve been on one unbeaten team — the 2000 national championship year at Oklahoma. We had better football teams and better players in other seasons, but we never went undefeated again.
We couldn’t have controlled this in 1985, but I think we hit the No. 1 spot too early. There’s a different feeling when you’re ranked No. 1. You start playing like you’re holding onto something. You start playing tight and playing not to lose. I think Ohio State was fighting that all season.
The Hawkeyes are doing it right. They’re climbing. Even though they’re undefeated, they’ve managed to stay under the radar a little bit, and that’s OK.
We were in rarefied air for Iowa football back in ’85. It had been years and years since the program was in that position. There weren’t as many games on TV then, so the top five or 10 teams got most of the national exposure. The hype for our team was tremendous, and it really started to build after the No. 1 vs. 2 matchup with Michigan. We certainly didn’t take Ohio State lightly, but I think we got caught up a little bit in the national hype and all of a sudden we were in a ballgame on the road in a tough environment.
It’s funny about wins and losses. You remember the losses more. I’m 52 years old, and that loss still sticks with me. I was a little off that day, but I wouldn’t have changed anything with our preparation. We had a really good week of practice and that was one of the best times I felt going into a football game. Maybe it was overconfidence.
One of the things that stuck out: I remember Jim Everett of Purdue ripping Ohio State for about 450 yards two games before. I was watching that tape and he was throwing the ball all over the Ohio State secondary. Naturally, you think we’re going to have a good day against them. But each game is a little bit different, and it’s hard to put your finger on what happened.
This team has a really good coach who keeps his team on an even keel. You really have to keep your blinders on now and continue that approach Kirk Ferentz is preaching every day. These kids are getting pats on the back on campus; it’s exciting, social media is blowing up, they’re vaulting up in the polls, and a lot is going to happen in the next two weeks. The best advice I can give them is to stay on an even keel, avoid the stuff on social media, don’t read the press clippings and stay away from the college football news on TV. The most important thing is focusing on the task at hand. I know that’s coach-speak, but it’s true. That’s the biggest challenge right now.
Pat Angerer, linebacker, 2009 first-team all-Big Ten
I envy this team. They’re doing awesome things. They get me fired up. They remind me in some ways of our team in 2009.
When I look back, I think the reason we were so good then is because everyone was committed. No matter the circumstances, I knew everyone was all-in. I see that with this team. Everyone is committed — and that’s something I haven’t seen that the past couple years.
The first game of the season, I noticed some things that had been missing the last couple years. The guys looked like they were having fun again. They’re having a blast now and they’re playing for each other. They’re the epitome of a team.
These guys don’t need my advice, but I’d tell them to dream big. During summer camp in 2008, we started breaking the huddle after workouts by saying, "Big Ten champs." It was the first time we’d done that during my time at Iowa. That doesn’t come from the coaches. It comes from leaders on the team. Usually, you break it down by saying something like, "Hard work" or "Brothers" or some other BS.
I don’t know why it took us so long to start verbalizing it. Did we not believe we were that good before?
After you say it and hear it over and over, you start believing it, and there’s a lot to be said for that. There’s nobody more prepared than Iowa football. There’s nobody that has better coaches. So why should we settle for being what everybody else thinks of us, when we’re the most prepared people on the field and we’re the toughest and the only people who can stop us is ourselves?
The 2009 season was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football. It was amazing. I don’t sit back and reflect on it, but I definitely miss it. We were battling, we were fighting, we were coming out on top in close games. I knew the guy next to me was all-in. He knew I’d do anything for him, and he’d do anything for me. You need that bond. When we were in close games, it was like, "All right, let’s go." We lived for those moments of seeing what we were made of.
Dace Richardson, offensive lineman, 2009 first-team all-Big Ten
The thing I’d tell these guys is to tune out the outside noise, but it’s almost impossible to completely shut it off when you’re that age. I remember when I was in college: My TV was always on ESPN. If these guys are like me, they’ve heard analysts starting to recognize this is a good football team. But what does that mean? Some of those guys were knocking Iowa a few weeks ago.
I bet you the negative stuff fuels these guys and makes them want to prove the doubters wrong. If you channel it the right way, you can use it to make you a better player and a better team. I thrived on the negative stuff. It pushed me to work harder.
Going into the season, I had a chip on my shoulder because people had written me off and told me I’d never play football again. I missed most of the 2007 season and all of 2008 after reconstructive knee surgery. In the back of my mind, going into spring ball that season, I fought every play like it was my last. Even the coaches didn’t think I’d be able to come back.
I loved proving people wrong. I think we had a lot of guys who were that way. We were winning weekly and mid-season awards, and nobody ever really talked about the accolades. We were more focused on watching film and correcting our mistakes.
The Iowa running back discusses Nebraska, red-zone offense.
Bill Happel, receiver, 1985 second-team all-Big Ten
The thing that was really fun about 1985 was the realization that we were doing something that’s not normal at Iowa. We were playing for our teammates, but I felt like the whole state really got behind us that year, and I think the same thing has happened this year. All different camps of Iowa fandom are behind the Hawkeyes now. Unfortunately, it didn’t feel that way at the beginning of the year. But what they’re doing reaches the non-fan. That’s the thing that was most enjoyable for me about ’85 — we were part of something bigger, something historical.
Whether this team is ranked eighth, sixth, third or first, I think most people, down deep, are just enjoying the heck out of this season. I don’t think there’s pressure on this team to make the playoff or win a national title like there is at Alabama, Ohio State or Oklahoma. Other programs have to focus on the big picture all year long and Iowa hasn’t had to do that. That’s one of the reasons this team has been so successful.
The biggest difference between this team and the ’85 team is we started right near the top. We were ranked in the top five in the preseason. We had 14 senior starters coming back, including Chuck. We started with pretty high expectations. Going into the season, there were articles that said if we didn’t make the Rose Bowl, the season was a bust.
We were extremely confident and tight-knit, and our goals were really high after Chuck said he was coming back for his senior season and wanted to win a title. I think that’s one of the similarities with this team: Every time you hear the guys talk, they talk about the leadership C.J. Beathard provides.
The seven-game undefeated ride in ’85 was enjoyable and almost expected. In all the close games we were in — Michigan State and Michigan — that’s where our confidence really paid off.
The loss at Ohio State is hard to explain. It was one of those games where it seemed like one of our wheels was off the tracks. We had untimely turnovers that we didn’t normally have. To be successful at Iowa and have magical years, you need luck to keep bouncing your way. I think that’s happened a few times this year. They’ve made their luck most of the time. In ’09, I know they had some close games and we did, too. We had some nice bounces, but that game in Columbus was one where the ball bounced away from us.
Special years at Iowa don’t come along every other season like they do at some other schools. I think we appreciate those years a lot, and we know when we’re experiencing one. It’s been 30 years, but everybody still talks about the ’85 team and people who weren’t born then know about the ’85 team and they know about Chuck Long. Sometimes the teams in between get melded together.
They have Big Ten championship reunions. This team is going to have a reunion for the rest of their lives. They don’t have Holiday Bowl or Alamo Bowl reunions, although we should. But it’s special for these guys to win a division title and hopefully win the Big Ten title, because they’re going to be remembered for 30 years, as well.
The current players may not appreciate it yet, but former players and coaches who know how hard it is to get that done at Iowa, we realize and appreciate it. We really appreciate what these guys are doing.
Some younger people maybe don’t realize how hard it is to win, and they don’t want to hear about how the odds are stacked against us. Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of talent on our team, but we always had to beat more talented teams. This team, in a lot of ways, has to beat more talented teams at times. But that’s just the Iowa work ethic coach Ferentz has carried on, and that’s what makes the former players so proud of these guys. They represent us and they represent the university so well that we’re proud to watch them.