Flashback to 1981: When the Iowa Hawkeyes finally beat Purdue after 20 years
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Purdue had owned Iowa like no other football opponent ever has.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Boilermakers could count on two things: Stellar play at quarterback from the likes of Bob Griese, Mike Phipps, Gary Danielson and Tom Herrmann; and an annual victory over the down-on-their-luck Hawkeyes.
In 1980, Purdue’s winning streak against Iowa hit 20 games with a 58-13 drubbing in West Lafayette, Indiana. It remains the longest stretch of losses against a single opponent in Hawkeye history.
That makes what happened Nov. 7, 1981, in Iowa City arguably the most meaningful Hawkeye moment in a Big Ten Conference rivalry that will unfold for the 90th time Saturday.
“We had a huge advantage over other teams because we were the sleeper. Nobody expected us to win,” said Gordy Bohannon, who quarterbacked Iowa to a 33-7 victory that day. “So we were able to sneak up on a lot of people.”
Hayden Fry was in his third season as Iowa’s coach in 1981, with a middling 9-13 record to show for it. But he had a recruiting pitch that resonated with players like the California-born Bohannon.
“He just sold us on where we were going, not where we had been,” Bohannon said.
“We were going to win a Big Ten championship and go to the Rose Bowl. I’m from South Pasadena — grew up 15 minutes from the Rose Bowl — so when he spoke to me that way, he sold me on the dream of what it would be like to come to Iowa and turn around a losing program and go to your hometown and play in the Rose Bowl. But he didn’t tell us we hadn’t been there in twenty-some years, either.”
Bohannon missed the 1980 season after having surgery on his ankle. The Hawkeyes finished 4-7 but found some hope in a 41-0 victory over Michigan State in the season finale.
The Hawkeyes got off to a surprise 5-1 start in 1981, with victories over Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan. The defense, led by Andre Tippett, Mark Bortz, Mel Cole and Lou King, was beastly.
Then came back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Illinois. Doubt began to seep in. Purdue, with an identical 5-3 record, was up next. And that history hung in the air while 60,114 fans filed in to Kinnick Stadium for the 1:05 p.m. kickoff.
“They had a great team that year,” Bohannon said of the Boilermakers. “And we knew that week that it had been 20 years since we beat them.”
Defensive end Brad Webb said the goal that week was just to earn a berth in any bowl game after two decades of missing out.
"Reaching six victories was a huge milestone for us," Webb said. "We had a really tight-knit program."
There was an immediate sign that Fry and offensive coordinator Bill Snyder were going to pull out all the stops to end the losing streak. On the first play, Bohannon originally lined up under center, as usual, only to back away into the shotgun formation. The crowd erupted.
"That was unheard of in those days," Webb said. "You just leave that to Hayden Fry to come out with a twist like that."
It worked. Iowa got on the board less than two minutes into the game on a Tom Nichol 42-yard field goal. Phil Blatcher scored on a 1-yard run. Bohannon, on his rebuilt ankle, gimped into the end zone from 12 yards out.
The Hawkeyes led 17-0 after one quarter. And kept pouring it on.
The defense, handed a big lead, became more aggressive as the game wore on, hounding Purdue quarterback Scott Campbell and intercepting him twice. The Hawkeyes recorded seven tackles for loss, two of them by Tippett.
In the second quarter, James Erb blocked a Purdue punt and Tracy Crocker recovered it in the end zone.
Bohannon, operating out of the shotgun formation that Fry dubbed “The Bohannon Cannon,” added another 7-yard touchdown scamper on a quarterback draw.
The Hawkeyes led 30-0 at halftime. The game, and the losing streak, was over.
"I had a really strong arm, but I was really slow. I just got fast because I was scared," Bohannon said of a game in which he led Iowa with 63 yards rushing.
"Coach Fry told me: 'Bohannon, the reason we’re doing this (using the shotgun) is because you’re slow and we need to get an extra second or two for you to read the defense.' "
Bohannon passed for another 136 yards. Blatcher rushed for 61.
Iowa’s defense lost its shutout when the Boilermakers got a 1-yard touchdown run with 3 minutes, 58 seconds left in the game.
Iowa’s memorable season was back on track.
“It seemed like everything we did that year was a first — we were stopping this or we were stopping that,” Tippett said. “I said, ‘let’s just keep winning.’ ”
Iowa did keep winning, downing Wisconsin and Michigan State to conclude the regular season and earning its first Rose Bowl berth since 1959.
Bohannon pointed to the Purdue win as a pivotal moment.
“Just getting over that 20-year losing record was huge because it helped us move on to bigger and better things. It was one more record that we could knock down. And once we beat Purdue, we started realizing that we could beat any other team, as well,” he said.
“It just reinforced what we were planning on doing as a team all along, which was to win a Big Ten championship.”
Purdue lost its final two games to finish 5-6. Iowa has gone 21-9-1 against the Boilermakers since that 1981 breakthrough.
The next meeting is at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick, with the No. 22 Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) again entering play on a two-game losing streak. Purdue (2-4, 1-2) has beaten Iowa two years in a row. The soldout game will be televised on ESPN2. Kirk Ferentz, who was Iowa’s offensive line coach in 1981, will be on the sideline as the Hawkeyes’ head coach, in his 21st season after succeeding Fry.
Bohannon sees the similarities in Hawkeye teams 38 years apart.
“They’re a lot like we were back in those days. Our defense was so strong,” he said. “But we also knew that, to win games, you need that offense to step up and put up points.”
In six of Iowa’s eight wins in 1981, the defense held opponents to exactly seven points. The Hawkeyes also shut out Northwestern.
"This was a different team. They broke the mold after us," said Jim Pekar, a defensive lineman in 1981. "This was just a mean team that, I think, took pride in hurting people. And we knew that Purdue game was a must-win."
"We were one fired-up crew."
Fry was true to his word to Bohannon: He did get to play in that Rose Bowl, where Iowa fell 28-0 to Washington.
“That ankle surgery was the blessing in disguise,” Bohannon said. “Because I never would have had a chance to be on a Rose Bowl team if I didn’t get injured.”
Or if he hadn’t helped the Hawkeyes finally beat Purdue.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.