IOWA CITY, Iowa – The word tough is defined as being strong and durable, not easily broken or cut, not brittle or tender.
It also is the word probably used more than any other to describe the Iowa football team’s 1981 defense that helped pave the way to the 1982 Rose Bowl, along with Reggie Roby’s powerful right leg.
Iowa’s 1981 defense will be honored on Saturday as three of its members – defensive linemen Pat Dean, Mark Bortz and Jim Pekar – serve as the honorary captains for the game against North Texas at Kinnick Stadium.
Honoring the 1981 defense is also a special way to pay tribute to North Texas head coach and former Hawkeye player and assistant coach Dan McCarney because of his connection to that storied unit.
McCarney coached the Iowa defensive line from 1979-89. He was with most of the players on the 1981 defense from start to finish. In some respects McCarney was like a big brother to them, only in his late 20s at the time.
Oh, yeah, and he was tough, the perfect blend of football acumen and human emotion to ignite a resurgence in the trenches.
“The heart, the tenacity, the physicality of those offensive and those defensive lines, I will always cherish those memories and I will always appreciate those guys,” McCarney said of his days at Iowa. “I stay in touch with many, many, many of those guys I coached.
“A lot of them were trying to get me to get together with them on Friday night before the game and I said, ‘know chance.’ Someday when I ride off into that final sunset of coaching and retire, I want to get together and I’m coming back for a Hawkeye game. And I’m going to get together with a whole bunch of my defensive linemen that I respect and love to this day.”
The 1981 season also marked the beginning of Kirk Ferentz’s association with the Iowa football program. That was his first season as the Iowa offensive line coach, a position he held until 1989. Ferentz is now in his 17th season as the Iowa head coach.
The Iowa offensive line was a solid unit in 1981. But it wasn’t nearly as dominant as the Iowa defensive line, which was led by all-America defensive end Andre Tippett. Legend has it that Tippett was so tough and intimidating that he struck fear in his teammates as well as opponents.
Tippett was a shining example of toughness and talent working together. He and his defensive cohorts took the field every Saturday in the fall of 1981 with an attitude and a belief that they were tougher than their opponent.
But even tough guys need help and that’s what Roby provided as a once-in-a-lifetime punter.
“We turned it around with a solid offense, a phenomenal defense and Reggie Roby,” MaCarney said. “I’m talking about a cat who could flip the field and make people go the length of the field.”
I started hearing about the players on Iowa’s 1981 defense long before they were a dominant unit.
My older brother, Frank Harty, was part of Iowa’s 1978 recruiting class, which was Bob Commings’ final recruiting class as the Iowa head coach. The class also included a tough and scrappy defensive back from Youngstown, Ohio named Bob Stoops and a tough and muscular linebacker from Racine, Wis., named Todd Simonsen.
My brother raved about how tough his new college teammates were on and off the field, the kind of guys who wouldn’t back down from anybody.
He figured it was only a matter of time before that toughness would have a positive impact on the playing field. And he was right.
By 1981, the Iowa players were on a mission. They were an angry bunch, caused by two decades of being humbled on the playing field.
It’s easy to forget that Iowa finished with a losing record in each of Hayden Fry’s first two seasons as head coach in 1979 and 1980. Combine those two seasons with Iowa’s 2-9 record in 1978 under Commings and the start of the 1981 season was sort of like kicking a hornet’s nest.
The players were fed up with losing and determined to do something about it. So they took all of that toughness to which my brother had referred and used it to become one of the greatest and most inspirational defenses in the history of the Iowa program.
Iowa held seven of its 12 opponents to seven or fewer points in 1981, including Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan.
My only regret is that my brother, who played linebacker, didn’t have a chance to compete for a spot on the 1981 defense, because by that time his knee had been ravaged by a staph infection, ending his career.
But he felt tremendous joy watching his teammates, especially Simonsen, make history in 1981. Simonsen and my brother were close friends during college.
Simonsen’s death from leukemia in 2007 was a crushing blow to so many, including my brother.
So many things went into rebuilding the Iowa football program under Fry, but toughness might have fueled the rise more than anything else.
You could say that Iowa’s 1981 defense was filled with gifted players because toughness can’t be coached. A player either has it or he doesn’t.
Iowa’s 1981 defense had plenty of it, including from the three men who will be honored at midfield on Saturday.