LOS ANGELES – The University of Iowa has had some form of a football program since 1889.
The first three teams didn’t have a head coach and combined to play just eight games over three seasons, compiling a modest 4-4 record.
So those three teams were not considered for this column, which ranks the top 10 teams in the history of the Iowa football program. Most of Iowa’s teams weren’t given much consideration for this column, because frankly, they weren’t deserving.
This top-10 list is subject to change based on what happens when 12-1 Iowa faces Stanford (11-2) in the Rose Bowl on Friday. The current Iowa team already has solidified a place among my top three teams in school history and would climb to No. 1 with a victory on Friday.
I wasn’t ready to say that a week ago, but I am now after closely evaluating what each team has accomplished.
I still think Iowa’s 2002 squad, which finished 11-2 overall and undefeated in the Big Ten, is the most talented team in school history, followed by the 1985 squad that finished 10-2, was ranked No. 1 for six weeks during the regular season and had three players selected in the first round of the 1986 NFL draft.
As far as the best team, though, I still give a slight edge to the 1958 squad that finished 8-1-1, including a 38-12 beat-down against California in the Rose Bowl. Its only blemishes were a 13-13 tie against Air Force in the second game and a 38-28 loss to Ohio State in the eighth game.
The 1958 team crushed Michigan 37-14, pounded Minnesota 28-6 in Minneapolis and defeated Notre Dame 31-21 in the regular-season finale. It was led by star quarterback Randy Duncan and by the explosive one-two punch at running back with Bob Jeter and Willie Fleming.
Here are my top 10 Iowa teams heading into the Rose Bowl:
1. 1958 (8-1-1) – The Iowa program was soaring under Forest Evashevski when the 1958 season started with a 17-0 shutout against Texas Christian. Iowa had a combined record of 24-3-2 during a three-year stretch from 1956-58, including two Rose Bowl victories.
The 1958 team was loaded on both offense and defense. It scored at least 26 points in seven games and held opponents to 14 or fewer points in seven games. Jeter and Fleming were a dynamic duo at running back, while Duncan finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy that season.
2. 1956 (9-1) – A strong case could be made for the 1956 squad to be ranked No. 1, considering its only setback was a 17-14 loss to Michigan on homecoming. The strength of this team was on defense where five opponents were held scoreless.
But it was no slouch on offense, either, evidenced by Iowa’s 35-19 victory over Oregon State in the 1957 Rose Bowl. Iowa finished with 408 yards in the Rose Bowl, including 301 rushing yards.
Quarterback Kenny Ploen was named the Rose Bowl MVP after completing 9-of-10 passes for 83 yards and rushing for 59 yards. He also scored the game’s first touchdown on a 49-run in the first quarter.
3. 2015 (12-1) – A team that was picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten West Division now has a chance to be the greatest team in school history. It’ll take a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl to accomplish that. So it won’t be easy.
But just to be in this position is an incredible accomplishment that nobody with any common sense expected.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked Wednesday when he felt his team was capable of playing in the Rose Bowl.
“I’ve been coaching at Iowa quite some time now,” Ferentz said. “This is my 17th year back and 26th overall. And I think if you look at Iowa football teams, typically it’s a real process. It’s something that our good teams evolve over time, and it’s really paramount that we make improvement.”
The current Iowa team has been solid in all three phases on offense, defense and special teams. Junior quarterback C.J. Beathard has shown an uncanny ability to make big plays at crunch time, while the Iowa rushing attack has been productive in every game except for the 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game.
No other Iowa team has won 12 games in a season. So even with a loss on Friday in the Rose Bowl, the current Iowa team still would belong in the top five.
4. 2002 (11-2) – This team was loaded with future NFL players on both sides of the ball. From defensive back Bob Sanders to tight end Dallas Clark to defensive end Matt Roth, the 2002 squad is arguably the most star-studded in school history.
It also had a star quarterback leading the way in 2002 Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks, along with a standout kicker in Nate Kaeding, who won the Lou Groza Award that season.
It’s hard to rank the team any higher than fourth, though, because it lost at home to Iowa State 36-31 despite leading 24-7 at halftime and because it was crushed by Southern California 38-17 in the Orange Bowl.
5. 1985 (10-2) – A poor performance in the Rose Bowl keeps this star-packed team from being ranked higher. The Hawkeyes, who were coached by Hayden Fry, had a chance to finish among the two or three teams in the country in 1985 until they unraveled in the Rose Bowl, losing 45-28 to UCLA and committing five turnovers.
Quarterback Chuck Long finished second to Auburn’s Bo Jackson in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1985, while Ronnie Harmon was considered one of the top running backs in the country that season. Linebacker Larry Station also was a consensus all-America honoree.
6. 1922 (7-0) – It’s hard to compare teams from different eras, but this squad, which was coached by Howard Jones, was dominant throughout the season, outscoring its seven opponents by a margin of 231-33. It also held four opponents scoreless, highlighted by a 56-0 rout over Purdue.
7. 1921 (7-0) – This team was almost identical to the 1922 squad in terms of dominance. It held all but one opponent to seven or fewer points and ended the season with shutout victories over Indiana (41-0) and Northwestern (14-0).
8. 2009 (11-2) – Winners of its first nine games, this team was on a roll until starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi was injured against Northwestern in the 10th game. Iowa lost that game 17-10 and was defeated by Ohio State 27-24 in overtime the following week.
The team rebounded to defeat Minnesota 12-10 in the regular-season finale without Stanzi playing. It ended the season with a 24-14 victory over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, tying the school record at the time for most wins in a season.
9. 1960 (8-1) – Evashevski’s last team at Iowa was one of his best. Its only blemish was a 27-10 loss at Minnesota in the seventh game. The Hawkeyes ended the season by defeating Ohio State and Notre Dame by scores of 35-12 and 28-0, respectively.
10. 1939 (6-1-1) – The final spot came down to Nile Kinnick and the legendary Ironmen from 1939 or the 2004 squad that won a share of the Big Ten title despite having virtually no rushing attack.
Kinnick and his cohorts were given a slight edge because of how they captured the hearts of our nation that season. Iowa did what many thought was impossible back then by defeating national powers Notre Dame and Minnesota in consecutive games.
Kinnick was rewarded for his contributions by winning the Heisman Trophy that season. No other Iowa player has won the award.