The Iowa Hawkeyes did not live up to their preseason expectations. Instead of winning the Big Ten West, they went 7-5 and are now 2.5-point underdogs to a 6-6 Tennessee team in the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly known as the Gator Bowl). Yet expectations follow past greatness and Iowa has now come full circle, for its success was forged when it first played Tennessee 32 years ago.
When Hayden Fry became head coach of Iowa in 1979, the program had not had a winning season in 17 years. Fry carried on that tradition for his first two seasons, but in 1981, he guided the team to an 8-3 record, a share of the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl bid.
The trip to Pasadena started off well, but ended in disaster. The players spent nearly two weeks there taking in the distractions of Southern California, Fry caught bronchial pneumonia and Washington blew the team out 28-0. The Huskies embarrassed the Hawkeyes, never letting them past the Washington 29-yard line.
For the 1982 season, the Hawkeyes brought back many starters, including the late Reggie Roby, who averaged 48.1 yards per punt in his senior year, and Bob Stoops (yes, that Bob Stoops) at defensive back. Iowa had tremendous size on both the offensive and defensive lines and a fierce pass rush. They also had a redshirt freshman named Chuck Long, who Fry said was destined for greatness.
Long was pulled in the season opener after a 42-7 stomping by Nebraska. The next week the Hawkeyes lost 19-7 to Iowa State. For the third game against Arizona, Fry and offensive coordinator Bill Snyder decided to start Long, again. He led the team to a 17-14 in Tucson and the Hawkeyes then won six of their next eight games, mostly by the skin of their teeth.
“We really didn’t put anybody away this year,” said Fry. “We’d get ’em on the ropes and let ’em crawl off. We have a lot of improving to do.”
Margin of victory aside, the 7-4 record was enough to earn Iowa an invitation to the Peach Bowl to play Tennessee. Let’s be clear, this bowl was a long way from becoming the Chick-fil-a-sponsored event that has sold out the Georgia Dome for the past 17 years and is now part of the College Football playoff rotation. In 1982, the Peach Bowl was sponsored by the Lions Club of Atlanta and played outside in that long-gone monstrosity known as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Detractors generally criticized the bowl for its poor weather conditions and for never having sold out its 60,000-capacity stadium in the 14 previous games. Nevertheless, the game offered a $450,000 payout and the opportunity for Iowa to play in a bowl for the fourth time… ever.
On November 30, Fry and Vol head coach Johnny Majors met in Atlanta to sign the Peach Bowl contract. Unlike Fry, Majors had arrived at Tennessee with high expectations. After winning a national championship at Pitt in 1976, Majors returned to his alma mater. Tennessee had won five national championships, but had steadily declined in the 1970s. Fans expected Majors to right the ship.
Rebuilding takes time, but the program began to dramatically improve in 1981, beating Wisconsin in the now-defunct Garden State Bowl. In 1982, Tennessee sported receivers Willie Gault, Mike Miller and Darryal Wilson, all of whom ran a 4.2 or faster 40-yard dash, and quarterback Alan Cockrell to throw to them. Gault was the star with 1,366 all-purpose yards, including a 96-yard kick-off return for a touchdown in 24-24 tie with LSU. In addition, the Vols had a kicking game to match Iowa’s. Jimmy Colquitt averaged 46.9 yards per punt and Fuad Reveiz hit 27 of 31 field goals, including 8 of 10 from over 50 yards. Most importantly, the team had upset second-ranked Alabama 35-28, to end a streak of 12 straight losses to the Crimson Tide.
There was one slight problem. Despite having Reggie White at defensive end, Tennessee had the worst defense in the SEC, allowing 415 yards per game and contributing to the Vols 6-4-1 record. Defensive coordinator Bobby Jackson announced that he would resign following the Peach Bowl.
“We’ve thrown the ball more effectively than at any time since we’ve been at Tennessee,” said Majors. “But if it hadn’t been for our kicking game and our stinginess in making mistakes on offense, it would have been a long season.”
Both Iowa and Tennessee arrived on December 26. Iowa traveled by plane, while Tennessee arrived in Atlanta on their own. When asked if his players would be distracted like they were in Pasadena, Fry said that Atlanta was a completely different environment.
“I know one thing we will do, we will punish their receivers when they catch the ball,” said Fry. “It just depends on how tough those receivers are, because we will hit ’em. They can ask the other teams in the Big Ten if Iowa hits hard.”
The temperature was 41 degrees when the teams took the field at 3:00 PM on December 31. Although the game did not sell out, a respectable 50,134 fans attended.
Although he had battled an ankle injury for much of the season, White made his presence known early in the first quarter, knocking the ball from Iowa running back Owen Gill. Tennessee recovered it on the 50-yard and capitalized with 36-yard reverse by Chuck Coleman. Cockrell then ran in the end zone on a six-yard option keeper.
Long responded in the second quarter with a 57-yard pass to Dave Moritz to score Iowa’s first touchdown in a bowl game since January 1, 1959. Two more strikes by Long put Iowa up 21-7 at halftime.
Coleman scored in the third quarter on a 10-yard run for a touchdown, but Reveiz’s extra point was blocked. Iowa responded with a two-yard touchdown run by Eddie Phillips with 8:29 to go in the third quarter, extending Iowa’s lead to 28-13.
Later in the third, Cockrell hit Gault for a 19-yard touchdown pass, his only reception of the game. However, the two-point conversion attempt failed with a Cockrell pass that sailed over everyone in the end zone. Reveiz kicked a 27-yard field goal with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter to close the gap to 28-22.
In the final minutes, Cockrell drove the Vols to the Iowa six-yard line, where they faced fourth down and a yard to go. Majors again went with the option, but Iowa linebacker James Erb shot through an open gap and stopped Cockrell at the line of scrimmage.
“There is such a thing as going to the well too often, but you have to go with what got you down there in the first place,” said Majors.
A 52-yard punt by Roby that sailed out of bounds at the Tennessee 35-yard line with 1:56 left gave the Vols one last chance. A few plays later, the Vols were facing fourth and 25 and Iowa defensive end Straun Joseph sacked Cockrell to close the deal.
“It was just a super game,” said Fry. “I have never seen a defense rise up on the goal line and sack the quarterback like that. We were very tough when we had to be.”
Fry then spent the evening calling recruits and preparing for the next season.
The two teams met again in the 1987 Kickoff Classic, with Tennessee winning 23-22. By that time, Iowa had been to six straight bowls, won a second Big Ten title and held the number-one ranking for five weeks during Long’s senior year in 1985.
Regardless of the outcome of the third meeting, it will add to the established legacies of both programs. For Iowa, that reputation began on a cold, dreary day in Atlanta in 1982.