Hayden Fry once said his dream as coach at the University of Iowa was to "come up out of the depths of the cornfield and get things on the front burner," which meant he wanted to win some ball games.
Fry always liked to give a good picture of what he was trying to get at. Being a Texan, he talked a little bit funny, some people said, and he wore those cowboy boots. But when things were starting to look too serious, he seemed able to scrape through the loam and find the buried sweet pea, and he never once seemed weary and bedraggled against the enormous weight of his responsibility.
Iowa football is what goes in this state, and all the people want is to win. Now that the Hawkeyes find themselves happily situated at No. 1 in most of the college football polls and preparing to face second-ranked Michigan Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Kinnick Stadium, Fry confronts what is no doubt the greatest challenge of his career.
He has, however, worked hard at downplaying the significance of the game, which is to be televised by CBS to about 80 percent of the nation (WDVM-TV-9). The game is the 19th such matchup between college football's top-ranked teams, and the first since Georgia played Penn State in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.
"If you put your eggs in one basket and it gets tipped," Fry said at a news conference earlier this week, "you are going to be in trouble. It's one victory, nothing more."
But it's really more than that. The last time Iowa was ranked No. 1 was in 1961, the year before the Hawkeyes began a streak of 19 seasons without a winning record. Then in 1979 came Fry, carrying with him a vision of how he planned to breathe life into a floundering program. He lost early on, but in 1981, Iowa slipped up on everybody and won the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes' first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1959.
"When we first came on the job here, after 11 years at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Michigan didn't even know Iowa existed," Fry said. "Everything was the Big Two (Michigan and Ohio State) and the Little Eight. We have at least established respectability and, obviously, they know we exist now, and they've got to prepare for us. I think it's great. We got a chance. And that's all we asked for."
Although he's more than a little proud of his team's 5-0 start, Fry wonders at his position in the polls, if only for propriety's sake. The Iowa Hawkeyes are just not supposed to be this good, not even when led by terrific talents such as running back Ronnie Harmon and linebacker Larry Station and quarterback Chuck Long, who is often mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
"How we can be ranked No. 1 in the nation with nine new starters on defense has got to be the greatest story since Cinderella," Fry said.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler agreed with Fry that it's still much too early in the season for either team to carry on as if faced with a must-win situation. The Wolverines, unranked at the beginning of the season and picked to finish in the middle of the conference, now own a 5-0 record. And their defense has allowed only one touchdown all year long.
Schembechler worries about how his defense will stand up against the prodigious threat of Long, who ranks third in the nation in passing efficiency and leads an offense that averages 44.2 points a game. Without Long, Fry once joked, "I'd probably be a beach bum or raising hogs."
"The last couple of times we played at Iowa," Schembechler said, "we played our best game and won, and we played our worst game and lost . . . (This year) we're dealing with a precision quarterback who can throw as accurately as anyone in the nation. And we're dealing with a dangerous running back."
In 1984, the Wolverines were hampered by injuries and finished 6-6, the first nonwinning season in Schembechler's 16 years at Michigan. That most difficult and frustrating year seems far away now that the Wolverines are enjoying one of their best starts. Although it is playing on the road, Michigan comes into the game a slight favorite, mainly because of its two comparitive scores with Iowa. The Wolverines overwhelmed Wisconsin, 33-6, and Michigan State, 31-0. Iowa, on the other hand, beat Wisconsin, 23-13, and just slipped by Michigan State, 35-31.
"We have to be realistic," Fry said. "If we don't win, life will continue. If we lose, I'll get a lot of letters from a bunch of doctors and lawyers. I don't want our guys to think it's a matter of life or death. I'd hate to think the game has reached that point."