University of Iowa Athletics
1956 Iowa Football Squad
Evy introduced the Hawkeyes to the wing-T, a balanced-line attack developed by Dave Nelson at Delaware.
Explaining why he decided to hybridize the Iowa offense, the coach later noted that "We had an explosive type backfield and we had the guy who could make the big play in Kenny Ploen."
Big Ten Skywriters predicted that Iowa, the only team in the conference not to stage an annual spring football game, would end the season near the bottom of the Big Ten, in seventh place.
About 1,500 loyal Hawkeye supporters met Iowa's first live mascot at a pep rally before the Oregon State game. Governor Leo Hoegh, a fanatic Iowa alumnus, predicted that, with a steely-eyed hawk on the sidelines, the Hawkeyes were sure to go to the Rose Bowl.
After the Hawks beat the Hawaii Rainbows for their fourth straight victory of the season, Evy was not happy. "We're still not a good ball club," the coach said. "We don't hold onto the ball and slug it out. We're jumping around all over hell's half acre trying to go for a score." A few days later, the coach hadn't seen anything to change his mind. "This is the poorest offensive team I've ever had at Iowa and we'll have to improve greatly to keep winning," he said.
The Hawks won one more, beating the Boilermakers, 21-20. Purdue quarterback Lenny Dawson later recalled that "the week prior to that 1956 contest, Evy held secret sessions at Iowa. He was an advisor with the Wilson Sporting Goods Company and had his name on a football.
"Everybody else in the Big Ten used the Spalding J5B, but when we went to Iowa we had to use the Wilson ball. When they came to Purdue to play, we figured they'd have to use the Spalding J5B, giving us the advantage. But Evy was crafty.
"He brought his own Wilson ball with him so when they got possession of the ball they'd exchange it for one of their own. Our coaches were infuriated!"
When the Hawkeyes ran onto the Iowa field to meet Michigan, they had won five consecutive games and were the only team in the conference to stand unbeaten and untied. Evy's alma mater changed that, though, felling the Hawks for a bitterly disappointing loss, 17-14. In addition, seven of Iowa's first 22 men were injured in the game.
After he'd visited one of Evashevski's mid-week workouts with the squad, University of Iowa President Virgil Hancher commented that "some of the best teaching in the university is done on this field."
The Iowa coach used a little psychology to rev up the Hawkeyes prior to the game with Minnesota. Challenged by the gatekeeper, who wouldn't let the team into Memorial Stadium without tickets, Evy pushed the passes he held deeper into his pocket and enjoyed a verbal battle with the man.
By the time a multitude of Minnesota officials had been called and clearance awarded the Hawkeyes, the Iowa men were ready for bear. It was a hard-fought game. Tackle Alex Karras was so exhausted by the grueling play he had to be carried from the field, but the Hawks downed the Gophers, 7-0.
THE GLORY GAME
Though Evy let his wounded team off easy in practice sessions for the Ohio State game, everyone knew that the Buckeyes were looking to beat Iowa for their 18th straight Big Ten win and an unprecedented third consecutive conference crown. Nonetheless, a sign on the dressing room wall communicated Evy's challenge to the Iowa team: "You have 60 minutes to play the game Saturday—and the rest of your life to remember it."
After a nerve-racking first-half standoff, Iowa came back with a relentless ground attack to move well into OSU territory. From the 17-yard line Kenny Ploen let loose with what a Cedar Rapids Gazette writer would call a "17-yard pass to immortality." Jim Gibbons pulled down the high, lazy lob in the end zone.
According to a yearbook account, fans had to be cleared from the field twice before the final gun sounded on the 6-0 Iowa victory. Then the crowd once more streamed onto the field, wrenching both of Iowa's steel goal posts from their moorings in eight feet of concrete. Echoes of "I-O-Wa-Wa!" were heard throughout the town, as the power plant's steam whistle blasted again and again "its delirious approval."
That night University Provost Harvey Davis told students they could take two extra days off at Christmas. Iowa was Rose Bowl bound!
Meanwhile, President Hancher, who had been feeling ill and very tired throughout the game, was admitted to University Hospital, where it was discovered he'd suffered a mild heart attack. The president would spend over two weeks in the hospital and return to work late in January.
Iowans were saddened to hear that Hawkeye alumnus Cal Jones, who was en route to Pasadena from Vancouver, where he'd played in the Canadian Football League All-Star game, was dead. His plane went down in the mountains of western Canada during a howling windstorm.
Kenny Ploen was announced the winner of the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player award, just one of the many honors he would win that year.
CARAVAN TO CALIFORNIA
"That rare bird, the puff-chested, lusty-throated Iowan, is about to migrate," chirped the alumni magazine. As Loren Hickerson put it, "The valiant Hawkeyes of 1956, these Rugged Ploensmen, these champions of ours have done it," and fans were ready to go along for the ride.
Over 10,000 Iowans would make the trip to Pasadena. Six trains carried students, alumni, the band, and the Scottish Highlanders across the continent, while several thousand more fans drove themselves. According to the Hawkeye, "six thrifty students made the trip on $50 apiece by eliminating sleeping and eating."
The team flew. "When the Hawks landed in Burbank, Calif., Dec. 16," the yearbook noted, "11,000 people were there to greet them. The Iowa delegation made their welcome good by presenting the Tournament of Roses welcoming committee 10 hams and 96 cans of popcorn straight from the Land of Tall Corn."
Feted and fed in California the Hawks had to take some good-natured ribbing, too. "Until you came out here," Bob Hope told the Iowa coach at the Big Ten Dinner of Champions, "I'd always thought Forest Evashevski was a park in Russia!"
And they handed it back. "Pasadena was the most boring town I've ever been in," said the outspoken Alex Karras. "Menopause Manor. I remember one guy on the team got a date. It was me, and she was 67 years old. I guess you could call that a highlight."