Wine: Evy's '58 Team Iowa's Best
Sept. 1, 2008
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The capacity crowd for the season opener at Kinnick Stadium included members of the 1958 Iowa football team. They were on campus to renew friendships, reflect on their accomplishments and tell a few stories -- some true, some perhaps embellished.
They were recognized in a pre-game ceremony at Kinnick, and at a dinner that evening hosted by the Iowa Varsity Club. A photo of their 60-man squad was on the cover of the game program.
An impressive opening game victory in ideal weather conditions made this a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an Iowa team that gets my vote as the best in school history.
The 1958 Hawkeyes won an outright Big Ten championship and trounced California in the Rose Bowl. Both wire services (AP and UPI) ranked Iowa No. 2 at the end of the regular season. The Football Writers, who took their poll after the bowl games, crowned the Hawkeyes national champions.
Head coach of that team was Forest Evashevski, who is now 90 years old and lives in Petosky, Mich. He was unable to make it back for the reunion, but three of his assistants -- Jerry Burns, Jerry Hilgenberg and Bill Happel -- were present.
Evashevski also had Big Ten champs in 1956 and 1960. Both teams finished No. 3 in the Associated Press poll. Several years ago I asked Evy to name his best team.
"The 1958 team was the best, by far," he said without hesitation. "The 1956 team was better defensively, and the 1960 team was awfully good. But I give the nod to the 1958 team because it had wonderful balance, with an offense that could strike from anywhere on the field."
Evy introduced the Wing-T to major college football in 1956, and by 1958 he had the offense fine-tuned, with some gifted players at the skill positions. With quarterback Randy Duncan throwing the ball and a stable full of halfbacks running counter and misdirection plays, the Hawkeyes kept their opponents thoroughly confused.
Duncan was a consensus all-American, finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy and was named the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player. End Curt Merz was also named all-America.
No back carried the ball 25 times a game in Evy's Wing-T. It was spread around to Bob Jeter (7.2 yards a carry), Willie Fleming (7.1), Ray Jauch (6.8), Bill Gravel (6.0) and Kevin Furlong (4.1).
The game-breakers were Jeter and Fleming. Jeter's 194 yards rushing (on only nine carries) in the Rose Bowl included a dazzling touchdown dash of 81 yards. Both were Rose Bowl records.
Fleming, in his first year on the varsity, was brought along slowly by Evy. In a game at Michigan halfway through the season, he exploded on the national scene with TD runs of 71 and 62 yards.
Fleming had 10 of his 11 TDs in the second half of the season and led Iowa in scoring in 1958, the only year he played at Iowa, He was ruled academically ineligible and moved to the Canadian League, where he became a star.
"Willie Fleming was, without a doubt, the best back I ever coached," Evy told me. "Had he remained at Iowa another two years, he would have gone down as one of the best collegiate halfbacks to ever play the game."
With all their offensive firepower, the 1958 Hawkeyes were not surprisingly among the national leaders in rushing, passing and scoring.
Iowa has had some great football teams. The 1921 and 1922 Hawkeyes, coached by Howard Jones, both had perfect (7-0) seasons and won Big Ten championships. Coach Hayden Fry won three Big Ten titles, but the 1985 team was clearly his best. Coach Kirk Ferentz would no doubt agree that his best team was the 2002 Hawkeyes, who won a Big Ten title and berth in the Orange Bowl.
But only the 1958 Iowa team won an outright Big Ten title, a national championship and a Rose Bowl game. That's why it gets my vote as the best in school history.
Editor's Note: Wine Online is written by George Wine, long-time sports information director at the University of Iowa and a member of the UI Athletics Hall of Fame. Wine currently lives in nearby Coralville and when he's not writing books - he's authored two including "Black and Gold Memories" - he's following the Hawkeyes.