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Iowa Pre-Flight was a football dynamo

Here's a story about Associated Press' all-time No. 98 college football program

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Tuesday, Associated Press released a list of its all-time top 100 college football teams, based on the weekly rankings it started in 1936.

Iowa is 25th, Iowa State 83rd. Checking in it at No. 98 ... Iowa Pre-Flight?

Yes, Iowa Pre-Flight. Here’s a 1993 story I wrote about that team and a huge game it played in 1943: 

As the entire free world surely knows, Florida State’s top-ranked football team faces No. 2 Notre Dame today in South Bend, Ind. Fifty years ago this month, Notre Dame hosted an identical No. 1-vs.-No. 2 showdown in a vastly different time.

The top-ranked, 8-0 Fighting Irish squared off against the 8-0, second-ranked Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks in football’s game of the year Nov. 20, 1943.

“Football’s wartime ‘natural’ — the clash of the No. I collegiate team and the No. I service eleven — captures the national spotlight Saturday when Notre Dame and Iowa’s Preflight match perfect records,” said an Associated Press preview.

“Unofficially,” the story said, “the mythical national grid crown is at stake.”

The nation’s football landscape changed dramatically during World War II. College coaches bid farewell to many of their players as the conflict altered virtually all American lives. Notre Dame quarterback Angelo Bertelli played the first six games of the 1943 season, then was assigned to a Marine base in Parris Island. S.C.

Bertelli was in a barracks when he received a telegram notifying him that he had won that year’s Heisman Trophy. The award was based more on Bertelli’s accomplishments the previous two seasons. Bertelli had to listen on the radio as Iowan Johnny Lujack quarterbacked the Irish against Iowa Pre-Flight.

After returning from a stint in the Marines, Lujack, who resides in Bettendorf and owns an auto dealership in Davenport, helped Notre Dame to national titles in 1946 and 1947 and won the Heisman in 1947.

During the war, four universities had their athletic facilities leased by the U.S. Navy for Pre-Flight schools. the University of Iowa was one of them. Cadets were sent to these schools for ground-fighting instruction and conditioning before being reassigned. Those who competed on sports teams found the rest of their training loads lighter than those of fellow cadets.

Football was to survive in the U.S. during the war, the Navy claimed, because it favored the game’s retention as a key link in the American scheme of living. Strong Navy sports teams were quickly organized. A choice between reporting to a Pre-Flight school in Iowa City or accompanying an Army platoon to a European battle zone wasn’t difficult for many top athletes.

Buoyed by a slew of talent that came from across the country, Iowa Pre-Flight assembled quite a team. Meanwhile, dismantled by player losses to the military, the University of Iowa’s team was forced to play a lot of freshmen. The Hawkeyes won just one game in both 1943 and 1944.

From “75 Years With the Fighting Hawkeyes,” by Dick Lamb and Bert McGrane: “The team of ‘schoolboys’ which greeted interim (Iowa) Coach Slip Madigan in the autumn of 1943 was in odd contrast to the rugged array of manpower on the nearby Iowa Pre-Flight squad ... The powerful Iowa Seahawks, featuring some of the great names of college football, marked up a 25-0 victory over Iowa.”

A 1944 Iowa Pre-Flight quarterback was Forest Evashevski, a Michigan graduate who would coach Iowa to its only two Rose Bowl wins to date, in the late 1950s. Evashevski instructed pilots in hand-to-hand combat when he wasn’t in athletic training.

Although professional football wasn’t a fraction of the game it is today, Iowa Pre-Flight was feared because of the pro players it had aboard. Other military teams like El Toro Marines, Fort Pierce and Second Air Force Finished in the Associated Press’ Top 20 polls in 1943 and 1944. The best of them was Iowa Pre-Flight, which played for a national title that November day in 1943.

The Seahawks outpointed their first eight opponents by a total of 235-82 to climb to the No. 2 spot in the poll. The vanquished were Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa State, Iowa, Missouri, Fort Riley, Marquette and Camp Grant. “Not a First-rater in the lot,” said an AP story about the Seahawks’ competition.

Even in wartime, Notre Dame found ways to keep its campus stocked with stellar football players. The Fighting Irish, coached by legendary Frank Ideally, were solid favorites against Iowa Pre-Flight after winning its first eight games by a combined score of 312-37.

Few gave the Seahawks a chance of winning in South Bend, especially when four starters and three second-stringers were assigned to other military bases the week of the game. Iowa assistant coach Maury Kent’s pregame assessment of the matchup:

“The Seahawks are the nearest thing to a college club in the ranks of service teams. Morale is excellent, the team has unity and spirit. But Notre Dame’s speed is dazzling and there’s no denying that Leahy is a smart coach. What’s more, he has the material to work with, as much as any school in the country.”

Gazette sports columnist Tait Cummins offered this pregame analysis: “This year’s (Pre-Flight) team is charged like a bottle of soda pop for this encounter ... On the other hand, if the Seahawk linemen can’t handle the Notre Dame forwards, (Coach Lt. Don) Faurot’s staff could turn into a bitter mess of porridge.”

War ravaged Europe and North Africa on Nov. 20, 1943. The Germans invaded Samos, Morocco. The British Army cut the Germans’ last lateral railroad below Rome. The First Ukraine Army turned back German thrusts near Korostishev. Yugoslav Partisans halted a German drive below Flume with a series of Fierce counterattacks. Great Britain’s Royal Air Force dropped 2,240,000 pounds of bombs on Nazi tankers in Leverkusen.

That same day, Iowa Pre-Flight met Notre Dame under the school’s Golden Dome before a crowd of 39,446. Cummins’ game story was headlined “Irish Win Spectacle of Season.” Iowa Pre-Flight led 7-0 at halftime but ended up falling, 14-13. The difference was a Seahawk missed extra-point kick that struck a goal post.

The Seahawks ran four unsuccessful pass plays deep in Irish territory in the game’s final minute. Pre-Flight running back Dick Todd, a standout with the Washington Redskins, rushed for 78 yards on 13 carries but suffered a broken jaw and missed the team’s last drive.

Wrote Cummins: “Seahawk victory hopes went off the field on a stretcher midway in the final quarter when Dick Todd, star of the loser’s attack, collided with big John Yonaker and was laid out colder than a Stone.”

Also: “From the opening whistle to the final gun it was a football game people dream about; but see only once in a lifetime ... As for the Seahawks, they I steamed into that one like a gallant old battle wagon with every gun firing. Man, what a ballclub!”

Statistically, the game was even. As has happened so often before and after 1943, however, Notre Dame found a way to win. The following week, Notre Dame went to Chicago to play Great Lakes, a naval training station that featured strong sports teams. Hall of Famer Bob Feller pitched for the base’s baseball team.

Great Lakes scored on a desperation pass with 33 seconds left to shock the Irish, 19-14. Still, Notre Dame finished the year No. 1 in the AP poll, with Iowa Pre-Flight second. Within two years, an armistice was signed and World War II was for the history books. Pre-Flight schools were dismantled as quickly as they had been installed. What at the time was a significant part of Iowa sports history is now a footnote.

But when Saturday’s Florida State-Notre Dame clash is called the “Game of the Century,” a few old cadets somewhere might argue the point.

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