Three eras, three QBs, three Rose Bowls
Ploen, Bohannon, Beathard all have stories on the road to Pasadena
IOWA CITY — When C.J. Beathard takes his first snap in Pasadena, the program ticker on Iowa quarterbacks starting Rose Bowls flips to six.
Only six. It’s a fraternity of sorts, and luck plays a small role. Some of Iowa’s best quarterbacks never stepped foot inside the iconic stadium on Jan. 1. Some of them have. But starting the Rose Bowl is a defining moment for Iowa quarterbacks. They’re remembered forever, just like the teams they represented.
“Typically if you have a really good football team you’ve got a really good quarterback,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, who served as an assistant during Iowa’s 1981 and 1985 trips to Pasadena. “And that’s been the case with all of the Iowa teams.”
In 1956, three outlets named quarterback Kenny Ploen a first-team All-American. Randy Duncan (1958) and Chuck Long (1985) were consensus All-Americans. All three earned the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player Award. Matt Rodgers (1990) was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year. Beathard was a second-team all-Big Ten selection this year. Gordy Bohannon split time with Pete Gales (1981) and paced Iowa to its first winning season in 20 years.
They all have stories to tell, and this one focuses on Ploen, Bohannon and Beathard. Each competed at Iowa in about 30-year increments. Each spurred a team to surprising success. All sealed their place in Hawkeye football annals as Rose Bowl quarterbacks.
Ploen: Iowa's first Rose Bowl QB
Kenny Ploen grew up in Clinton and saw action in 1954 behind quarterback Jerry Reichow. Under Coach Forest Evashevski, the Hawkeyes became competitive when Ploen moved into the starting role in 1956.
“We had a good nucleus of players that were together for a number of years,” Ploen said. “We looked forward to a big one that year, and we ended up with it.”
Along with Ploen, Iowa featured two-way lineman Alex Karras and end Jim Gibbons. The Hawkeyes peeled off a pair of one-point wins early in the season against eventual Pac-8 champion Oregon State and Purdue before falling 17-14 to Michigan. At 5-1, Iowa faced national powers Minnesota, Ohio State and Notre Dame in succession to finish the season.
Although outgained, the Hawkeyes held off rival Minnesota 7-0 to set up a winner-take-all showdown with Ohio State and Woody Hayes for the Rose Bowl spot. In the third quarter, Ploen lofted a 17-yard pass to Gibbons for a touchdown that provided the difference in a 6-0 Iowa victory. The Hawkeyes finished the trifecta by smashing non-conference foe Notre Dame 48-8.
But the win against Ohio State stands out to Ploen, 59 years later.
“It’s something that’s hard to put into words,” Ploen said. “You dream about going to a Rose Bowl and hoping you can ever get there. When it happens, it’s quite a celebration from the team standpoint.
“We had a number of tight games to begin with that year, and it was certainly a highlight when we ended up winning the last one against Ohio State and were able to represent the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl. It was certainly a highlight in my life.”
Bohannon and the magical turnaround
After Evashevski left the sidelines in 1960, Iowa wandered aimlessly for a generation. From 1962 through 1980, the Hawkeyes never had a winning season. Ohio State and Michigan held the Big Ten in a stranglehold, with one or the other earning Rose Bowl bids every season from 1968-1980.
Iowa hired Hayden Fry as coach before the 1979 season. Gordy Bohannon grew up in South Pasadena, Calif., and played at two different colleges before joining the Hawkeyes as a junior-college transfer in Fry’s first year. He played some in 1979 then red-shirted in 1980. By 1981, Bohannon and his teammates had banded together. They each shared a different hard scrabble story.
“I think what was fun about it was we didn’t have any superstars on our team,” Bohannon said. “Coach Fry had only been there a couple of years, and he got a lot of us that were maybe overlooked at some other places. We had a bunch of people that just came together and we had great chemistry and we just had belief in each other. That was what was so fun about it. We truly and sincerely cared about helping each other and getting the win regardless of who got all the credit.”
The catalyst in 1981 was the season opener, in which Iowa upset No. 7 Nebraska 10-7. The following week, Iowa failed to handle its success and lost at Iowa State. Then it turned around and beat No. 6 UCLA 20-7.
“You think about the teams that we beat,” Bohannon said. “We beat Nebraska in the first game. We beat UCLA, which was No. 6. We beat Michigan. They (players) come together and say, ‘What if?’ They become possibility thinkers and dreamers and their confidence goes up. That’s what’s neat.”
Iowa stumbled consecutively against Minnesota and Illinois in midseason but had an outside shot at the Rose Bowl entering its home finale. An Iowa victory against Michigan State coupled with an Ohio State win against Michigan would send the Hawkeyes to Pasadena. The Buckeyes won 14-9 about an hour before the Iowa-MSU game was complete. As word matriculated through the Kinnick Stadium stands and roses tumbled into the crowd from the press box, Iowa blasted Michigan State 36-7.
“It was like a déjà vu for a lot of us because we had dreamed about it and thought about it and visualized it so often that when they started throwing roses from the stands and announced that we had won the Big Ten, it was like we had already been there before,” Bohannon said. “It was kind of a weird feeling.
“The fans were what was so special. Because we had not had a winning season in so long and yet they were so enthusiastic about our year and even though we didn’t have much to go on, they supported us. When we started to see that we had a chance, we all came together. The coaches, the players, the training staff, the fans. That’s why it was so special in those days. We hadn’t done it before.”
Beathard: The rock star
Unlike the other two eras, Iowa football enjoyed success under Ferentz. The Hawkeyes twice had competed in the Orange Bowl, including one time where it leapfrogged past the Rose Bowl in the pecking order. Iowa had four top-10 finishes but had notched a pedestrian 34-30 record the previous five years entering 2015.
C.J. Beathard has come from an esteemed football family. His grandfather, Bobby Beathard, likely will earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after building the 1970s Miami Dolphins, the 1980s Washington Redskins and 1990s San Diego Chargers into NFL powers. Beathard’s great uncle, Pete Beathard, threw four touchdowns for No. 1 USC in an epic Rose Bowl win against No. 2 Wisconsin on Jan. 1, 1964. His uncle, Kurt Beathard, served as Illinois’ quarterbacks coach when the Illini played in the 2008 Rose Bowl.
After a divisive 2014 season where he split time with Jake Rudock, Beathard was named the Hawkeyes’ permanent starter for 2015 only six days after a TaxSlayer Bowl loss. Rudock elected to transfer, and the Hawkeyes rallied around Beathard in the off-season.
“Just working out, we had a lot of chemistry,” Beathard said. “A lot of bonding within the team. I knew we had something special, it was just a matter of us translating it on to the field in camp. We were growing in camp, and I think we were much better from camp into our first game of the season. Then we kept improving all year long.”
Iowa swept through its 2015 non-conference slate for the first time in six years. In the league opener at Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes recovered a fumble at its 5-yard line to preserve a 10-6 win. Two weeks later, the Hawkeyes traveled to No. 20 Northwestern for its homecoming. The Wildcats celebrated the 20th anniversary of their last Rose Bowl squad. Iowa’s starting offensive tackles and top two running backs were out with injuries. Senior wide receiver Tevaun Smith returned early after a knee procedure. Beathard was hobbled with a groin injury.
“We had a lot of guys hurt that entire game,” Beathard said. “Guys had to step up and play tough, and that’s what they did. It was a tough game, but we came out and played a really good football game and played a really good team. Northwestern’s a good team, and we played tough and made a statement that game.”
Iowa rushed for 294 yards and pounded Northwestern 40-10. The Wildcats finished regular-season play 10-2. Iowa ended the regular season 12-0, the school’s first perfect regular season since 1922. The Big Ten West Division champion Hawkeyes faced East Division champ Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, a step Ploen and the other quarterbacks didn’t have to endure. The Spartans scored the game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds left to beat Iowa 16-13.
Gallery: C.J. Beathard's 2015 season
Different from the magical moments in 1956 or 1981, this year’s Rose Bowl announcement was bittersweet. Michigan State qualified for the College Football Playoff, and the Rose Bowl became a consolation prize.
“You’re sitting there and it stings. It hurts,” Beathard said. “But when you get the news you’re playing in the Rose Bowl, it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s the ‘Granddaddy of Them All.’ It’s the best game you can play in. I think there’s a lot of college athletes, a lot of college people, that would do a lot to play in this game. We’re blessed to have an opportunity to play in this game.”
A rosy day
Iowa’s 1956 squad arrived in Pasadena about 10 days before the game to get used to the California sunshine. The practices were crisp and efficient but not overly physical, Ploen recalled. Evashevski focused on timing and other aspects of his precise offensive attack.
The Hawkeyes played Oregon State, a team they had beaten 14-13 earlier in the season. In Iowa’s inaugural bowl appearance, the Hawkeyes struck quickly. Ploen scored the first touchdown on a 49-yard run. Collins Hagler followed with a 9-yard scamper. In the first quarter, the Hawkeyes led 14-0.
“We had a couple of touchdown lead on them before they knew what hit them,” Ploen said.
After an Oregon State score, Iowa piled on. Bill Happel Sr. ran in from 5 yards and Hagler burst 66 yards for another touchdown. Iowa led 28-6 in the third quarter en route to a 35-19 victory.
Ploen engineered victory, completing 9 of 10 passes for 83 yards. He also rushed eight times for 59 and was named the game’s MVP.
“We had a great team that year,” Ploen said. “It was great to be the quarterback of it. I could run those guys right, left, up the middle. It didn’t make any difference. We had a great line, a great bunch of backs and our defense was outstanding. It was a great team effort.”
To get acclimatized to southern California for the 1982 Rose Bowl, Iowa left for Pasadena 11 days early. With the euphoria of making a bowl game — especially the Rose Bowl — Bohannon admits the team lost focus in California.
“We had a little bit of a hard time adjusting to all the hype and all the fun that we had,” Bohannon said.
Bohannon guided South Pasadena High School to a California state title. He grew up in the shadow of the Rose Bowl but never saw a game there. He had friends and family in attendance and hoped for a good showing.
Whether it was the hype, waning attention spans, the disrupted routine — all of the above — Iowa played its poorest game of the season. Washington running back Jacques Robinson rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-0 rout. Bohannon struggled with two lost fumbles and two interceptions. He and Gales combined to complete 10 of 21 passes for 84 yards and three picks. It was a deflating end to a storybook season.
“When we lost, we were so frustrated because we knew we didn’t prepare like we should have,” Bohannon said. “Washington was a very good football team, by the way. But it was hard because we didn’t want to stay in California. We wanted to leave, even though it was a beautiful place to hang out. We didn’t want to go back to Iowa because we were kind of embarrassed. It took us a while to think about what we accomplished.”
The next step
Iowa hasn’t won a Rose Bowl since the 1958 season, when Randy Duncan guided the Hawkeyes to a 38-12 victory against California. After 1981, the Hawkeyes went to Pasadena twice more under Fry, but lost the 1986 game 45-28 to UCLA and five years later to Washington 46-34.
Unlike Ploen, who never had left the Midwest before the Rose Bowl, or Bohannon, who lived next door but never saw the game, Beathard has attended a Rose Bowl. He watched USC smash Illinois 49-17 on Jan. 1, 2008. Even as a 14-year-old from Franklin, Tenn., Beathard visualized himself playing on that stage.
“I just remember what it was like,” said Beathard, 22. “I remember dreaming as a kid, ‘Man, it would be awesome to play in this game.’ It’s actually happening. It’s awesome.
“Not many Iowa teams have gone to the Rose Bowl. It’s been a while since we have. It’s been an accomplishment for this team, and it goes as a result of the good season that we had.”
Every Rose Bowl squad carries unique status among Iowa fans, regardless of the outcome. Bohannon, 56, lives in Marion and has four sons who either have played or will play college basketball. His youngest, Jordan, signed a letter of intent to play at Iowa next year. Still, Bohannon is best known for his days as a Rose Bowl quarterback.
“When you think back on it after a while, it was an experience that we’ll never forget,” Bohannon said.
Ploen, 80, left Iowa for the Canadian Football League, where he spent 11 years as a quarterback and defensive back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Ploen won four Grey Cups under Coach Bud Grant and was elected to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1975. Ploen continues to live in Winnipeg, and he follows Iowa. He considers the Rose Bowl one of his favorite experiences.
“The whole works was a big wow,” Ploen said, “when you’re going there from the Midwest and you end up at the Rose Bowl. They’ve got a gorgeous, beautiful stadium and the facilities that they had there and we got treated like royalty when we were out there. So it was a trip of a lifetime.”
Beathard’s crew already has cemented its legacy with a school-record 12 wins. One more step could elevate this team’s status to where only two other Iowa squads reside — Rose Bowl champions.
“I think a lot of our guys knew we had something special and obviously we did,” Beathard said. “A 12-0 regular season is something special. That’s hard to beat. We’ve got another opportunity to make it even more special.”