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It's the silver anniversary of Rob Houghtlin's golden "chip shot"

Rob Houghtlin in the moments before a kick for the ages
Rob Houghtlin in the moments before a kick for the ages
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It’s kind of funny, really. Of all the places to make a home, Rob Houghtlin chose Michigan.

He has lived there for 19 years. His three daughters have grown up there. He is the special teams coach for the Adams High School football squad in Rochester Hills.

But Houghtlin doesn’t like the University of Michigan, even though it should be a lot more of the other way around.

“One of my daughter’s friends sent her a link to YouTube,” Houghtlin said this week. “You’re either for Michigan State or Michigan in this state, and her friend’s dad is a Michigan-hater. He showed his daughter that the dad of her friend was a Wolverine-killer.”

*******

It was 25 years ago, the third Saturday in October. If you followed Hawkeyes football in 1985, it’s stenciled in your memory. No. 1-ranked Iowa beat No. 2 Michigan, 12-10, on a last-second, 29-yard field goal by Houghtlin.

It was the climax to the most-dramatic, most-discussed game in Kinnick Stadium history.

“That game has been dissected in so many ways that I feel like I’ve exhausted all the little stories,” Houghtlin said.

As Iowa used 16 plays to travel from its own 22 yard-line to the Michigan 12, Houghtlin watched nervously on the sideline with two Hawkeye teammates. The three of them were longtime pals, all from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.

“Tim Sennott and Mike Bolan were trying to calm me down,” Houghtlin said. “They were singing the Iowa fight song with me as the offense was driving.”

Iowa called a timeout with two seconds left. Houghtlin marked his tee just ahead of the 29. In front of the nation, he hunched over in solitude for most of the timeout.

“I said a prayer and kept my head straight, ensuring my routine was in place. It was like a golfer with a 2-foot putt to win a tournament.”

Several weeks ago at FRY Fest in Coralville, Mike Flagg described what was going on in the minds of the other 10 Hawkeyes on the field who stood apart from Houghtlin.

“You’d think we’d be all nerves,” said Flagg, a fine tight end on that team. “But what I remember is in the huddle, the linemen were saying ‘That little SOB better not miss that kick.’ ”

Then, Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler called his own timeout to try to add to Houghtlin’s nervousness. Fry summoned the field goal unit to the sideline for a quick chat, trying to break up the forever-ness of the enormous moment.

Houghtlin said he doesn’t remember what Fry told him. What he does recall is center Mark Sindlinger and holder Mark Vlasic telling him he had mis-marked where to place his kicking tee, so he moved it back another half-yard.

“That timeout totally calmed me down,” Houghtlin said. “I was actually pretty cocky. I shook my hands at Bo like ‘Big deal.’

“It was a chip-shot, really.”

******

Michigan, you see, recruited Houghtlin. But Schembechler’s staff told him he had to choose between being a placekicker and a punter. He couldn’t be both there, so he chose neither. He began his college career at Miami (Ohio).

“I had a horrible experience there,” Houghtlin said. “Mike Bolan walked on at Iowa, and I kept hearing how well Iowa treated its walk-ons.”

So Houghtlin transferred there. He earned the starting placekicking job in the spring of 1985 and was put on scholarship. But two weeks into fall practice, he tore a quadriceps muscle.

“I literally didn’t practice during the season,” he said. He did, however, kick on Saturdays.

And he was good. He made three kicks of 50 yards or longer as a sophomore in that ‘85 season, one in the Rose Bowl. He made other game-winning field goals over the next two years, including a last-second 41-yarder to beat San Diego State in the 1986 Holiday Bowl.

Houghtlin had made three field goals earlier in that Michigan game, then missed a 44-yarder. He got one more chance.

“The thing I remember most about that game is all the rain,” he said. “The mistiness and murkiness of the day was pretty appropriate for the struggle on the field. It felt like we were playing in a cloud the whole time.”

After that 29-yard field goal, Houghtlin and everyone pulling for the Hawkeyes were walking on clouds.

*****

Houghtlin tried to make a couple of NFL rosters, and kicked for a season with the Arena Football League’s Chicago Bruisers. “Then,” he said, “it was time to get on with my life. I’ve been in media marketing sales for the last 21 years.”

He is 45 and the chief revenue officer for Jumpstart Automotive Group in suburban Detroit. His oldest daughter is a student at Central Michigan University. His other two are in high school. Today, instead of making the hour-long drive from Rochester Hills to Ann Arbor to root on his Hawkeyes, Houghtlin will be with his girls as they get their homecoming photos taken.

“That was not my first choice,” Houghtlin said as his wife laughed in the background. “But my iPhone will have GameCast on it.”

One of the high school daughters plans on attending Michigan, even though her dad has raised her to dislike the Wolverines.

“She’s got to change her thinking a little bit,” said Houghtlin. “I don’t know that I do. My wife will have to be the one who writes the checks to the school.”

What if the girl had been a boy, and was good enough to be a college kicker?

“He’d be at Iowa.”

To see the excellent story Rick Reilly wrote for Sports Illustrated on this game, click here.

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