50 years ago: Notre Dame-Iowa game that never was

JFK assassination in 1963 didn't put halt to all football, but did at Iowa

Thousands of these official game programs were printed, but not sold (Courtesy Jay Petersen)
Thousands of these official game programs were printed, but not sold (Courtesy Jay Petersen)

Fifty years ago on Nov. 23, the University of Iowa’s football players woke up in a Mount Vernon motel, had a team meal, and were about to board a bus that would take them to then-Iowa Stadium to play a game against Notre Dame.

“We got taped, had training table, the whole works,” said Del Gehrke, a junior linebacker on that 1963 Hawkeyes team. “Then as we were getting on the bus they just said ‘The game was cancelled.’ ”

President John Kennedy had been assassinated the day before in Dallas. The decision to cancel the Notre Dame-Iowa game wasn’t made until Saturday at 12:30 a.m., but the Hawkeyes didn't learn that until about 10 a.m.

“The bus came into town on Dodge Street,” said Gehrke, who went on to a long career as the facilities manager for Hawkeye athletics. “I lived on Iowa Avenue. The bus stopped and let three of us off there. We didn’t even go back to the stadium. We went home, or wherever.”

It was a sad, surreal time for everyone. In hindsight, the thought of playing football games that weekend seems preposterous to many. The other four Big Ten games scheduled for that Saturday were postponed. So were the American Football League’s Sunday slate of games and the Friday night “Fight of the Week” that aired on ABC.

But there wasn’t a handbook for the situation. The NFL played its Sunday games after a decision that remains controversial a half-century later. About a dozen major-college football games were played that Saturday.

Nebraska beat Oklahoma 29-20 in Lincoln to win the Big Eight championship and an Orange Bowl berth. Cornhuskers fans threw oranges on the field in celebration. Jubilant Nebraska players dragged fully-clothed head coach Bob Devaney under the locker room showers, a sports tradition before the days of coaches getting doused with Gatorade on the sidelines.

At Iowa, Jerry Burns was in the third year of his five-year tenure as the head coach. On the day before his team was to play Notre Dame, he was in his office being interviewed by sportswriter Bert McGrane of the Des Moines Register.

“My secretary came in and said President Kennedy was just killed,” Burns last week from his home in Eden Prairie, Minn. “I remember Bert McGrane got on his knees and said a prayer. That has always stuck in my mind.”

Notre Dame’s team arrived in Iowa City that day by plane, and stayed at the Congress Motel in Coralville. Notre Dame people huddled with Iowa people at the University Club on Melrose Avenue in Iowa City, debating whether they should proceed with the game.

“The whole thing went back and forth, back and forth,” Burns said. “My wife was in the hospital for surgery at the time, and I was going from the hospital to the Athletic Club to the motel. Our team was being put to bed, and Notre Dame’s team was being put to bed.

“I got home around 12, and my phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to know if they’d made a decision. People I didn’t even know were calling me.”

That evening, athletic directors Forest Evashevski of Iowa and Moose Krause of Notre Dame told reporters the game would be played.

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987, was in Boulder, Colo., at the time with the National Science Board.

“We were seeking a site for a laboratory for research into weather modification,” Hesburgh said in 1983. “We came down from the mountain and went back to the house of the University of Colorado’s president, Joseph Smiley, and before we had hit the driveway, he was out of the house and told us the President had been shot. I sat by a radio in the kitchen until we got the news that he was dead.

“The following day the Notre Dame football team was to play Iowa. What amazed me is that on Friday people actually expected us to play a football game the next day. I said, ‘There will be no game.’ ”

The decision wasn’t as cut and dried as that for others, as sports columnist Gus Schrader wrote in the Sunday Gazette.

“We find opinion divided as to whether all of these games should have been called off,” Schrader said. “Some suggested the late President, probably the most vigorous backer of physical fitness we’ve ever had in the White House, would have been the last to want such athletic events cancelled.

“Others figured football games would have provided badly needed mental relief for all of us who were numbed by the tragedy in Dallas. The games could have been stripped of their frills and preceded by brief but moving memorial tributes to our late President.

“Still others felt football would have been out of keeping with the solemnity Americans do and should feel at this time.”

Notre Dame was scheduled to play the following Thursday, a Thanksgiving Day game against Syracuse in New York City. So the school offered to play Iowa in Iowa City on Saturday, Dec. 7.

From the statement from the Iowa Board in Control of Athletics: “The board determined to extend the season two additional weeks would interfere too much with class work and other university activities.”

“We thought it would be unfair to the football players to extend their practice schedule two more weeks,” Evashevski said after the decision was made.

“This might jeopardize some of their academic standing to have them keyed up for the extra time.”

Refunds of the approximately 35,000 tickets sold for $5 apiece were offered. A crowd of about 55,000, counting staff and students, had been expected.

Iowa was 3-3-2 and Notre Dame 2-6. “We had a good chance of winning,” Burns said.

“We were really looking forward to that game,” said Jerry Hilgenberg of Iowa City, a Hawkeyes assistant coach at the time. “We felt extremely prepared.

“It was a very difficult situation, of course. We wanted to do what was the proper and right thing to do on that day, and we wanted to do what was right and best for our team, our university, and our country.”

Lonnie Rogers was an Iowa sophomore halfback from North English. He recalled that “everybody had all their families coming in for that day. (Linebacker) Mike Reilly had a bus with a bunch of people coming, and he was going to ride back to Dubuque with them on the bus.”

The 14 seniors on that team, including future NFL standouts Wally Hilgenberg and Paul Krause, didn’t get a Seniors Day. In late August, Iowa held a 50-year reunion for players from that team. They were recognized on the Kinnick Stadium field before the start of the Northern Illinois-Iowa game.

“It was a great reunion,” Jerry Hilgenberg said. “It was definitely like a family back together again. There was a lot of cohesiveness, a lot of love on that football team.”

Notre Dame lost that Thanksgiving game against Syracuse to finish 2-7, prompting these comments from an editorial in its school student magazine, Scholastic:

“The University administration has open to it three possible courses of action: 1) continue to play big time football, assuming that athletic excellence is indeed compatible with academic excellence; 2) play a schedule restricted to schools of comparable academic standing; or 3) rather than continue losing, and rather than further sully this school’s once lustrous athletic reputation, discontinue football entirely.”

After the season, Notre Dame hired Ara Parseghian from Northwestern to be its head coach. The Irish went 9-1 in 1964. There has never been further talk about the school discontinuing football.

Meanwhile, Iowa would head in the opposite direction. Its .500 mark in 1963 wouldn’t be topped until Hayden Fry’s 1981 team shared the Big Ten title.

“That ’63 team was the best in the five years I was the head coach there,” Burns said. He was 36 that season. He was fired after the 1965 Hawkeyes went 1-9. He went on to be an NFL assistant coach for 20 years, then was head coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 1986 to 1991, going 52-43 with three playoff wins.

After the decision was made to cancel that 1963 game in Iowa City, Notre Dame interim head coach Hugh Devore said “I can’t blame Iowa for not wanting to wait two weeks to play the game. This football game is really insignificant compared to what happened yesterday.”

“There’s always next year,” Burns told Devore.

That, there was. Parseghian’s Irish defeated Iowa 28-0 in South Bend. The Irish’s next visit to Iowa City was in 1968, a 51-28 Notre Dame win. The two haven’t played each other since.

On Nov. 21, 1959, Kennedy attended the Notre Dame-Iowa game in Iowa City. Then a U.S. senator, the Irish Catholic who was 12 months from getting elected to the presidency spoke to the Carroll (Iowa) Chamber of Commerce that night.

Kennedy joked to the crowd of 600 that he cheered for the Hawkeyes earlier in the day, but prayed for Notre Dame.

Four Novembers later, Hesburgh pledged to the Kennedy family that 100 Masses would be held at Notre Dame for the slain president.   

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