(NOTES: This story originally appeared at TheGazette.com on June 11, 2011. Rocky Ryan died Nov. 3, 2011, less than six months after I conducted this interview. Despite his tough description below, he could not have been more nice. He liked telling his life story, although he was reluctant to share details about the 1952 incident. Former Illinois quarterback Tommy O’Connell who was interviewed in the below story, died March 20, 2014. Iowa and Illinois play on Saturday when Big Ten realignment reshuffled their schedules after this story appeared.)
IOWA CITY — Rocky Ryan was known for his temper.
It was his one distinguishing characteristic that his friends and teammates could all agree upon. So late afternoon Nov. 8, 1952 at then-called Iowa Stadium, it was no surprise that Ryan connected on the punch heard ‘round the Big Ten world.
“He was a guy who had a hair-trigger temper, and it didn’t take much to get him excited,” said 1952 Illinois student manager Charlie Finn said.
Richard Wolfe had impeccable manners and an honest temper when it came to competition as a youth. As a 19-year-old University of Iowa sophomore in 1952, he loved sports and regularly attended Hawkeye football games. But one afternoon, the recklessness that can swallow the best and brightest of America’s college students, sent Wolfe from the stands to the sidelines, face to face with one of Illinois’ meanest football players.
“I guess he said something and got hit,” said Wolfe’s older sister, Lois Schau. “It was one of those things that happened.”
The split-second incident involving Ryan and Wolfe swirled at the epicenter of conflict and commotion that day. It involved questionable officiating, a record-breaking passing performance, unsportsmanlike conduct and a thunderous right-hand punch. The game and the ensuing chaos forever changed a border rivalry between Iowa and Illinois’ football programs. The residue lingers to this very day.
“It was like a riot,” Finn said. “It was very, very ugly. An unseemly incident, one of the worst in the history of Big Ten sports.”
Iowa, which entered the Illinois game 1-5, had struggled for most of the 1952 season under first-year Coach Forest Evashevski. Then, on Oct. 25, the winless Hawkeyes posted their most impressive win since the Nile Kinnick era, shocking Coach Woody Hayes and top-ranked Ohio State 8-0 in Iowa City. It was the first win at Iowa for Evashevski, a future Hall of Fame coach. It also gained some measure of revenge after the Buckeyes whipped Iowa by a combined score of 130-35 the previous two seasons.
The victory enhanced Evashevski’s reputation. Most Big Ten players knew about his prowess as a Michigan athlete 15 years earlier, but his tactics for the Ohio State victory were called into question by Illinois’ players and coaches.
“It was said (Evashevski) sprinkled the field with water to make it a mud hole against Ohio State,” Illinois quarterback Tommy O’Connell said. “So we expected a mud hole.”
Instead, a beautiful mid-fall day awaited the Fighting Illini, who entered the Nov. 8 game 3-3. The afternoon temperature was 56 degrees with a slight northwest wind. The conditions were perfect for Illinois’ specialty, which was throwing the football.
“We knew could throw on them,” O’Connell said. “The year before, I threw three touchdown passes against them at Illinois at our homecoming. I knew I could throw on them; we went up there specifically to throw.”
O’Connell had a stellar season in 1952 and obliterated the Illinois record book. His 133 completions and 1,761 passing yards were Illini records that stood until 1980. He later played pro football for five seasons and quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns to the NFL title game in 1957.
O’Connell had the confidence of then-Illinois Coach Ray Elliot, who let his quarterback call audibles at will.
“Elliot used to let me change the plays at the line of scrimmage, and I changed a lot of them,” O’Connell said. “We had about eight passes that I could call at the line of scrimmage and when they gave me a certain defense, I just called those passes.”
With O’Connell’s skills and a pair of top wideouts, the Fighting Illini took advantage of Iowa’s defense from the start. O’Connell led the Illini to four first-half touchdown drives, including three in the second quarter. By halftime he had completed 14 of 23 passes for 166 yards and 11 passing first downs. Iowa, conversely, failed to complete any of its six first-half passes. Illinois built a 27-0 halftime lead and seemed ready to put the game on cruise control.
The game got worse for Iowa. O’Connell hit offensive end Rex Smith on a 67-yard touchdown strike just 1:24 into the second half, bumping the score to 33-0. Early in the fourth quarter, O’Connell went to the bench compiling Big Ten records for completions (22), attempts (34) and yards (306). Smith’s 190 receiving yards also set a league mark.
“It was quite easy, quite truthfully,” O’Connell said.
But as smooth as the game was for O’Connell, it was rough for everybody else. The teams combined for 17 penalties, costing them 126 yards. Iowa’s Phil Hayman and Illinois’ Paul Luhrsen and Pete Palmer were thrown out for fighting. There were late hits and punches thrown throughout the game.
By the fourth quarter, Evashevski had enough of the game — and the officials. Iowa was whistled for 10 penalties costing the Hawkeyes 81 yards. With about five minutes left and Iowa trailing 33-13, a bizarre and delayed pass interference call against Iowa wide receiver Binkey Broeder sent Evashevski to the field for an explanation. The officiating crew ignored Evashevski and placed the ball at Iowa’s 6-yard line. Evashevski stayed on the field.
“Evy lost his cool kind of on the sideline,” said Iowa football student manager Bill Quinby, who lives in Cedar Rapids and spent decades officiating Big Ten and NFL games. “He actually went out on the field, oh, probably 10 yards, maybe out to the numbers. He was kind of protesting, and they got him. The officiating crew got him for 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.”
The ball was placed at Iowa’s 1-yard line, and the Hawkeyes punted, thus ending any chance of an Iowa comeback.
The Gazette Sports Editor Gus Schrader questioned both the penalty and Evashevski’s actions in his following day’s column. “We understand that Evy actually intended only to inquire what the officials had ruled on the offensive pass interference play,” Schrader wrote. “He is too cagey and too cool-headed to rush onto a field to protest.
“But Evy also knows what such an action can do to stir up a crowd against the officials.”
Evashevski’s actions incited the crowd of 44,855. Illinois’ personnel could see the game slipping into chaos, both on the field and in the stands in the game’s final minutes.
“The officials began to lose control of the game,” Finn said. “They threw one of the Iowa players and Illinois players out at halftime when we were leaving the field. The fans were throwing bottles and cans at us. So the game got rougher and tougher in the second half. I swear Evashevski must have stood on the field for most of the half complaining at the officials.”
“Something else happened at the end of the game that was worse,” Quinby said.
Illinois won the game 33-13. But the stadium mood had shifted from collegial to wrath. Illinois’ players walked off the field toward their locker room in the stadium’s northeast corner. Iowa’s students, which were located close to the field by the stadium’s design, hurled taunts, then apples at the Illini and game officials. One fan drilled an official in the back with an orange. Concern heightened among the Illini.
“As we left the field, one of the coaches said, ‘Run.’ So we were running,” Finn said. “The fans came out of the stands and attacked the team. There were no security guards around there, like there is today.
“Anything they could throw — apples, oranges, cans, bottles. It was really bad. I’ve never seen anything close like that happening over here.”
Illinois left end John “Rocky” Ryan, known as one of the team’s toughest players, also walked toward the locker room. Both O’Connell and Finn recall Ryan as a feisty competitor with a mean streak.
“Rocky was a tough Irishman and had a tough temper,” O’Connell said. “Terrible. But he was a good football player.”
Ryan earned honorable mention All-American honors that year after catching 45 passes for 714 yards. That afternoon he torched Iowa’s secondary with seven catches for 87 yards.
Ryan, who later played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears, carries that volatile reputation nearly 60 years after his last Fighting Illini game. In a phone conversation, Ryan half-jokes with a reporter that he’s still young enough to whip ass despite his nearly 80 years of age.
Wolfe, a Donnellson native, attended the game as a fan. In the postgame frenzy, Wolfe briefly met Ryan near the Illinois locker room.
As Ryan approached the dressing area, Wolfe advanced toward him. Wolfe taunted Ryan and allegedly grabbed Ryan by the shoulders. A split-second later, Ryan’s right hand crashed against Wolfe’s face, breaking his jaw. Ryan left the field, as did Wolfe.
Ryan remains unapologetic.
“Our coaches took us out and asked us to get off the field because players were getting pretty violent,” Ryan said. “This fan came out and grabbed my shoulder pad and turned me around. I thought, ‘Well,’ and I hit him because he was going after me. Of course he was stupid for picking on me.”
Wolfe immediately went to the hospital. His jaw was reset and wired virtually shut. Wolfe’s family was notified of the incident, Schau recalled.
“I remember he had to drink his Thanksgiving dinner into a straw,” said Schau, who still lives in Donnellson.
“He wasn’t a rebel. He always took things seriously. He had a temper. After that (the punch), as he got older, he took his schooling seriously.”
Wolfe, who died Aug. 2, 2007, recovered from his wounds and lack of judgment to live an extraordinary life. He earned Iowa’s Alpha Omega Alpha honors upon his 1958 graduation from Iowa’s College of Medicine. He later became a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, practiced radiology in San Francisco for 28 years and published a book on knee arthography. He served on the San Rafael Parks and Recreation Commission for 13 years and taught at the University of California-San Francisco. He later suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was buried with full military honors five days after his death.
One of his four children also became a doctor.
“He was a remarkable person,” Schau said.
Illinois coaches refused to welcome Iowa reporters to the locker room until 30 minutes after the game. They said little once the reporters arrived.
“We waited a long time (before leaving),” Finn said. “We were just happy to get out of town. This was a bad deal, and it always starts on line of scrimmage. Somebody throws a punch, then somebody else throws a punch, then it starts. There was a lot of that going on out there through the whole game. That stuff has no place in college sports but unfortunately it does happen.
“Iowa blamed us and said we were a dirty team, and it went back and forth.”
Schrader defended Iowa’s players for the on-field scrums saying they were “rightfully indignant” after a few late hits committed by Illinois players were not called by officials.
Schrader both praised and condemned the crowd with tongue-in-cheek commentary in the following day’s edition of The Gazette.
“Yes, the fans were wrong for throwing apple cores, but as long as the dastardly deed was done, I want to compliment one fan for his remarkable accuracy,” Schrader wrote. “His apple core hit an official squarely on the neck. I always say, if you’re going to do something unsportsmanlike, do it well.”
There are differing perspectives on the postgame situation. Finn described the atmosphere as “like a riot” while Iowa starting center Jerry Hilgenberg struggled to recall most of the day’s events, other than a few apples tossed at the field.
The following day Iowa Athletic Director Paul Brechler expressed remorse about the incident and said “the fruit barrage was unfortunate.”
“Even though officials make mistakes,” Brechler told Schrader in the Nov. 10, 1952 edition of The Gazette, “I do not condone students throwing anything onto the field.”
Longtime Iowa broadcaster Bob Brooks, who called the game on KCRG-TV9 radio that day, said the incident didn’t “require the police or anything like that.”
“It was not what I thought, in broadcasting the game, an ugly scene,” Brooks said. “It wasn’t close to a riot or anything like that. I don’t think a lot of people saw the Illinois player hit the Iowa fan because the game was over. They were coming off the field. But it was serious enough that they discontinued the series.”
The Big Ten did not sanction Iowa for the incident. The schools were set to rotate off one another’s Big Ten schedules for the 1953 and 1954 seasons. Both Illinois and Iowa athletics officials then agreed to a “cooling-off” period through at least 1958. That hiatus was extended multiple times until they agreed to meet again in 1967. The 15-year pause tied for the longest break among Big Ten schools since World War II.
Illinois Athletics Director Ron Guenther played football for the Illini in the mid-1960s when his team continued to skip Iowa. He said the 15-year break was “a bit unusual.”
“After the incident that took place in 1952, I think here was an agreement that the series was going to go into hiatus,” Guenther said. “From the records, from what I was able to read, it was a fairly ugly situation. A lot of people felt that it was necessary to separate the series for a while.
“I think there was a great concern on part of the presidents at the time the incident happened and didn’t want that series to go on. They may have waited too long. I don’t know why it lasted 15 years. That’s a long time. A lot of people were gone that didn’t know about that incident.”
Illinois and Iowa resumed their border rivalry Nov. 25, 1967 and chose to end their regular seasons against one another for six straight years. Iowa beat the Illini 37-13 in 1968, ending a 12-game series losing streak dating to 1941.
The Iowa-Illinois football series had its heated moments before and after the “Apple Bowl” incident. Finn points as far back as the 1920s when Iowa native and Illinois football alum Burt Ingwersen coached the Hawkeyes and later was fired. Football was drawn into the vitriol of other sports, especially basketball. In the late 1980s, former Iowa basketball assistant Bruce Pearl turned over secret recordings to the NCAA implicating Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins for offering cash and a vehicle to recruit Deon Thomas. That incident, along with other recruiting battles, drew more negative attention to Iowa-Illinois in recent years than the apple-throwing incident.
“Iowa all the time thinks Illinois operates outside the box as far as NCAA is concerned,” Brooks said. “That would be one of the sticking points I would presume. Illinois thinks that they don’t get enough athletes out of the home state, mainly Chicago. They think everybody is stealing their athletes, which they are.”
The football series has produced few memorable games. Each team exchanged pastings of the other in Rose Bowl seasons — Illinois whipped Iowa 33-0 in 1983, Iowa stomped Illinois 59-0 in 1985.
On Nov. 3, 1990 — perhaps the most high-profile matchup between the schools — No. 13 Iowa rolled to a four-touchdown lead early in the first half and destroyed No. 5 Illinois 52-28 in Champaign. The schools finished the year as co-Big Ten champions along with Michigan and Michigan State, and Iowa went to the Rose Bowl.
“The relationship in competition between Iowa and Illinois has always been a little bit tenuous,” Brooks said. “For what reason, I really couldn’t say. They had some basketball problems, that sort of thing. It just seems for some reason I think Iowa players would probably say, ’They’re chirping at us all the time.’ I’d think if you would ask Illinois players they’d say, ‘They’re chirping at us all the time.’ It’s just kind of been a little rocky that way. That’s just the way it’s been.”
The scrapes continued in the most recent decade. Iowa beat Illinois a series-record five straight times in the 2000s, including a 10-6 win in 2007, which kept the Rose Bowl-bound Illini from a 10-win season. That loss fueled Illinois in 2008, and the Illini knocked off nine-win Iowa 27-24 with a last-second field goal.
Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn, a Washington D.C. native now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, didn’t hold back in the locker room when talking about Iowa following the 2008 game.
“Iowa is a team that thinks it’s so much better than us, and we just came on and beat them,” Benn said. “Our team’s never beat Iowa, and it’s just something about Iowa that I personally don’t like. Through the week they talk a lot of trash through the media and stuff. ... I just hate Iowa.”
No quotes were found that indicated Iowa players talked trash the week before the game. Illinois Coach Ron Zook called the game “as tough as any college game I’ve ever coached in, as far as intensity.”
After hearing Benn’s comments, it was difficult for Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King, now with the New Orleans Saints, to hold back his disgust for Illinois.
“I’m not going to give any press clippings, but they can bad-mouth any program they want and that’s kind of the type of program they are,” King said.
The recruiting battles are just as fierce. Starting Illinois running back Jason Ford originally picked Iowa, while Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz decommitted from Illinois late in the recruiting process. Both schools fought over current Illinois sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, son of former Hawkeye cornerback Nate Creer. None of the three will face each other in a regular-season game.
Illinois originally was deemed Iowa’s 2011 homecoming opponent for Oct. 8. The Illini no longer appear on Iowa’s 2011 schedule, nor will they in the near future. After the schools rotated off one another’s schedules in 2009 and 2010, they were placed in opposite divisions with league expansion and realignment. A randomly assembled schedule skipped over the schools for 2011 and 2012, while a more deliberate Big Ten approach for 2013 and 2014 also bypassed the rivals.
All sides, including Big Ten Conference officials, have called the six-year hiatus unintentional, just a schedule flap. But six years is an eternity in college sports. It’s the longest break among Big Ten football competitors since Iowa and Illinois went 15 years without playing one another because of the 1952’s apple bowl.
By the time the schools line up again, likely in 2015, they will have played only 35 times in 61 years.
“I wouldn’t discount the Iowa and Illinois football rivalry,” said Loren Tate, a 1953 Illinois graduate who has covered the Fighting Illini for the Champaign News-Gazette since 1966. “I think that’s a really good football rivalry, much more so than Purdue and Indiana for Illinois. It’s just a fluke of nature that we won’t play for a while.”
Quinby officiated several Iowa and Illinois football games during his college career before moving to the NFL. He never once stood in judgment of an Iowa-Illinois game, but has noticed a general dislike for one another.
Ryan holds no ill will toward Iowa. He said he actively roots for Big Ten teams and said Iowa has one of the best college football coaches in Kirk Ferentz.
The apple-throwing incident has lingering memories for Finn. He quit attending Iowa-Illinois football games in Iowa City more than a decade ago. He said he didn’t feel safe, and he didn’t like the atmosphere compared to other venues like Michigan and Ohio State.
“There is a difference,” he said. “My wife, we’ve been over to Iowa City quite a few times and she said, ‘Let’s not come anymore. It’s not a place where you can walk down the street.’ It’s different than any other place. I’ve been to all Big Ten schools to games and … they’ll all say nice game or something like that. But you never hear that in Iowa City. It’s just like it’s best to get in your car and get out of there. That’s the way I always feel.”
The Big Ten likely will revive the dormant rivalry in 2015. Although history suggests otherwise, it’s a game fans might enjoy. It might even mean something.
Iowa-Illinois did not play from 1953-1966
Iowa-Ohio State did not play from 1935-1943
Minnesota-Illinois did not play from 1925-1940
Minnesota-Ohio State did not play from 1951-1964
Purdue-Northwestern did not play from 1959-1966
Purdue-Michigan did not play from 1953-1960
Wisconsin-Indiana played only twice from 1953 through 1966
Purdue-Minnesota did not meet from 1975-78
Iowa-Illinois did not meet from 2009-2013
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