Rob Houghtlin hunched over his kicking tee, hands on his knees, as though losing a bout with indigestion. His moment awaited. Michigan, ranked No. 2 by AP, led Houghtlin's Iowa Hawkeyes, AP's No. 1 team, 10-9. Two seconds loomed on the clock. Rain dripped off his helmet. And here he was, a junior walk-on placekicker whose sore leg had kept him out of practice for three weeks, standing 29 yards from never having to buy another beer in the state of Iowa.
Watching him, 66,350 people, the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in Iowa, took one last glug and forgot to swallow. Outside, tuned in on TV and radio, an entire state sucked in its stomach. The realization of what all this meant had slugged Houghtlin in his stomach, doubling him over, a position in which he stayed, without looking up, for nearly a full timeout. Not much to worry about, really. Well, maybe just a few things.
For one, there was Hayden Fry, Iowa's Texas-born, Texas-bred coach with the snakeskin cowboy boots, McCloud mustache and trademark sunglasses. For Fry, this kick could mean not only triumph over college football's only living brontosaurus, the indestructible Bo Schembechler of Michigan, but also certain status as the No. 1 miracle worker in the land. It would distance Fry even further from a messy fare-thee-well at SMU in 1972 ("I still don't know who fired me," he says) and the six years of penance that followed at North Texas State, where he went 40-23-3 in strict privacy. If this kick was good, Fry's Iowa would extend its record to 6-0 and put Bo one game back in the Big Ten race.
Then there was Iowa quarterback Chuck Long to think about. Forget Long's emotional stake in this; just consider his wallet. Long had given up a surefire million-dollar contract in the NFL this season for one last chance at a Rose Bowl. If Houghtlin missed, Pasadena could become as remote as Pago Pago and Houghtlin would go down as the guy who made a Long story short.
Then there was the state of Iowa itself, mired in the worst farm depression since the 1930s. Prices were down, the number of farm auctions was up, and the money raised by Farm Aid didn't cover one day's farm loan interest. "For a lot of people, this program is the only positive thing in their lives," Fry said.
All of them—Fry, Schembechler, Long, the players, the fans, the farmers—waited for Houghtlin's next twitch. Yet there was none. Houghtlin stood double-hunched. "I was praying," he would say later, "for strength and direction." Houghtlin may be a walk-on, but he's no fool. He knew that for this particular job, the one thing that would certainly come in handy was direction.
To get to this point, everybody involved had come a long way. Take Schembechler. After suffering his worst season (6-6) in 16 years at Michigan last fall, he entered 1985 unranked for the first time since, well, "since forever," he said. He considered that a most welcome change. For once, Big Bad Bo could play the underdog. Bo Against the World. "We knew we were better than 40 or whatever it was they had us," he said.
"It was kind of the rallying cry this year," said Wolverine defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein. "It was like we wanted to be ranked 40th." Unfortunately, Michigan couldn't hide. In beating Notre Dame, South Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State, the Wolverines had allowed exactly one touchdown—and only 4.2 points per game, lowest in the country. Up, up they went in the polls, carrying an unfamiliar Schembechler with them. He had unveiled a whole new, almost (dare we say it?) pleasant personality. "He used to always be on the razor's edge," says defensive coordinator Gary Moeller. "Now he's much more relaxed."
Schembechler would never admit that, but he does say that losing weight—"nothin' but chicken and fish," he growls, "my doctor suggested it"—and his cognizance of his health (he has had one heart attack and bypass surgery) has made him saner. How would you like to go out, Bo?
"Alive," says Schembechler.
It was that Schembechler who arrived in Iowa City last week, unacquainted with the Schembechler who wouldn't shake Fry's hand on the field after a 9-7 loss to the Hawkeyes in 1981 (Fry finally ran him down on a stadium runway), or the one who couldn't see straight last season after Fry handed him his worst loss (26-0) as a coach at Michigan. Sheer delight with his team also might have had something to do with the new Bo. It's a fun bunch that includes four sons of former or current Bo assistants—Mike and Doug Mallory of Indiana coach Bill, Jim Harbaugh of Western Michigan coach Jack, and Andy Moeller of Michigan aide Gary. "Tell you how dumb this team is," Bo said. "They've given me the game ball twice already. I used to go years without getting a game ball."
Or perhaps Bo's new joie de vivre came from proving that even in the age of the fast pass and the fast buck, an old Edsel-like Schembechler could still shimmy. "We're just an old-fashioned kind of football team," he said. "We don't have any Heisman Trophy candidates, don't have any agents, and we don't have anybody insured."
If that sounded like a playful dig at Iowa, it was. Fry's Hawkeyes are the state of the art in the game: the No. 1 scoring offense in the country (44.2 points per game before Saturday); a coach with a degree in psychology (Fry even studied at the University of Tokyo to "get an insight into the depth of the Oriental mind"); and a quarterback who is the new breed of BMOC—a candidate for both the Heisman Trophy and the Forbes 400. Long insured his body for $1 million after deciding to play a fifth year of college football instead of going pro.
It was obvious through the week that each man had his dragon to slay: Fry had to prove that he was here for good; Schembechler that he had not gone anywhere. They are not friends, but they are admirers, like painters. "I got no problems with Bo," Fry said. "There's nothing magical about him. He's like me when it comes to football. It's all war."
If it wasn't war, it was at least a very good police action. But surprise! It wasn't Michigan's defense that would win most of the skirmishes, but Iowa's offense, which kept the Wolverine D on the field for 20 of the first 30 minutes and almost 40 minutes all told. So good were the Hawkeyes that but for a blown touchdown call, they would have led 10-7 at the half instead of trailing 7-6.
After Houghtlin kicked his first of four field goals, Michigan went ahead 7-3 when Harbaugh used the famous Flutie Flip to fullback Gerald White for a six-yard touchdown. Running left for his life, Harbaugh suddenly saw White a few yards downfield. He got the ball to White the only way he could without having to slow down, by flipping it backhanded. Harbaugh might have done well to stick with that style for the rest of the afternoon, considering that he had only 49 yards passing the conventional way.
But controversy knocked in the second quarter. From the Michigan 18, Long rolled right and threw to wide receiver Scott Helverson, who not only made the highlight-film-dive-and-drag-your-foot-in-bounds-while-holding-on-to-the-ball touchdown catch, but also did it in front of CBS's end-zone camera so everybody could appreciate it. The only man who didn't appreciate it was side judge John Marrs, who was just about to signal touchdown when, for some reason, he let back judge Harold Mitchell make the call. Mitchell ruled that Helverson made the grab out of bounds. Fry didn't appreciate that and let his players know at halftime that they had been jobbed. "The scoreboard says 7-6," he said, "but we know it should be 10-7." They don't call him Sigmund Fry for nothing.
The scoreboard said 10-9 Michigan after an exchange of field goals in the fourth quarter. But after Houghtlin's sore right leg left a 44-yard field-goal try 10 yards short with 7:38 to play, there was no joy in Iowa. How close would he have to be to make one? More important, would Iowa get another chance?
Here then was Michigan's chance to M*A*S*H the Hawkeyes: First-and-10 at its own 27, make a few first downs, use up some time and then let the defense do its stuff. Problem was, that hadn't happened all day. Michigan's offense got off only 41 snaps, compared with Iowa's 84, an old-fashioned Texas woodshed whip-pin' if there ever was one. So when the Hawkeyes' All-America linebacker, Larry Station, dumped tailback Jamie Morris for a two-yard loss on third-and-two, the Wolverines had to punt. Somewhere in there, Bo must have had some red meat because he was ripping off his headphones regularly and smashing them to the ground. (Got to get that Michigan headphone concession.) But it was no use. Here came Iowa.
From their own 22, the Hawkeyes moved 66 cool yards in 5½ minutes against a great defense. They went the Long way (he ended up completing 26 of 39 passes for 297 yards) and tailback Ronnie Harmon's way (120 yards rushing, 72 catching, plus Best Dressed honors for being the only person in Iowa City wearing black leather pants and coat, gold chains and wraparound Yoko Ono sunglasses).
So now came Houghtlin's turn. With a second-and-six at the 12, Long stopped the clock at :02 and turned his million-dollar Rose Bowl gamble over to a sore-legged kicker who had just missed from a makable distance. As torture, Schembechler called his own timeout. While Houghtlin worried and stewed and prayed and stewed some more, center Mark Sindlinger noticed something funny and said to Houghtlin, "Hey, you sure you're setting up seven yards back? That only looks like six." Sure enough, Sindlinger was right. "I'm glad he told me," said Houghtlin. "Six yards back, I might have got it blocked." Small detail.
Now the snap is good and the hold is good and the kick is good, and as an entire state comes sprinting at him to show its affection, Houghtlin wonders if he'll get out of this alive. "When I was in the middle of that pile-up, I was worried about getting killed—really," he said.
Iowa fans collapsed on the middle of the field and sort of bounced into each other like happy atoms, refusing to leave. After 20 minutes, somebody decided to tear down the goalposts, and after 40 minutes a few realized they were being rained upon. But nobody cared: Iowa 12, Michigan 10. Talk about a cleansing.
"I tell you what," Fry said. "It just goes to show you, the sun don't shine on the same dog's rump every day. All you got to do is hang in there and stick with what you believe in and it'll eventually shine on yours."
Boy howdy, that's right. And ain't it grand? In this, the year of college football's dash-for-alumni-cash, the guy who decided the winner and loser in the highest-stakes football game of the season was a 6-foot, 169-pound walk-on who hadn't practiced since September. Stuff that in your slush fund.
Houghtlin, who made the winning kick, and Harmon (below) showed dazzling footwork.
White caught a six-yard Flutie Flip in the first half to score the only TD of the game.
The largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in Iowa may have been the happiest.