“No matter how scientific or updated the system is, football must be fun, or the team will fail. There has to be enough levity in football to make up for the grind and hard work.”
Now there’s a novel idea: a football coach actually declaring that the game should be fun. Who is this forward thinker? This man on the cutting edge of football theory?
Evy’s radical thoughts on comingling football and fun appeared in a Sports Illustrated article by Jack Olsen — in the Sept. 23, 1957 issue. Though his name is largely lost to history now, Evy coached the Iowa Hawkeyes from 1952-1960. Evy put Iowa football on the map. ESPN’s College Football Encyclopedia calls Evy’s era the “best of times” for Hawkeye football.
When Evy took over, Iowa hadn’t had a winning season since 1946, and that was a modest 5-4 record. Iowa hadn’t managed a winning record in the Big Ten since 1939, hadn’t won a conference title since 1922, and had never been to a bowl game.
Evy wasn’t familiar with a losing situation. He had been a single-wing quarterback at Michigan under legendary coach Fritz Crisler. His primary responsibility had been blocking for 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon. Harmon won the Heisman, but Evy was the team captain.
“Evy seemed to think right with Crisler,” Harmon said in the book “Greatest Moments in Hawkeye Football History.”
“As a blocker, I never saw a better one.”
As a player, Evy was already injecting fun into football. In anecdotes related in the book “Evy and the Hawkeyes,“ Michigan once held a 21-0 halftime lead. Crisler implored his team to play as if the score was 0-0. At the end of his speech, he said, “Okay, Evy, what’s the score?” Evy
replied, “You can’t kid me, coach. The score is 21-0.”
Evy also enjoyed lighting a victory cigar on the sideline during the final moments of a 1939 win over Ohio State, and by turning one of Crisler’s own rules against him.
Crisler, a stickler for punctuality, once arrived at practice a few minutes late. “Fritz!” shouted Evy, using his coach’s nickname, “we begin practice at 3:30. It’s now 3:35. Take a lap around the field.” Crisler had no choice but to comply.
Evy began his coaching career as an assistant with Crisler disciple Clarence “Biggie” Munn, first at Syracuse, then at Michigan State. He became head coach at Washington State in 1950, instantly turning a Cougar program that had suffered four straight losing seasons into a winner.
Then Crisler recommended him for the Iowa job. Here’s how Evy described his start to Olsen:
“I remember 1952. We lost our first four ball games. Twice we were beaten real bad. We’d been using the same old multiple offense. ... The boys weren’t having any fun with it, you could see that.
“So we were coming up against Ohio State. I decided to give the team something to play with. We drew up a bastard formation. … We practiced for two days, and then we beat Ohio State, 8-0, with it. Kept them out of the Rose Bowl. Point is, the boys got a kick out of the new formation. They were having fun.”
The Hawkeyes upset a four-touchdown favorite, an Ohio State team that had beaten them the previous two years 83-21 and 47-21. The Des Moines Register gushed, “Put your license plate back on the family auto, for Iowa won a football game Saturday.” Sports editor Sec Taylor wrote, “It was like my 8-year-old granddaughter out-boxing Sugar Ray Robinson.”
As Evy later told the Register, “Looking back, it was a historic game. Few people realize that back then, Woody Hayes was the passingest coach in the Big Ten, not the running coach he became. Shortly before he died, Woody told me that that game made him change his philosophy.”
That ’52 team finished 2-7, but the ‘53 team notched a winning record, going 5-3-1. The final game was a 14-14 decision against undefeated, No. 1-ranked Notre Dame. The Irish scored their touchdowns at the end of each half, when players feigned injuries to stop the clock. The tie cost the “Fainting Irish” a national championship.
The big breakthrough came in 1956, when Evy switched to the Wing-T formation. Iowa went 9-1, beat Ohio State 6-0 for the Big Ten title, and walloped Notre Dame 48-8. They then thrashed Oregon State 35-19 in the Rose Bowl.
On a roll, Evy’s Hawks remained the scourge of the Big Ten, going 7-1-1 in ‘57 and 8-1-1 in ‘58, capped with a 38-12 Rose Bowl trouncing of Cal. After a 5-4 season in ‘59, Evy’s Hawks went 8-1 in ‘60, sharing the Big Ten crown with Minnesota. He retired after that season to become Iowa’s athletic director.
He was succeeded as head coach by Jerry Burns, the same Jerry Burns who would succeed Bud Grant as the Minnesota Vikings head coach in 1986. Burns went 5-4 in ‘61. That would be the Hawkeyes’ last winning season until they went 8-4 in 1981 under Hayden Fry.
Bump Elliott, an assistant coach who succeeded Evy as athletic director in 1970, told the Register that “Evy was an outstanding coach. He had a knack for knowing when to do this and when to do that.
“He blew his whistle and said, ‘Get off the field!’ right in the middle of practice. The assistant coaches were dumfounded. But he had arranged with the managers to put pop on ice and have something for the players to eat. They all went in and had a good time. The next practice was great.”
In his nine years at Iowa, Evashevski went 52-27-4, won three Big Ten titles, two Rose Bowls, finished in the Top Ten five times, and coached 13 All-Americans, including Outland Trophy winners Calvin Jones and Alex Karras. His 1958 team was voted national champions by the Football Writers of America. Evy himself was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
Looks like Evy had it right. Maybe fun and football do mix.