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January 04, 2010

Bowl memories

The scene outside my window looks nothing like the photos in the paper this morning. You know, the ones of those University of Iowa students frolicking in the ocean as they await the Hawkeyes' game in the Orange Bowl.

I see snow on the trees, snow on the roof, snow on the ground, snow everywhere. Icicles, a couple of them at least four feet long, used to hang from the eaves, but I knocked those down. The snow, I can't do anything about. Maybe we'll see the grass again in April.

Anyway, snapshots and newspaper stories from a bowl game would have made me envious many years ago. And what football fan hasn't felt that way? Think about when the Rose Bowl comes on television. You're sitting at home on a cold New Year's Day and there's the sold-out stadium on your TV screen, the sky a perfect blue, the San Gabriel Mountains rising in the background and the field as green as any pasture in Ireland.

But I went to enough bowl games when I was working that I'm perfectly happy to watch them on television now, though that first view of the Rose Bowl on TV still is, and probably always will be, the most dazzling scene in all of football. Some of those bowl games were memorable, others not so much.

When Iowa went to the Rose Bowl after the 1981 season, ending its 23-year bowl drought, my masters at The AP decided to do it up big. So whatever the team did out there, I was to tag along. You should never complain when you're traveling on someone else's dime, but I felt I was in Southern California long enough that I could have registered to vote.

I followed the Hawkeyes to Disneyland and Universal Studios. I went to every practice. Before eating with the team at Lawry's restaurant one night, Ron Maly, who was covering for The Des Moines Register, and I wrote our stories in the restaurant's kitchen. Not that there was any hardship involved. We ended the night eating prime rib. 

For two solid weeks, I wrote two or three stories a day. Believe me, I was running out of things to write, so the game itself was a welcome diversion. Well, sort of. I had to figure out what to write after the Hawkeyes fell flat on their collective faces and lost to Washington 28-0. And this was after Pam and I pulled ourselves out of bed at 4 a.m. so we could get to our seats for the parade. At least they were good seats. And the right price, too -- free.

Two years later, I was looking out on maybe the bleakest scene ever. It was one of those dark hours before dawn, the wind howled, snow blew everywhere and it was about 25 below. This was the day I left for Jacksonville to cover the Hawkeyes in the Gator Bowl. Which turned out to be the coldest Gator Bowl in history.

It was so cold the pipes in the stadium froze. No one brought enough clothes. One day, several of us ventured out to Jacksonville Beach for a media luncheon to get some stuff on Florida, Iowa's opponent. Gray clouds hung low over the beach, which was pounded by evil-looking waves. No one was tempted to take a dip. I sat next to Florida coach Charley Pell, a charming fellow who later was busted for some NCAA rules violations. OK, it was 107, but after 50 or 60, who can keep track?

Neither team acted like it wanted to play the game and Florida won 14-6. The wind chill at kickoff: 13 below. I told you it was cold.

So, Pam and I go from there to Miami, where the weather was much more pleasant and we saw a classic -- Miami foiling Nebraska's gutsy two-point conversion attempt at the end to win 31-30 and deny the Cornhuskers the national championship. I wrote a Nebraska sidebar and received a nice compliment from the desk editor in New York. I thanked him and then told him I had a lot of practice writing about the loser. It was my fifth bowl game and the team I was covering lost four of them.

Iowa's appearance in the 1984 Freedom Bowl in Anaheim was memorable, and not just because Chuck Long threw those six touchdown passes to lead a rout of Texas. That was the trip that introduced us to Crackers, one of the finest bars ever.

The music was great (oldies, of course), the servers lively (every hour they stopped what they were doing to sing and dance) and at midnight, a huge American flag unfurled from the ceiling while Kate Smith's "God Bless America" blared from the speakers. I'm no super patriot, but it was pretty cool. I think we went every night. Much to my embarrassment, it was only later that I realized that Orange County, how do we say it now, trends conservative. My first clue should have been the local airfield's name -- John Wayne Airport. Duh.

We were back in Southern California the next year, watching Ronnie Harmon fumble four times -- and drop a touchdown pass -- in another Rose Bowl loss for the Hawkeyes. But those gaffs were all accidental, right?

Yeah.

The 1988 Peach Bowl became a lot more fun when we discovered Flamingo Joe's, a downtown Atlanta bar that played lots of old music. I think Mark Neuzil, then with the Cedar Rapids Gazette, won us free drinks by guessing the singer when the following intro was played: "Been forty days since I don't know when .. "  (Lee Michaels, "Do You Know What I Mean"). 

Naturally, we went every night -- but only after writing our stories

One of the Holiday Bowl trips produced some extra work over a rumor that Iowa coach Hayden Fry was being considered for the Southern Cal job. This was before the days of the internet, so we had to drive around to find the newspaper that reported this tidbit so we knew what we'd be asking about. Then several of us, including Marc Hansen of the Register and Bob Brown of the Fort Dodge Messenger, waited in the dark (it gets chilly at night in San Diego) for Iowa to finish practice so we could corral Hayden. He was polite and, as you might expect, he laughed the whole thing off.

A couple of days later, Bob and I approached Hayden after a luncheon the day before the game and Bob asked an innocuous question about the game. Hayden must have thought Bob said something about Southern Cal because he said, "Are you guys trying to piss me off?" Not sure what he heard, but it had nothing to do with Southern Cal. Still, Bob and I laughed about that for years.

Before the 1991 Rose Bowl, I wrote quite a bit about Iowa working hard on punt protection because the Hawkeyes had a couple blocked during the season. So the first time they punt? It was blocked, of course. I just looked at Ken Peters, the kind-hearted soul who heads the AP sports operation in LA, and shook my head.

Now the challenge is stopping Georgia Tech's run-happy triple-option. Some doubts about the Hawkeyes' ability to do that must be creeping in because Tech is now favored by five points, after the line opened at 2 1/2.

Norm Parker will have his defense ready, but it sure would help if the Iowa offense plays well. The Hawkeyes managed to get by with only their defense in the regular season finale against Minnesota. That won't cut it Tuesday night. Just look at what Navy and Air Force did in their bowl games. They run an offense similar to Tech's and made their opponents, Missouri and Houston, look silly. And Tech is doing it with better athletes.

No matter the outcome, I don't need to be there. I'll be perfectly content watching from the comfort of my sofa, regardless of what's going on outside.

Besides, I'll be in Florida in less than a month -- and I won't have to write a word.

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You might recall that Flamingo Joe's banned us from playing music trivia after the Lee Michaels' victory because we won too many times. Good memories, do you know what I mean?

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