There was a time when games against the likes of Central Michigan were unheard of in Iowa football.
In 1979, Hayden Fry’s first season as Iowa’s coach, the Hawkeyes’ nonconference foes were Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa State of the Big Eight.
This year, it’s Northern Illinois, Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Central Michigan. Two Mid-American Conference teams. One FCS squad. One schedule that’s typical in Big Ten football.
We’ve come to accept games like Saturday’s with Central Michigan (3-9 in 2010 and 2011, a 41-7 loser to Michigan State two weeks ago) as the norm. The Big Ten has 12 games against MAC teams this season, and eight games against FCS clubs.
Eleven other games are against teams that either aren’t from BCS conferences, or aren’t named Boise State or Notre Dame.
Mike Lopos played defensive tackle for the 1974 Hawkeyes. Here’s the nonconference schedule his team faced: UCLA and Penn State at home, USC in Los Angeles.
Iowa beat UCLA, 21-10. The Bruins went on to go 6-3-2. The Hawkeyes lost 27-0 to Penn State (10-2) and 41-3 at USC (10-1-1).
“It was incredible,” said Lopos, who has moved back to Iowa City from Connecticut to get his graduate certificate in multicultural education.
“As a young man, you never realized what you were doing. But as you get older, you realize you played against coaches like John McKay, Woody Hayes, Dick Vermeil, Bo Schembechler. You played against Archie Griffin, Ricky Bell. I played against Marvin Powell at USC.”
Powell was an offensive tackle who is in the College Football Hall of Fame and had a long NFL career.
“Every week you were going against an All-American at offensive tackle or tight end,” Lopos said. “Every week, for crying out loud.”
According to one such ranking, Iowa had the nation’s toughest schedule in 1974. It played four of the top seven teams in the final Associated Press rankings of that season.
However, Iowa’s schedule wasn’t an oddity. If you were in the Big Ten, you played serious nonconference opposition. In 1974, all but four of the league’s 30 nonconference games were against teams that are now in BCS conferences, or Notre Dame.
Illinois played three teams from the then-Pacific-8. Wisconsin played three teams from the Big Eight. Three Big Ten teams played national-power Nebraska.
“My take is this,” said Lopos, “you’ve got to play a champion every week to become a champion. When you do that, you get acclimated. If you play a softer schedule, softer opposition, then you get into conference play and get whacked.”
Unless everybody’s doing it. Which they are. Some other teams entering Big Ten stadiums today include UTEP, UAB, Idaho State, Eastern Michigan and South Dakota.
Iowa’s 1974 schedule didn’t mold it into a champion. In the midst of what would be 19 straight non-winning seasons, the Hawkeyes went 3-8.
Said Lopos: “People say ‘Geez, you were only 3-8,’ But as a football player, you don’t look at it that way. I was 11-0. It all came down to one-on-one street fights up front. That’s the Division I mindset. You either have it or you don’t.
“I was a 5-foot-9, 220-pound defensive tackle. “Even back then that small. But I was strong and had leverage. I was never pancaked, never knocked back on my heels.”
Lopos was a senior transfer from Weber State who walked on at Iowa and played his way into the starting lineup and a scholarship. He played for the first of Bob Commings’ five Iowa teams.
Commings yielded to Hayden Fry, and two decades of losing ended not long afterward.
“God bless Coach Commings’ spirit,” Lopos said. “He planted a seed of toughness, and I think that’s what started it all at Iowa. Then Coach Fry came in, and history’s history.”
In the 21st Century, many BCS conference teams have had winning records because of their scheduling. Take away their games against Eastern Illinois, Ball State, Tennessee Tech and Louisiana Monroe the previous two years (Iowa won by a total score of 161-31) and the Hawkeyes were 5-5 in both regular-seasons.
But the big guys play not-as-big guys so they can have seven home games. And, quite often, bowl-eligibility.
“I talked to Kirk Ferentz in Starbucks in Iowa City,” Lopos said. “He said ‘You didn’t schedule very well in ‘74.’ I said, ‘No, Coach, you’re wrong. That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to play champions.’ ”
No, they don’t. And won’t.