Classic Big Ten Football: Illinois at Iowa, 1952

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Classic Big Ten Football: Illinois at Iowa, 1952
Photo of John "Rocky" Ryan by University of Illinois athletic department, via Gazette.com

Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long, storied history. Today, we're going back almost 60 years, to a fight that derailed a Big Ten rivalry for over a decade.

Many, many thanks to the work of Scott Dochterman of the Gazette for his reporting on this game. His full report is here. It is as entertaining as it is thorough. All block quotes below are from this report.

In terms of on-field importance, a 33-13 win by 4-5 Illinois over 2-7 Iowa is never going to register. That the game was over half a century ago doesn't do it any favors. But what happened on that field that day, both during and after the game, soured two football programs toward each other so completely that they refused to play each other for the next 15 years.

Also, there were the apples.

Illinois came to Iowa Stadium (since renamed Kinnick Stadium) on that fateful November afternoon nursing a 3-3 record while Iowa was 1-4, struggling mightily under first-year head coach Forest Evashevski. Iowa's lone win had come against top-ranked Ohio State two weeks earlier, but by and large the Hawkeyes were not very good.

Indeed, the game itself was hardly a paragon of competitiveness. Illinois took a 27-0 lead into the locker room at halftime and opened it up to 33-0 in the third quarter.

Bad blood was already coursing through the veins of everybody at the stadium at that point, though. Hits were coming late, penalty flags were flying at an extraordinary rate, and the fans—eager to see their Hawkeyes for the first time since the 8-0 upset of Ohio State—were in no mood to see an interstate rival come in and run up the score.

Halftime saw its own ugliness, as Iowa running back Phil Hayman, Illinois tackle Pete Palmer and Illinois center Paul Luhrsen were all ejected for fighting as the teams left the field.

That was only a harbinger of what was to come.

With Evashevski feeding the bad blood by antagonizing the referees—"I swear Evashevski must have stood on the field for most of the half complaining to the officials,” said Illinois student manager Jim Finn—the fans began reacting to what they perceived as poor refereeing by throwing bottles, cans, and fruit at the field.

Even the local press found humor in this reaction, including Gazette Sports Editor Gus Schrader.

“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.”

The game would end with Illinois securing a 33-13 win, but not before an Iowa offensive pass interference penalty, with five minutes remaining, so outraged Evashevski that he came out onto the field to berate the officials once again. The fans had seen enough.

As players, coaches and referees left the field, the fans became verbally abusive and continued throwing trash. One Iowa student even got onto the field and confronted end John "Rocky" Ryan, and what ensued was exactly what you would expect:

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.”

Ryan, who came into the game with the reputation of a fierce player, didn't enjoy reliving the incident. After Ryan passed away last November, News-Gazette reporter Loren Tate recounted that the last time he had talked to him, Ryan asked him "in no uncertain terms" not to bring up the punch. 

Illinois managed to get out of town without any further serious incidents, and Iowa was not sanctioned by the conference for the incident, but it was enough to frighten Iowa and Illinois into not renewing the series after the two teams were scheduled to cycle off the schedule in 1953 and 1954.

In fact, the "cooling-off period" ended up lasting 15 years before the series finally resumed in 1967.

Illinois would also win that game, 21-19. Presumably, there were no apples thrown that day.

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