John Lujack admits he doesn’t recall any specific plays or moments from the games he played for Notre Dame against the University of Iowa.
After all, he is 93 years old.
“If I remembered something from that far back, it would be a miracle,” he joked.
What Lujack does remember is that they frequently were very emotional, highly competitive games.
Chances are, many modern-day fans don’t even realize that Iowa and Notre Dame once had a thriving rivalry, which came to an end 50 years ago this week.
Iowa didn’t play Iowa State during that era. In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s the Hawkeyes’ big annual non-conference rival was Notre Dame.
“The Notre Dame-Iowa series has become one of the best in the country,” longtime Davenport Democrat sports editor John O’Donnell wrote following the 1956 game between the two teams.
The Hawkeyes and Fighting Irish played each other 24 times, with 23 of those meetings taking place between 1939 and 1968. From 1949 through 1964, it was the last game on the regular-season schedule every year.
The rivalry was an especially big deal in the Quad-Cities because of a devout Notre Dame following here and the area’s strong connections to the university.
Davenport native Elmer Layden had been part of Notre Dame’s legendary Four Horsemen backfield in the 1920s and was the head coach of the Fighting Irish in the 1930s. About a dozen Quad-Citians earned varsity football letters at Notre Dame during the era in which the rivalry flourished.
And then, of course, there was Lujack, who won the Heisman Trophy while playing for Notre Dame in 1947. He came to live in the Quad-Cities a few years later, opening a car dealership with his father-in-law, Frank Schierbrock. He has lived here ever since.
The Notre Dame team always stayed in the Quad-Cities on the Friday night before games at Iowa, and that usually was accompanied by a large gathering of local fans and alumni on the eve of the game. Prior to their final meeting in 1968, a crowd of 300 — including Lujack and Layden — packed a room at the Blackhawk Hotel.
In the 1950s, a special train was arranged to convey local fans from Rock Island to Iowa City on the day of the Notre Dame-Iowa game. In some years, more than 2,000 fans squeezed into 20 rail cars to make the trip.
The Hawkeyes and Fighting Irish first played in 1921, with Iowa claiming a 10-7 victory. It ended a 20-game winning streak by Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame team and was the only loss the Irish suffered over a three-year period.
Notre Dame’s starting right end and captain that day was Eddie Anderson, who earned a medical degree but decided instead to take up coaching. In 1939, he was hired as the head coach at Iowa, and one of the first things he did was schedule an annual game against his alma mater, then coached by Layden.
Layden came to regret it. In both 1939 and 1940, Notre Dame began the season 6-0 before losing very close contests to Iowa in the seventh game.
The 1939 game became one of the most memorable episodes in one of the most memorable seasons in Iowa history. Notre Dame dominated most of the way but was unable to score, largely because Iowa’s Nile Kinnick punted 16 times for a 46-yard average and continually put the Fighting Irish in adverse field position.
Notre Dame finally fumbled the ball away at its own 4-yard line, and Kinnick ran it in from there, drop-kicking the extra point to make it 7-0. Notre Dame drove down the field to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter but missed the conversion. Kinnick rolled one last punt out of bounds at the 5-yard line to help preserve a 7-6 win.
Eight Iowa players, including Kinnick, played all 60 minutes for a team that came to be known as the “Ironmen.” And Kinnick, of course, went on to win the Heisman Trophy.
The Hawkeyes won again the next year by a 7-0 score, this time in South Bend, again spoiling Notre Dame’s undefeated season.
The two schools did not play each other during World War II but then began an annual series in 1945. Notre Dame won the next five meetings — it was ranked No. 1 or 2 in the country at the time of each of those games — including a 21-0 victory in 1947 in which Lujack played a starring role.
“If I had known I eventually was going to come to live here for so many years, I would have gone easy on them,” he said.
The Irish actually did not lose to the Hawkeyes again until 1956 although there was a bizarre stretch in which the two teams tied three times in four years. There was no overtime back then so their games finished 14-14 in 1950, 20-20 in 1951 and 14-14 in 1953.
Notre Dame drove 80 yards for the tying touchdown in the final minutes of a 1950 game that the Hawkeyes clearly viewed as a moral victory. They had the ball at the end of the contest but made no attempt to do anything with it.
“The decision to waste away the final 20 seconds in the huddle was an indication that Iowa was satisfied with a tie, which is a hard thing for observers to digest,” O’Donnell wrote in the Democrat.
The Fighting Irish had to overcome a 20-6 fourth-quarter deficit to get the tie in 1951.
The 1953 deadlock between the two teams created controversy.
Notre Dame scored its first touchdown with no time left on the clock in the first half, then forged the 14-14 tie by scoring again with six seconds remaining in the game. On both drives, Notre Dame players faked injuries in order to stop the clock and keep the drive going.
Sportswriter Grantland Rice, who had given the Four Horsemen their nickname 30 years earlier, spoke at a New York Football Writers luncheon a few days after that 1953 game and labelled the Fighting Irish tactics “a complete violation of the spirit and ethics of football.”
Notre Dame pulled out another miracle in 1955 when Paul Hornung led a fourth-quarter comeback to produce a 17-14 win.
With Forest Evashevski in charge, Iowa began to emerge as a national power, and it turned the rivalry back in its favor by defeating the Irish five times in a span of six years, starting with a 48-8 rout of Hornung and the Irish in 1956. Iowa fans had torn down the goalposts the week before to celebrate a Rose Bowl-clinching victory over Ohio State, and they did it again when the Hawkeyes trounced the Irish.
The only Notre Dame victory in that six-year stretch was a 20-19 win in Iowa City in 1959 in which little-used quarterback George Izo passed for 295 yards for the Fighting Irish. O’Donnell referred to it as “one of the major upsets of the year.”
Among those in attendance at that game was Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, who was considering a run for the presidency in 1960. He was the guest of Iowa Gov. Herschel Loveless, who was being sized up as a possible vice president.
Iowa claimed a 28-0 victory the following year in Evashevski’s final game as head coach — Jerry Burns was named as his successor that day — and it rolled to a 42-21 win over the Irish in 1961. The delighted Hawkeyes scooped up Burns and carried him off the field on their shoulders.
They never defeated Notre Dame again. The Irish won in 1962, and the 1963 game was cancelled when Kennedy was assassinated the previous day.
The last three meetings all were Notre Dame blowouts. Quarterback Terry Hanratty led the fifth-ranked Irish to a final 51-28 victory on Oct. 5, 1968.
O’Donnell lamented the end of the series and seemed to know that it wasn’t ever coming back.
“They sang Auld Lang Syne Saturday afternoon when the Iowa and Notre Dame squads walked off the field,” he wrote. “The brilliant series, dating back to 1921, had ended.”