By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Willie Fleming, now 79 years old, paused Friday afternoon as he studied the strength and conditioning room inside the University of Iowa’s Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center.
“We would have been national champions every year if we had this,” Fleming uttered to no one in particular. “We lifted ourselves.”
There was heavy lifting going on when Fleming was a 5-foot-9, 175-pound speedy sophomore running back for the Hawkeyes in 1958. Iowa finished 8-1-1 overall, 5-1 in the Big Ten Conference and after disposing of California, 38-12, in the Rose Bowl, earned the national championship Grantland Rice Trophy from the Football Writers Association of America.
Fleming, a native of Detroit, said the decision to attend Iowa was easy. He was initially recruited by Michigan native and Iowa assistant coach Jerry Burns and then by Michigan native and Iowa head coach Forest Evashevski.
“I didn’t give it much of a choice and Jerry Burns didn’t give it much of a choice,” Fleming said. “Evy said you have no choice, you have to come to Iowa, so we came to Iowa. It is the best choice I ever made, I have always loved it here.”
In an era of two-way players, Fleming rushed for 505 yards and nine touchdowns in 1958, caught six passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns, intercepted a pass, had a kick return average of 43 yards, and a punt return average of 27.6 yards.
His roommate was Bob Jeter, who set Rose Bowl records with 194 rushing yards and an 81-yard run. The two thrived on a friendly backfield rivalry.
“We were always talking about who is going to do this, who is going to do that, what are you going to do?” Fleming said. “I said ‘If you ever break a long one, I will never block for you again.’ He did and that stands out.”
The 1958 Hawkeyes won the Big Ten championship, thanks to a 20-9 victory over Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers were ranked No. 4 in the country at the time and led, 9-0, at halftime.
A key play was when Iowa City native Jeff Langston grabbed a fumble out of the air and scored Iowa’s first touchdown. It was a fairy tale season for Langston, who dislocated a hip in 1956, missed the 1957 Rose Bowl, and sat out the entire 1957 season.
“All I wanted to do was be a Hawkeye,” Langston said. “I was lucky in 1958 after being told I might never play again. All I wanted to do was to have another chance. I never thought I would get to go back to the Rose Bowl.”
One of the many strengths of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz is tipping his hat to history. There was plenty of hat-tipping and hand-shaking Friday with 18 members of the 1958 national championship team in attendance.
“You think of the tradition that was built here and when you guys played, it didn’t get any better than that,” Ferentz told the group. “We’re chasing what you guys were able to experience.”
The 1958 Hawkeyes roster included student-athletes from Iowa, California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Gene Mosley, a hard-driving fullback from East St. Louis, Illinois, had one carry for eight yards during the season. He remembers Iowa’s roster being loaded with quality depth, putting playing time at a premium.
“We were so close in talent that if you didn’t do your job, you were going to lose your job,” Mosley said. “That always kept pressure on the guys who were starting.”
Like most championship teams, the 1958 Hawkeyes were also close friends off the field. Mosley remembers a powerful event that occurred during the season when Iowa went 4-1 against teams ranked in the top 16 nationally.
Substitution rules were different 60 years ago, Mosley remembered. After one game, a journalist asked Evashevski a question about personnel.
“A newspaper reporter walked up to Evy and said, ‘You know you had 11 black guys on the field at the same time?” said Mosely. “Evy said, ‘No, I had 11 football players out there.'”