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Rob Houghtlin hunched over his kicking tee, hands on his knees, as though losing a bout with indigestion. His moment awaited. Michigan, ranked No. 2 by AP, led Houghtlin's Iowa Hawkeyes, AP's No. 1 team, 10-9. Two seconds loomed on the clock. Rain dripped off his helmet. And here he was, a junior walk-on placekicker whose sore leg had kept him out of practice for three weeks, standing 29 yards from never having to buy another beer in the state of Iowa.
Watching him, 66,350 people, the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in Iowa, took one last glug and forgot to swallow. Outside, tuned in on TV and radio, an entire state sucked in its stomach. The realization of what all this meant had slugged Houghtlin in his stomach, doubling him over, a position in which he stayed, without looking up, for nearly a full timeout. Not much to worry about, really. Well, maybe just a few things.
For one, there was Hayden Fry, Iowa's Texas-born, Texas-bred coach with the snakeskin cowboy boots, McCloud mustache and trademark sunglasses. For Fry, this kick could mean not only triumph over college football's only living brontosaurus, the indestructible Bo Schembechler of Michigan, but also certain status as the No. 1 miracle worker in the land. It would distance Fry even further from a messy fare-thee-well at SMU in 1972 ("I still don't know who fired me," he says) and the six years of penance that followed at North Texas State, where he went 40-23-3 in strict privacy. If this kick was good, Fry's Iowa would extend its record to 6-0 and put Bo one game back in the Big Ten race.
Then there was Iowa quarterback Chuck Long to think about. Forget Long's emotional stake in this; just consider his wallet. Long had given up a surefire million-dollar contract in the NFL this season for one last chance at a Rose Bowl. If Houghtlin missed, Pasadena could become as remote as Pago Pago and Houghtlin would go down as the guy who made a Long story short.
Then there was the state of Iowa itself, mired in the worst farm depression since the 1930s. Prices were down, the number of farm auctions was up, and the money raised by Farm Aid didn't cover one day's farm loan interest. "For a lot of people, this program is the only positive thing in their lives," Fry said.
All of them—Fry, Schembechler, Long, the players, the fans, the farmers—waited for Houghtlin's next twitch. Yet there was none. Houghtlin stood double-hunched. "I was praying," he would say later, "for strength and direction." Houghtlin may be a walk-on, but he's no fool. He knew that for this particular job, the one thing that would certainly come in handy was direction.
To get to this point, everybody involved had come a long way. Take Schembechler. After suffering his worst season (6-6) in 16 years at Michigan last fall, he entered 1985 unranked for the first time since, well, "since forever," he said. He considered that a most welcome change. For once, Big Bad Bo could play the underdog. Bo Against the World. "We knew we were better than 40 or whatever it was they had us," he said.
"It was kind of the rallying cry this year," said Wolverine defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein. "It was like we wanted to be ranked 40th." Unfortunately, Michigan couldn't hide. In beating Notre Dame, South Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State, the Wolverines had allowed exactly one touchdown—and only 4.2 points per game, lowest in the country. Up, up they went in the polls, carrying an unfamiliar Schembechler with them. He had unveiled a whole new, almost (dare we say it?) pleasant personality. "He used to always be on the razor's edge," says defensive coordinator Gary Moeller. "Now he's much more relaxed."
Schembechler would never admit that, but he does say that losing weight—"nothin' but chicken and fish," he growls, "my doctor suggested it"—and his cognizance of his health (he has had one heart attack and bypass surgery) has made him saner. How would you like to go out, Bo?
"Alive," says Schembechler.