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Bernie Wyatt: ‘We always knew we were going to come back here’

[ 0 ] June 29, 2013 |
Bernie and Barb Wyatt at their Iowa City home on Thursday afternoon, June 13, 2013. Benjamin Roberts / Iowa City Press-Citizen

Bernie and Barb Wyatt at their Iowa City home on Thursday afternoon, June 13, 2013.
Benjamin Roberts / Iowa City Press-Citizen

The 1989 college football season had just ended when Barry Alvarez was hired to rebuild the struggling Wisconsin football program.

Bernie Wyatt became a major part of that rebuilding project but not without having to make a sacrifice.

Bernie and his wife, Barbara, had to leave Iowa City for it to happen. They had to leave a town that had been their home for most of the past three decades. Bernie also had to resign as an assistant coach for the Iowa football team, a position he had held at his alma mater since 1974.

“I hated to leave Iowa City, of course,” Barbara Wyatt said. “But I knew for Bernie that it was something that he wanted to do.”

Bernie and Barb both enjoyed living in Madison, Wis., and being part of the Badger culture. Wisconsin won three Big Ten titles with Bernie as a position coach and recruiting coordinator. Barb worked in the Wisconsin sports information office for several years.

But she and Bernie, 74, never changed their plan for retirement.

“We always knew we were going to come back here,” Bernie said of Iowa City, where he now lives on the far east side of town. “We really didn’t want to leave, but the situation that I was in kind of forced the deal.

“Plus, I knew Barry real well. So I knew what I was getting into. It wasn’t like strange country to me.”

Bernie Wyatt played football at Iowa from 1959-62 and coached at his alma mater for nearly two decades, first under Bob Commings and then Hayden Fry. Bernie also coached at Regina in the mid-1960s and his two sons graduated from City High.

Bernie wasn’t looking to leave Iowa City, but Alvarez’s offer was too good to pass up from a coaching standpoint. Alvarez also was Bernie’s close friend dating back to the eight seasons they spent coaching under Fry at Iowa from 1979-86.

Bernie said he made the switch to Wisconsin partly because of his age — he was older than 50 at the time — and because he figured Fry was close to retiring, although, Fry actually coached at Iowa through the 1998 season.

“I was smart enough to realize that Hayden was getting to the point where he was going to retire in a year or two,” Bernie said. “And at that time, I would have probably been 55 or around there. And there aren’t a whole of people that are going to hire a 55-year-old assistant coach. It was to continue my career until retirement if things went well. And things did go well up there.”

Bernie spent a decade coaching under Alvarez at Wisconsin and together they helped lift the program to unprecedented heights. Bernie was a former high school football star at Amityville High School in New York, and he used his connections on the East Coast to excel as a recruiter for Iowa and Wisconsin.

He recruited former star Hawkeyes such as defensive end Andre Tippett and fullback Norm Granger, both of whom were from New Jersey, and running back Ronnie Harmon out of New York City. Bernie also landed 1999 Heisman Trophy winner and New Jersey native Ron Dayne while at Wisconsin. Dayne has since retired from the NFL and now lives in Madison.

“The kids that Bernie recruited were a lot of inner-city kids,” Barb said. “And I think they felt it was comfortable here and at (Wisconsin) for them. People were very welcoming, and of course, being a football player helped.”

“Bernie always used to tell them to stay out of trouble and be good to people and they’ll be good to you.”

The timing was right for Bernie to make a career move in 1990 because his two sons already had graduated from the University of Iowa.

“I didn’t like leaving Iowa City,” Barb said. “But at that point in time, our kids were out of high school and out of college. So it was just Bernie and I and the move was easy. It wasn’t about relocating where you’ve got kids in school and all that kind of stuff.”

Bernie’s connection to Iowa City and to the University of Iowa almost didn’t happen.

While a star football player at Amityville High School in New York, he made a verbal commitment to play football at Notre Dame, but that didn’t stop Iowa assistant coach Whitey Piro from recruiting him. Bernie was considered an elite recruit and capped his high school career by breaking the Long Island scoring record, which had been held previously by the great Jim Brown. Coaches were allowed to recruit year-round in those days and Piro’s persistence paid dividends because Bernie eventually agreed to visit the Iowa campus.

It helped that Piro also was a native New Yorker because Bernie felt comfortable knowing they had a connection.

“Finally, really just to get him off my back, I said I’m going to visit, but I’m still going to Notre Dame,” Wyatt said. “And he said, ‘Fine, we just would like you to visit.’”

“Whitey was originally from New York, too, so he knew all the pluses.”

To say that Bernie enjoyed his visit to Iowa City would be an understatement. He changed his mind about attending Notre Dame and went on to become a key contributor for the Hawkeyes as a halfback and defensive back under Forest Evashevski and Jerry Burns. Bernie was named the most valuable player for Iowa’s 1960 team that finished 8-1 in Evashevski’s final season as head coach.

Bernie’s father wasn’t pleased that his son picked Iowa over Notre Dame, while Barb, who was Bernie’s girlfriend at the time, didn’t see the change coming.

“It was a surprise to me, but I knew when he came out here that he just fell in love with it,” Barb said. “He came out here and that was it.”

Barb also moved to Iowa City from her home on Long Island shortly after Bernie started college. They were married when Bernie was a sophomore at Iowa.

Bernie got his starting in coaching at the high school level, first at Regina for four seasons followed by a seven-year run at Lindenhurst High School in New York, where his teams compiled a 37-8-1 record. He returned to the University of Iowa as an assistant coach after Commings was hired in 1974.

Bernie was one of two assistant coaches retained by Fry when Fry took over for Commings shortly after the 1978 season. Iowa City native Dan McCarney was the other. Bernie helped Iowa win Big Ten titles in 1981 and 1985 and he recruited many of the star players on Iowa’s 1990 Big Ten champion team.

Bernie now frequently visits the Iowa Football Complex. He and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz are friends dating back to when Ferentz was an assistant coach at Iowa from 1981-89.

“Kirk is a fine person, and I wouldn’t say that about a lot of guys,” Bernie said.

As for Iowa City, Bernie said it has so much to offer for a town its size. It also helped that Barb felt the same way about living in Iowa City.

“That’s very important, make your wife happy,” Bernie said.

“The size of the city is appealing to us. It’s not too big. And it’s not too small. It has pretty much everything that we like. And naturally, the people are a lot different than they are in New York. Not that New York people are bad. They’re just a lot friendlier here.”

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

More in this series: Luke Recker | Vernon Rollins | Tom Davis | Joe Mott | Frank Verducci | A note from Pat Harty

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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