This Saturday at 3:30, all of America (or at least the segment between Council Bluffs and Davenport) will celebrate the rivalry that defines a state and likely a few varieties of corn: the Iowa Hawkeyes-Iowa State Cyclones and the Cy-Hawk trophy. These schools have a deep history and a genuine animosity for each other. It’s a proper midwestern rivalry and one that should be celebrated.
However, we’re going to completely ignore them and focus instead on the best team that ever played college football in the state of Iowa: the 1943 Iowa Navy Pre-Flight squad, which finished the season #2 in the country, and their center, Angelo Guerriero.
The U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 changed everything. Millions of young men enlisted and shipped out to training bases every year. University attendance dwindled. Between 1942 and 1945, over one hundred colleges closed their doors. Football was equally affected, with several schools dropping their programs.
Military bases and training camps began playing competitive football in the place of these shuttered schools. The Big Ten might have 18 teams in 2024, but the armed forces had nearly 60 squads competing across the country under the banner of naval bases, army camps, and airfields. And these teams were serious competitors. By 1944, military bases represented ten of the top twenty teams in the AP poll.
As part of this training camp expansion, the University of Iowa provided space on the campus to establish one of the Navy’s four Pre-Flight schools, which would act as a training ground for future pilots and navigators. The Iowa Pre-Flight program eventually prepared over 21,000 airmen during the war. Like all military bases, Iowa Pre-Flight would also play football.
The Pre-Flight programs aimed to develop the soldiers’ physical fitness and train them for their respective roles.
“No man on the squad has varsity football as his primary interest or responsibility. Cadets and officers alike must first go through their rigorous daily routine before going out for the football drills.”
Football was a means to an end at Iowa Pre-Flight. The primary job was to develop the athletic, academic, and martial skills necessary to fight and win the war. Football was a tertiary goal.
However, the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks were also phenomenally talented. If the transfer portal and its use by University of Colorado-Boulder and Deion Sanders seems jarring today, imagine a system in which an upstart college team could suddenly add top-tier players from the NFL. The 1943 Iowa Pre-Flight had a Chicago Bears running back, a center from the Chicago Cardinals, an All-American quarterback from Marquette University, and several top players from other college programs. One hundred cadets showed up at the first practice, but many were already football heroes in their own right.
Don Faurot, the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks coach and former University of Missouri coach, benefited from an immensely talented roster. However, he also had to deal with his lineup constantly changing as cadets graduated from the Pre-Flight program. Less a football team and more a rotating all-star cast of characters, many Seahawks further down the initial roster would get a chance to play in some of the season’s biggest games.
One of these naval cadets was Angelo Guerriero. Guerriero was born in Detroit in 1921 to parents who had emigrated from Italy. In 1940, he worked as an electrician in the automobile industry and lived with his family in Dearborn. But when war broke out, like so many men and women of his era, Guerriero decided to do what he could to help the country. He enlisted with the Navy as a cadet, with dreams of flying.
Guerriero was initially stationed at Iowa Pre-Flight school, the first stop on his road to becoming a pilot. As part of his physical training, he decided to join the Seahawks at their first practice. Out of the massive 100-man squad, Coach Faurot immediately identified Guerriero as a player who “mildly impressed” the coach, high praise from the College Football Hall of Fame inductee.
The Seahawks’ schedule the preceding year had been one of the most challenging in the country, with tough losses against #1 Ohio State and #6 Notre Dame. The 1943 schedule was even more daunting, with several Big Ten teams and another match against perennial powerhouse Notre Dame.
The Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks, lacking a home field, opened up their season by beating Illinois in Champaign and the previous year’s national champion Ohio State in Columbus. Guerriero started at center in the back-to-back contests against Iowa and Iowa State, and the Seahawks rolled, 33-13 and 25-0. Guerriero wasn’t one of the team’s stars, but he snapped the ball to those stars on every down.
After four additional consecutive victories with Guerrero at center, the Seahawks were undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. Their rematch with #1 Notre Dame and a shot at the national title loomed. This was the second time in college football history to have a matchup between the country’s #1 and #2 teams, only a month after Notre Dame beat #2 Michigan in Ann Arbor. Guerriero was an aspiring pilot and a part-time football player, but he was about to be a key starter in the biggest game of the year.
The Seahawks and the heavily favored Irish put on a closely fought battle for the 50,000 fans in South Bend. Notre Dame, down 13-7 late in the fourth quarter, took the lead after the nation’s leading rusher punched into the end zone. Pre-Flight Iowa responded by driving down the field, but their offense was limited after the Seahawks’ former NFL star quarterback suffered a broken jaw mid-game. Even still, they had a chance to win, but a 13-yard field goal attempt doinked off the right upright. The Fighting Irish narrowly held on for the victory against a depleted Seahawks squad.
In the week before the match, a sizable portion of the roster had graduated Pre-Flight and did not travel to South Bend. That included Guerriero, who had been sent onward to another Naval base to begin flight school.
The Seahawks finished the season #2 in the country, although the Great Lakes Naval Training Station team beat Notre Dame a week later to end their undefeated streak. Guerriero was training at a naval air station, finally learning to fly.
The war raged on. New cadets arrived at Iowa Pre-Flight for training. Some would play football for the Seahawks, the #6 ranked team in the country by the end of 1944. Guerriero was thousands of miles away. He had deployed in March 1944 and would pilot PBY-5 Catalina scout planes for the rest of the war, soaring above the vast Pacific.
The war would eventually end. The service schools closed down, the need for ensigns and privates and airmen no longer as urgent as it had been in the years before. Americans returned to college campuses with no obligation for martial training. Life, and football, returned to normal.
Guerriero came home, eventually graduating from Michigan State College and teaching at a local high school. He later took the job as the president of a regional community college and led the school for decades. Guerriero served for 30 years in the Naval Reserve, ending his military career with the rank of Commander. He and his wife of 65 years had seven children, who in turn had 14 grandchildren. Guerriero was 85 when he passed. He was typical of an atypical generation. He did his duty, he came home, he served his community, he lived his life fully.
The Seahawks and Iowa City were a small part of his war, an even smaller part of his 85 years. However, for one season, the 1943 Seahawks and Guerriero were the best football team in Iowa and arguably the best team in the country. And when the NFL professionals and the college stars that headlined the Seahawks roster wanted the ball, they had to kindly ask center Angelo Guerriero first.