A New Year’s letter to disgruntled Hawkeye football fans:
Yeah there was some eye-opening talent and innovation on display on New Year’s Day to envy — misdirection and speed all over the place, some real physical specimens. I was impressed, and envious too.
On an Iowa football message board thread, the comparisons of what was on display on New Year’s Day to Iowa turned into a spiraling sarcastic sob-fest about how little talent Iowa has, how dated we are, how horrible we are, etc. After a while, you would think our program is one of the worst in the country. Let’s not overstate the case here.
Sure, I have some issues with Kirk Ferentz too — too conservative with play-calling, not enough innovation, poor clock management, giving up onside kicks, taking the foot off the gas with a lead. I’m not a big fan of our new offensive coordinator’s 3-yard outs and “interpretive” passing routes, causing our quarterback and receivers to not be on the same page.
Lots of fans have issues with their coaches once they get to know their idiosyncrasies, their style and weaknesses over the years. Former Iowa basketball coach Tom Davis substituted to the point of diminishing returns, never called off the press when it was getting beat, didn’t guard the 3, etc. Any coach who has any ebbs and flows in their success is going to have fans with issues. Look at another team’s message boards, sit in their crowd section, you’ll witness their dirty laundry.
Some Iowa fans wanted to fire Hayden Fry during a dip in wins in the early ’90s. Some Nebraska fans wanted to fire Tom Osborne during a dip in the late ’80s. Both are now in the College Football Hall-of-Fame. Michigan State fans used to clamor to fire Nick Saban, the media darling of coaches today. Some Indiana fans grew tired of Bobby Knight, saying, “We can’t recruit today’s kids anymore with this guy’s bullying.” Skip ahead to this past Black Monday as the NFL regular season ended with a flurry of firings. Coaches axed included Andy Reid, the winningest coach in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago’s Lovie Smith after a 10-6 season. How would you like that job scrutiny? It’s the nature of today’s 24-7 media and fickle fan bases.
But just to provide a little push-back, a glimmer of optimism to disgruntled Hawkeye fans because at least someone has to take the other side, to play the devil’s advocate with the pessimists, the “realists” and the anti-Ferentz crowd, I’ll respond to these talking points concerning the comparisons of Iowa to what we saw on New Year’s Day (“We don’t have any talent, we’re too dated, can’t compete with the innovation of these teams.”):
Iowa had a bad season, and it was bad, but we’re not sisters of the poor here. A little over a year ago, Oklahoma had just 89 yards in the first half against Iowa in the Insight Bowl and 275 yards total in the game, both Bob Stoops’ career lows I’m sure, as Oklahoma didn’t put the game away until a field goal with just over four minutes left in the game. In very recent bowls, Iowa also beat a No. 12 Missouri team with a top-10 defense and spectacular quarterback, great skill players; stymied an (11-2, 7-1) ACC-champ Georgia Tech team in the Orange Bowl that had punted just seven times in its final five games (they punted six times in the first half against Iowa); and destroyed a Steve Spurrier-coached South Carolina. Just a year and a couple months ago in 2011, Iowa beat an eventual top-10, 11-2, Sugar Bowl winning Michigan team 24-18, holding them to 323 total yards (a season low) — and had them down 24-9 at one point, driving to make it 31-9, when a ref screwed up the drive with a whistle on a quarterback sneak. And that wasn’t one of our better Iowa teams.
Until last year, Iowa hadn’t lost a game by more than seven points since 2007 (longest streak in the nation by an FBS team). Iowa’s had the third-most NFL draft picks the last three years in the nation, and the fifth-most NFL draft picks the last five years, ahead of Alabama. So, some NFL scouts must think Iowa has a little bit of talent. One Sunday just a month ago, four former Iowa tight ends caught touchdown passes on the same day in the NFL, and in 2008, Iowa had the best running back in college football, the Doak Walker Award winner. If Shonn Greene returns for his senior season, we don’t lose in 2009 in that 11-2 season where we finished seventh in the nation, our fourth top-eight national finish in an eight-year span (only a handful of teams could claim that). We lost all five games late in the fourth quarter in 2010, the difference between 8-5 and 13-0, and two ultra-close games in 2011 after massive NFL losses, especially on the D-line, three upper-round picks, and that was the difference between 9-4 and 7-6 — in a rebuilding year.
In the previous 11 seasons to this year, Iowa averaged 8.36 wins and nine (8.88) wins nine of those years. Iowa won two Big Ten titles and was two plays away from a Big Ten title in 2005 (close, controversial losses to Michigan and Northwestern with our best playmaker, Ed Hinkel, injured on the bench) and one play away from a Big Ten title in 2009.
This year, it was Ferentz’s youngest team on record, four major injuries on offense, four losses by three or less, and six winnable games. I list the previous evidence as a reminder to all the disgruntled fans who say the program is in tatters.
A lot of football programs around the country would love to have Iowa’s history the last 30-plus years, going back to the 1981 Big Ten title and ’82 Rose Bowl.
That’s when Hayden Fry made a statement that Iowa’s football program was back after 20 seasons without a winning record and the emergence of the most successful and well-documented coaching tree of the modern era had begun (producing future Division I college coaches Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, Brett Bielema, Dan McCarney and Bo Pelini, just to name a few).
But I agree — some eye-opening talent and innovation were on display out there New Year’s — we need more of both. There was also eye-opening talent opposing us when we were winning Orange, Capital One, Outback and Insight Bowls. We’ll cycle back up. No team goes years and years without some ebbs and flows. It’s irrational to think Iowa wouldn’t have some ebbs and flows.
And as far as style — four teams in the spotlight — No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Notre Dame playing for the national title, and Stanford and Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, all play “old-man” football as some now call it, or more accurately “grown-man” football — pro-style, power football. It’s the same style we play. Sure, we could be more innovative in that system, use more misdirection, I agree.
As far as Iowa playing in too many close games, keep in mind No. 1 Notre Dame won five games by seven points or less (Iowa’s NOT the only team that plays close games). By the way, Florida, No. 3 in most of the polls ending the regular season, nearly lost to Bowling Green and Louisiana Lafayette this year — took a miracle to win the latter (Iowa’s NOT the only team that’s ever played down to its competition, nearly lose, or lose to a no-name, beneath-us team). So, don’t jump off the bridge like all is lost. Some of these teams are not as head-and-shoulders ahead of everyone else like we tend to make them in our heads sometimes. Florida was ripped by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl last night.
It’s NOT as black and white as people like to say. There’s a lot of gray. These top-name teams have ebbs and flows too: Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, heck the SEC East for a couple years, USC, Michigan for three years, Notre Dame on and off since 1981 (excluding the Holtz years), Nebraska for a good stretch of the 2000s with Callahan there, Oklahoma in the 1990s, the Big 12 North there for a while, Miami, Penn State, Georgia was down for a while a couple of years ago (they wanted a coaching change), Washington’s been down, UCLA is usually down, Florida State’s had mediocre years in the 2000s, etc. Lot of coaches in hot seats and then they come out of it, sometimes. We tend to think as fans, our problems are unique and that we’re the only ones to ever be disappointed or frustrated.
Iowa was 4-7 in 1980, went to the Rose Bowl the next year; 5-6 in 1989, went to the Rose Bowl the next year; 3-9 and 7-5 in 2000, 2001 before going 31-7 in 2002-2004 with three-straight top-eight national finishes; 6-6 in 2007 before 9-4 (20th in nation) in 2008 and 11-2 (seventh in nation) in 2009. How did that happen? Returned a bunch of players after taking their lumps. And yes, we lost all five last-second games in 2010 and two in 2011.
Happy New Year — hopefully a better year ahead. We’ll cycle back up.
Matt Brindley is a nighttime editor at the Courier.