Iowa and Nebraska football could have very well ended their respective seasons with 8-4 records. This didn’t happen, but despite somewhat equal resumes, each program is viewed in unbelievably different perspectives on opposite sides of the Missouri River.
One side is positive, underwhelmed, but not disappointed, and is critical of those who are critical of the program. The other side is unhappy, clamoring for jobs to be lost and embarrassed at what the program is slowly becoming. It’s not hard to decipher which is which, as the Hawkeye faithful seem content with a little above average results, while the Huskers are furious as their national relevance dwindles. But, which side has the correct mindset?
It’s not Iowa.
Following the Iowa loss to Wisconsin, Hawkeye fans were acceptant and satisfied with the effort put forth by their student-athletes. They played their tails off and nearly pulled off an incredible upset that could potentially put them into a position to reach the Big Ten Title Game. Had a two-point conversion been turned late, or Wisconsin not converted a few third-and-longs, they may have actually pulled it off.
But, they didn’t. They didn’t win, they didn’t get a shot at the Big Ten Title, and they didn’t make the Nebraska game worth anything to a national audience and judging by the pregame ticket prices ($70 face value tickets selling for $5), even local audiences. But, Hawkeye fans are still content.
“It could have been worse.” “At least it was a good game.” “I’m just happy we didn’t get blown out.”
These are the commonly heard quotes as we take what should be a shameful walk out of Kinnick Stadium.
Why is Iowa content with paying a coach a top ten salary to not even be ranked? Why is losing to a Wisconsin team that doesn’t have any superior recruiting, coaching, or financial advantage over Iowa considered a moral victory? And why are eight win seasons considered successful after sustaining greater success just a half decade ago? None of it should be.
There’s a simple phrase that puts this into perspective: “Expect better, be better.” Iowa isn’t expecting anything more than what is being put out on the field. There’s no pressure on the coaching staff to play the younger, more talented player over the experienced seniors, or change a scheme that isn’t working. Without pressure, there will be no improved product. Nobody with power has any reason to change anything.
Do you know what that does? It’s like eating the same meal every day. That food is going to taste stale. That’s what the Iowa program is right now: stale.
The crowd has groaned more than it has cheered in the last four seasons. Kinnick Stadium isn’t intimidating because it’s hard for a fan base to have a sense of identity when its team doesn’t. The play calling isn’t only predictable to opposing defensive coordinators, it’s predictable to intoxicated students in the crowd. Many can be heard throughout the game saying “Weismann off tackle to the left.” Correct. “Weismann middle.” Correct again. “Play-action pass to the tight end.” Three for three.
These fans, while not only lacking full brain function after tailgating, also don’t have access to game-film, haven’t looked at all of Iowa’s numbers and can’t give you a full scouting report on either team. But they still know what Iowa is going to call. Imagine a guy who is being paid to review every second of Iowa’s offensive schemes. There’s no way he doesn’t have a hunch at what play is going to be run every single time.
The stubbornness of the Iowa football program is astounding, and it’s going to lead to a collapse sooner rather than later. Why? Because Iowa is stuck in neutral and the competition is only going to get better.
Iowa’s best victory in 2014 was on the road in Illinois. Let that sink in for a moment. The 7-5 squad we witnessed this year was not better than the 4-8 squad seen two years ago, and most certainly was a step back from the 8-5 team last season.
So how does Iowa solve this? Do they blow up the entire program, dismiss Ferentz and cover the costs? It wouldn’t be as pricey as expected, but wouldn’t be the correct route, either.
Iowa’s longevity of coaches can be one of its strongest recruiting tools. There have been two (Fry, Ferentz) in the last 35 years. However, coordinators are in a different realm.
This offense isn’t working under Greg Davis. We grew tired of Ken O’Keefe, but his methods were more effective. Davis refuses to see faults in his plan and adjust, as shown by Weismann making outside runs in the last game of his third season. If it hadn’t worked before Nebraska of 2014, it wasn’t going to work then. Davis is only part of the issue, though, the rest lies in what one word could describe what Iowa football is. No, it’s not tough, intimidating, grueling, old-school, or hard-nosed like Iowa wants to be called.
Iowa needs to fix “boring.” If the fans are bored watching the action, can it be much more fun for the players? Or for the players we want to play here in the future?
Take a look at the preseason poster following Iowa’s Orange Bowl run: Marvin McNutt, Ricky Stanzi, Adrian Clayborn, Tyler Sash –those were good times with players fans could get behind. Iowa had a nationally recognized team with nationally notable players. And now? You can make a case for Scherff as a near-lock for a first-round pick, but not much beyond that, and how exciting is a left tackle?
We could fix boring by hiring an offensive coordinator who runs a spread offense and can put points on the board. But I’m having a hard time finding something more ludicrous and unexpected to happen. Iowa, and most of the Big Ten for that matter, is built to run the ball to set up the pass behind a strong offensive line – all held up by a stingy defense. Let’s not mess with the big picture. Let’s just tinker with the little things.
Recruiting, for one. Looking at the top 100 players coming out of high school, teams like Nebraska and even Illinois have at least offered them scholarships in hopes of landing the big fish. Iowa can’t be found. Our neighbors on either side have least a stake in these athletes – whether they get denied or not. There’s a chance. That’s more than Iowa has.
Iowa is the boy at the middle school homecoming dance, scared to ask any of the 15 girls standing around to dance with them – despite knowing at least one of them will consider it. You can’t dance with the girl you don’t ask, and you can’t catch a fish when you don’t cast out. How many more metaphors does it take? Top recruits get a fan base excited, and that’s what Iowa needs.
Iowa needs its fans to brag about their school and to have something positive to talk about. Recruiting is one option, but there’s plenty more.
How about once a year Iowa creates an alternate uniform using the stellar combination of black and gold we have at our disposal, along with Nike? That’s a start. Give the players something “fun” and “cool.” The Steelers-themed jerseys are neat, but let’s catch up with the rest of the country. Let’s get “hip.” Hip gets retweets on Twitter, not only in Iowa, but high schoolers in Texas, Florida, California, etc. “Look at Iowa’s jerseys, those are awesome!” That’s the makeover Iowa needs.
Next, the Hawkeyes need to coordinate its fans better. The card stunt is pretty cool when it works, but as mentioned in my previous article, it wasn’t successful this year. Timeliness of cheers isn’t successful either. Kinnick Stadium simply isn’t loud enough, packed enough or intimidating enough to make home games a real advantage for Iowa. Take a look at the atmosphere against Michigan in 2009. Wisconsin was electric, but not throughout the entire game, rather just the second half. One solution for this? Scheduling a marquee game against a prime opponent every year. Sorry, Northern Iowa.
If Iowa scheduled Oklahoma, Akron, Iowa State and Pittsburgh on a regular basis, not only would it spread recruiting to different parts of the country, it would make the Akron game squeezed between two interesting contests look much better than it really is. The game doesn’t have to be Oklahoma (although there is an obvious Stoops vs. Alma-mater tie). It should be a top-four team in a Big Five conference at the very least. Give the country, or at the very least give the state of Iowa, a reason to watch.
Having both Northern Iowa and Ball State on the schedule makes the team look weak come season’s end with such a terrible strength of schedule, as well as putting Iowa in an all-risk, no reward scenario. In an era where a victory of Ball State is so much less than guaranteed, wouldn’t you rather run that risk against a nationally-respected opponent? In 2016 Iowa plays North Dakota State – the FBS killer from the FCS. Two years away and I’m already taking the Bison.
Next up on the agenda: paint the water tower. Between the unenclosed corner of the end zone sits the giant, plain white water tower. Where’s the tiger hawk? The “Go Hawks?” Heck, where’s the black and gold color scheme at the very least? This may not seem like a big deal – but, it’s the little things that can change a program. They add up. Fans, players and recruits love wide-spread school spirit. Start there.
Now, we get to the actual on the field issues. Iowa doesn’t need to get a Bible-sized playbook – I’m just asking for a page two. Mix up the throws a little bit. Having an Alex Smith-style offense is all right, but hey, sometimes we like to see a dose of Brett Favre. Iowa has recruited speed receivers that can make plays – they just don’t have the capability to use them with a relatively weak arm in Jake Rudock. And here is where we transition to beating the dead horse that is the quarterback controversy that never really should have been.
Heading out of camp in 2013, it seemed as if the race for quarterback was neck and neck. That means one thing: Beathard and Rudock were really, really close. Close enough where Ferentz was uninterested in giving the nod to either until spring practice. Iowa fans are typically big Hayden Fry supporters, so this is where they should ask “What would Fry do?”
Play the younger guy. You should always, always, ALWAYS – I don’t know how to stress it anymore over text – play the younger guy if the talent is truly tied. Would you rather have a senior play one year or a freshman play four? Coaches are here to coach, and if that means hurting feelings, so be it. I’m not going to say Beathard is better than Rudock, I’m just saying if it really was that close, Rudock shouldn’t have ever started. Or Vandenberg in the last half of 2012 if we want to dive that far back. If another school had a Vandenberg-like quarterback running the show, they wouldn’t last four games, let alone a whole season. Especially a school like Nebraska.
I mentioned Nebraska to open up this article. Not only as our last loss, but as a reasonable piece to compare to in the “averageness” of a program. Nebraska and Iowa both currently consider themselves “average,” and they very much are as shown by this somewhat obscene, but still accurate article by Deadspin.
Many thought Bo Pelini saved his job after the comeback victory against Iowa, but as we learned Sunday that’s not the case. Nebraska was guaranteed at least nine wins every season as long as Pelini was head coach. To them that isn’t enough. They expect more – especially since the championships in the nineties that created a dynasty. Nebraska has been there, Iowa hasn’t, which causes some of the disparity in overall expectations for each respective program.
A disparity that really shouldn’t exist to the extent that it does.
Looking at the last decade since the beginning of the 2004 season, here are the two teams’ total records:
Team one: 93-49, 4-4 in bowl games, zero BCS appearances, zero conference championships.
Team two: 84-55, 4-4 in bowl games, 1-0 in BCS games, one split conference championship.
If you are a fan of either team, it isn’t difficult to tell which team is which. One is Nebraska, two is Iowa. Nebraska has a slim lead in the overall record, but Iowa has the major bowl victory and split conference championship to boast.
So, we’ve established that these two programs are relatively equal over the last decade. Why is it that Nebraska fans are so astoundingly bent over backwards about the state of the program, while Iowa sips on a cup of tea and shrugs its shoulders? Because Nebraska knows better.
Nebraska knows that if they want more, they will eventually get more. It backfired in the case of Bill Callahan, who replaced Frank Solich after a nine-win season. Pelini turned the program around quickly, but has hit the same wall Solich did. Nebraska is doing what it can to break the wall. Iowa is buying the wall dinner.
Nebraska is correct in its frustration of consistent nine-win seasons in some regards. Their program is getting stale in the same way Iowa’s is – it just looks a little nicer.
Iowa is getting seven and eight win seasons with a four-five win and a 10-11 win season mixed in, losing to teams they shouldn’t and keeping games close they have no business being in. Nebraska is dismantling inferior opponents and being torn to shreds by the likes of Wisconsin and Ohio State with a loss to Minnesota or Northwestern sprinkled in. Every. Single. Year. Nebraskans can say the same thing Iowans do: “It gets old.”
And it really has gotten old for both squads. They both found coaches who took them to a “good, but not great” situation. Ferentz took a distraught program and turned it into a conference contender, back into an average squad, a conference contender again, and now to its lowest point since the beginning of this millennium. Does this roller coaster go back up or is it coming to a stop?
Pelini boarded the ride, took it up from rubble, and is now riding in a straight line. Riders were continuously waiting for the promised thrill, but the ride never delivered. How long could they cling to the promise before boarding another? That question was answered Sunday. One simple reason they continued down this path is while they annually fell on their face in big opportunities, they continually had the chances to begin with. Would you rather have your heart ripped out or to never have a heart at all?
Let’s be honest. Which program is closer to a conference title and a playoff berth? If you say Iowa, you’re lying to yourself. Nebraska is the one with its hearts ripped out every season because they always have a chance. Iowa doesn’t because it’s consistently middle-of-the-road. Give Iowa its in-state-rival Iowa State’s schedule, and they’re not making a bowl game. Give Nebraska that same schedule? Throw your money down on 9-3 with losses to Baylor, TCU and Kansas State.
Compare athletic directors and decide what direction each team is heading. Gary Barta, you’re up:
“It was a week ago we were in contention for the Big Ten championship…[on bowl games] I think San Francisco would be terrific. I think San Diego would be terrific. Going out West, we haven’t gone out West for a bowl for a while, I think that has a lot of merit. If it did end up being Nashville, it is drivable for our fans. We’ll see.”
Being in the conference championship race at one point is on his list of positives. Iowa didn’t affect the conference championship any more than Indiana, Illinois or Rutgers did. The Hawkeyes beat nobody in contention. Going out West for a mediocre December bowl has no long-term merit. Outside of the players – who is going to remember it? The Orange Bowl year sticks out for a reason – the Hawkeyes won a game that mattered.
How does Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst summarize his program? Here is a brief summary of his full statement about the firing of Pelini:
“As I just said, there are standards and expectations at Nebraska that are high both on and off the field. And although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most. I think we gave Coach ample time, ample resources and ample support to get that done. Now we are headed in a different direction…We want to do things the right way. At the end of the day, our coaches understand that pursuing championships is what we do, and being competitive in those games that matter is important.”
Where are these expectations? Why is Iowa setting the bar so low, but a team with so many similarities including location, conference, and recent prestige looking so much higher? What will it take for the fan base to be as loud as those west of the Missouri River about their displeasure with where the program is at after 16 years of the same head coach? Iowa is settling for the same adventure on level one every season. Nebraska wants to go to new heights; to see what level two has available.
As this story goes, Iowa is 7-5, going to play a middle-of-the-pack SEC squad in the bowl game, lose by a few points, say “I can’t be mad, we really played them close,” and do it all again next year. Nebraska could head either direction – either hire a coach who can’t get the job done, fall to below average and hire another, or become a national contender after making a necessary change. Why am I more positive of the first scenario?
It’s written on page one of the playbook.