Monday, October 16, 2006

The Moment of Truth

There has been a lot of "The Sky is Falling" after the Iowa loss to Indiana this weekend, and, to a certain extent, rightfully so. The Hawks went from the top 15 to outside the top 25 in a span of 2 weeks, and with Michigan on tap there's little room left for optimism. Needless to say, the city is on fire.

A little overdramatic? No?

Iowa football has reached a very interesting point in its history, though, and the Hawkeye faithful must now make a choice. The result of that choice is going to dictate exactly what happens from here.

You see, we have been spoiled. Iowa's 2002 team came from (literally) nowhere to run the table in the Big 10 and get a BCS spot. The 2003 team was impressive and entertaining, garnering an Outback Bowl spot and smacking the mighty Florida Gators in their own backyard. 2004 was equally remarkable, finishing in a third-straight Top 10 finish and The Greatest Play In The History Of Iowa Football.

That's why last year's team was so disappointing, and the impending implosion of this team feels eerily similar to all of us die-hard Hawks. This simply isn't the way things are supposed to be now. Iowa has made The Leap and should obviously be included with the rest of the Big 10 elite. In fact, that point is so obvious that we can't believe when the season goes awry.

But history proves otherwise for the Hawks. The current generation of students and recent alumni probably don't remember it (I know I wouldn't if I didn't have their biggest game on DVD), but Iowa had a period like this once before. In 1985, Hayden Fry had the Hawks at #1 in the country. Think about that for a second. Iowa was once the best team in the nation. They beat #2 Michigan at Kinnick to solidify that spot, but a road loss to Ohio State and subsequent loss in the Rose Bowl ended all hopes of a championship. The next two years, Iowa went a combined 19-6 and played in two consecutive Holiday Bowls, winning both.

The next season, Iowa was 6-4-3 (including a loss to Indiana). The year after that, they were 5-6. Sound familiar?

The point is this: Present-day Iowa fans (including yours truly) have entered every season looking for a minimum of 9 wins and a New Year's bowl, with the outside chance of a run through the Big 10 and VERY outside chance at a national championship. In essence, we firmly believe we should be included in the upper eschelon of the Big 10 with Michigan and Ohio State. There are two very big questions surrounding such expectations, however. First, do we really want a program like that? Second, even assuming we do, can it be done?

Question 1: Do We Want It?
There are definite consequences to building a program that is positioned to win a national championship. First and foremost, putting together a team and program that can hang with the big boys requires, in many ways, selling the soul of Iowa football. A common thread tying together Iowa fans is not only love of winning football, but of "winning the right way." This is not to say that Iowa runs a squeaky clean program. The administration and coaching staff has looked the other way when improper things have happened or swept those things under a very big rug. But the relatively minor transgressions of the Iowa football team (Benny Sapp notwithstanding) pale in comparison to the problems confronting the perennial contenders. Just look at a short list of problems on these teams:
  • The Reggie Bush agent kickbacks
  • Maurice Clarett's booster kickback/stolen radio/cell phone/hatchet/Grey Goose issues
  • Probation at Alabama for booster actions reaching back into the early 90's
  • Lawrence Phillips
  • Christian Peter
  • At least 10 other Huskers in the mid-90's
  • Peter Warrick's free trips to Dillard's (not to be confused with Tyler Smith and Mike Henderson's free trips to Dillard's)
  • The 80's...and 90's...and 00's Miami squads, so bad that the Miami/ND game was widely known as "Catholics vs. Convicts"
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Just think of what would happen if the Miami-FIU fight would have broken out in Bloomington this week, or if Drew Tate took a suitcase full of I-Club cash. I would be outraged, and I certainly wouldn't be the only one. I'm not saying that every top-notch program is corrupt (say what you will about Lloyd Carr, but Michigan has been realtively scandal-free), but the track record speaks for itself. If you want to win big and win consistently, you may have to take a shady character or two and look the other way as they act improperly. I don't think Iowa fans are willing to do that.

Question 2: Can We Do It?
Even if we were willing to cede the high ground, I don't think it's possible to build a sustainable top-notch program at Iowa. It's not really possible to put together a definitive list of the top 10 programs of the last 25 years, but any list would almost certainly include the following schools:
  • Miami
  • Florida State
  • USC
  • Nebraska
  • Oklahoma
  • Penn State
Those are the only six teams that have won multiple national championships since 1980. You have to include Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, and Notre Dame in the conversation, as well, even though each has only won one title since 1980. For the time being, let's include those teams. Now, consider the recruiting bases of those schools. Miami, Florida, and Florida State get to mine the state of Florida, which has almost certainly become the most talent-rich state in the nation. USC gets California. PSU, OSU, and Michigan all have multiple urban areas and ties to the east coast states. Tennessee is a prime choice throughout the south. Oklahoma routinely mines Texas for talent. And Notre Dame is Notre Dame. All of these schools have, or have built, tradition and prestige that draws recruits from other areas.

The wild card in that conversation is Nebraska, but you have to remember how the Huskers did it. Much like Iowa, there is no dearth of giant farmboys to put on the offensive line. Their offense was built on that resource. Also, don't discount the effect of Omaha, where NU found at least one great running back or option quarterback every year (Ahman Green, Brook Berringer, Eric Crouch to name a few). Much like ND and Boomer Sooner, tradition drew other players. Finally, the fact that Nebraska was the one and only great option team meant the best option quarterbacks and running backs in the country wanted to go there, especially because they weren't necessarily desired anywhere else (Tommy Frazier was lightly recruited by everyone but the Huskers).

There isn't the same kind of recruiting base in Iowa that the other teams had. We can grab a player or two each year from in-state recruiting, but a program built almost exclusively on Iowa talent would leave us looking like Ames. Fry went to Texas, and was pretty successful there. Ferentz has recruited Illinois, Texas, Florida, and (interestingly) New Jersey. But rarely has a player from one of those states who has been targeted by one of their own in-state teams and Iowa chosen Iowa. While Ferentz and Chris Doyle have developed that talent into something special, there is only so much that can be done. Remember, the 2005 Iowa recruiting class was widely considered the best in school history, and it was still generally considered the third best class in the conference. I don't think there's any way that the program can keep up, and it's merely a question of geography.

Take the one position where we've never had enough talent: cornerback. The shortcomings of Adam Shada were tragically exposed this past weekend, and they'll likely be exploited again this week. But there has never been a top-notch corner under Captain Kirk. Cornerback is a position that requires absolute, pure athleticism. You can find an un-athletic quarterback and win (see: Nathan Chandler). You can find undersized players and turn them into strong, tough giants (see: Robert Gallery). You can even transform a slow linebacker into an unstoppable defensive lineman (see: Matt Roth and Mitch King). But you can't just convert someone into a corner. It's a position that requires instinct and feel and, above all else, speed and athleticism. We can't seem to find that here, and we pay every year for it.

So, maybe it's time we give up the expectations of grandeur and accept the fact that Iowa football will always work in cycles. We can have those two to four years of rarified air, and then we'll settle back into the 8-4 and 9-3 seasons. I think once we accept that fact, we'll enjoy the season much more.

Except for losses to Indiana, that is. Those will forever suck.

This column is far too long already, so I'll wrap it up and hear what you guys think.


Irish Hawk said...

Thought this was an interesting remark by Joe Posnanski in his column today:

"Former general manager Charley Casserly had the weirdest report on CBS Sunday. It was a report about two hot college coaches — Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis — and their potential futures in the NFL. Casserly said he had talked to both men and both had told him, “Don’t put my name out there.” So let’s get this straight: He did a whole report about coaches who did not want their names out there. Welcome to the NFL pregame show."

I also liked the comments about Iowa, especially the part about Nebraska and the option influencing their ability to recruit. Who took their place? West Virginia? If it is WV or if it isn't shouldn't a bigger name school in one of the more major conferences adopt the option and attempt to fill NU's void? Just a thought.

HawkeyeState said...

West Virginia, Air Force, Navy, Utah (soon to be) Florida with Meyer's spread/option gimmick...there isn't anyone truly running the option. I think the biggest factor in that has been that mroe high school teams (especially the large schools) are using 4 wideout, Purdue-style spread offenses. It's become the unstoppable high school gimmick that the option once was.

HawkeyeState said...

Trust me, I would LOVE to watch Iowa run the option. That would be incredible here, too, for the same reasons as NU.