Iowa football collectively is an old soul within a sport that puts considerable emphasis on new: new schemes, new facilities, new uniforms, new coaching staffs.
The Hawkeyes’ embrace of tradition — from uniforms to style of play — leaves Iowa football overlooked. Doubted. And, despite a program-best 12-win finish to the 2015 season and appearing in their first Rose Bowl Game in a quarter-century, the process begins anew in 2016, just days after the Hawkeyes had only one prospect selected in the NFL draft.
Belated congrats to Iowa football having exactly one player drafted late in the final round.
— Colin Cowherd (@ColinCowherd) May 3, 2016
Cowherd may just be trolling the live wires he picked up criticizing Iowa during the 2015 season, but his swipe at the Hawkeyes remains the only national attention I’ve seen paid the defending Big Ten West champions this offseason.
Big Ten media picked Iowa to finish fourth in the West prior to the 2015 season. I cannot cast stones, though. Here was my assessment of the Hawkeyes when examining the Big Ten West last August:
The Hawkeyes lost quarterback Jake Rudock to transfer within conference (he’s now at Michigan). Otherwise, the bulk of focus on Iowa is squarely on Kirk Ferentz’s buyout.
Yikes. Well, it’s fair to say Iowa football exceeded many people’s expectations in 2015 following a tested game-plan, established by Kirk Ferentz.
“It’s really tough to do it,” Ferentz said before the Rose Bowl. “You’re not going to see much of that in college football anymore.”
That is consistency in leadership. Ferentz has been Iowa’s head coach since 1999, tying him for the longest, currently tenured sideline general in FBS with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops.
“Another Iowa guy,” said Ferentz of Stoops.
Ferentz and Stoops are both branches on the Hayden Fry coaching tree: Stoops a player for him from 1979 through 1982 and later an assistant, while Ferentz served as offensive line from 1981 through 1989.
2015 proved rejuvenating for the Fry disciples. Oklahoma won the Big 12 Conference and appeared in the College Football Playoff. Iowa enjoyed one of its most successful seasons ever, and took Michigan State to the wire for a berth in the Playoff.
In certain ways, their bounce-back campaigns shared similarities. Oklahoma sputtered to an 8-5 finish in 2014, and the “Big Game” luster came off Stoops’ aura. Iowa finished 7-5 in the regular season, then face-planted in a lopsided Gator Bowl blowout against Tennessee.
As alluded to above, any high-profile loss for Iowa seems to precede discussion of Ferentz’s $4 million per year contract, and a buyout in excess of $10 million. It’s one of those ubiquitous topics among college football media, sorta like conference expansion and TV buyouts.
But whereas Oklahoma completely overhauled its identity with a radically revamped offense, Iowa football largely stayed the course. And keeping on course with Ferentz’s message means staying on course with Fry’s.
Ferentz’s return in 1999 from a half-decade run as an NFL assistant continued the Fry legacy directly. Should Ferentz reach the end of that oft-discussed contract, Iowa football will have had some form of leadership consistency just shy of four decades.
When coaches change homes so regularly — there are only nine in FBS with 10 years’ experience at their current program — stability can be confused with mundanity. Memory’s easily clouded.
Memories of a pre-Fry era at Iowa should add perspective to just how rousing a success the last 35 years have been.
“When I went there, they had 19 straight losing seasons,” Ferentz said. “1981, [Iowa] went to the Rose Bowl, and I just thought that was how it was supposed to be.”
Similarly, Iowa’s quick success under Ferentz, which included an Orange Bowl appearance in the 2002 season, may have skewed expectations. Ferentz is in rare company, having coached his team to three of the premier bowl games in his time at Iowa: two Orange Bowls and now a Rose.
Still, college football always measures success against what the other guy is doing. Ferentz’s former Cleveland Browns colleague Nick Saban is winning national championships at Alabama; why not Iowa?
In some ways, however, what Ferentz accomplished last year is equally impressive.
The gears of the Alabama football machine turn with 4-and-5-star recruits on their way to prime draft positioning in the NFL. As Cowherd gleefully trolls, offensive lineman Austin Blythe was Iowa’s sole draftee — and he went on the third day.
That makes the Hawkeyes’ success all the more remarkable. It also gives hope that a team replacing talent in several key areas can once again surprise critics.
“We knew we had something special going into fall camp,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said of the 2015 Hawkeyes. Beathard missed this spring to recover from a sports hernia and shoulder injury, but will return in time for the 2016 fall camp.
“In the off-season, we realized we came together as a team,” he said. “Guys emerged and leaders and kind of stepped up when we needed them the most. That’s a big part of having a successful team is guys stepping up and being leaders.”
Jordan Canzeri is leaving, but LeShun Daniels can emerge. Daniels rushed for eight touchdowns a season ago.
Gone is surprising All-American Desmond King*, but another surprise, burgeoning star returns to anchor the defense, Josey Jewell.
Iowa football’s made stability exciting. Old is the new new.
*Editor’s note: King opted to return for 2016.