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Out of the Mainstream: The Iowa Hawkeyes as College Football Gypsies

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As Iowa patiently awaits its bowl destination, and as the vast majority of the Hawkeyes faithful cross fingers and toes in hopes for a desert reward, now is as good a time as any to try to understand Iowa's place in the college football social order. If Iowa is invited to a BCS Bowl, would that mean the football cognoscenti is accepting them as a member of the elite? I'm certain there is no definitive answer; this is, after all, a perceptual shell game. But, I can't resist but to make a stab at it.

It might be gratuitously complex for me to attempt the line of analysis I am about to attempt, but here goes...

The Iowa Hawkeyes with their magical season this year thrusting them into the national championship conversation exposed a nasty truth about their place on the college football landscape. The Iowa Hawkeyes are football gypsies. They're not alone either, as was so crassly pointed out by Ivan "The Terrible" Maisel in his on-line article from Nov. 19 entitled "Where's the return counter?" In his article, Maisel, normally a sensible sort, lamented that interlopers and gatecrashers have invaded the 2009 college football season, and for that he wants his "money back."

Maisel bemoans this college football season as a dud, a lemon, one whose promise was never fulfilled and paints himself as having been cheated, suffering a "bait and switch." And what was he promised? Well, he was promised what every preseason ranking and projection seems to annually promise: USC, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and of course, Tim Tebow, Tim Tebow, Tim Tebow, and Sam Bradford. And what did Maisel get? Boise State, TCU, Cincinnati, and presumably, Iowa.

Maisel is neither the only sportswriter nor is his the only article to grieve invasion by the gypsies. In fact, it seems as though every so-called college football analyst on every major sports website has complained at some point, in some way, of the lack of a predictable, orderly football world, where there is an easily identifiable social order of the "haves" moving unimpeded toward more bowl riches while the "have nots" stay deferentially out of the way. These pundits advocate, in essence, for the fans of the have nots to consent to a college football world of segmented categories of unequal people. I, for one, won't do it.

The term gypsy may seem like an odd one for me to use. But every time I read an article by some stiff asking how Iowa got into the top ten (the computers, not people) or bitching about Iowa as a impostor in the rankings, I am reminded of a paper I wrote in my senior year for an anthropology professor at Iowa. The term gypsy literally refers to specific ethnic groups that have certain histories, but I'm using the term more colloquially here to describe Iowa as a kind of nomadic clan living an unconventional way of life out on the edge. In this regard, Iowa, for me, is a football gypsy---they lack a secure place in and among the elite and yet they are too successful to be an average football team, and as such are seen as freakish and strange.

Let me start with this though: it is not as if Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes wants to be gypsies or has done anything to reinforce any such reading of them this way. They're merely trying to win football games and a conference title. They are not trying to cause angst to the Maisel's of the world and they're certainly not breaking any established codes within the football world-like running some harebrained offensive scheme that offends conventional sensibilities or tricking it up relentlessly or playing with grown men who have returned from the war or questionable JUCO-types or anything along those lines. In fact, Ferentz football is as traditional as it gets.

For those who are still reading, I should warn you this is going to take a fairly academic turn. I am going to try to examine the Hawkeyes and their place in college football from a social anthological viewpoint. It helps me to understand Iowa's coverage by the mainstream press. It helps me understand why this blog is relevant and thriving to so many fans (and not just fans of Iowa I might add). It helps me understand why my friends are so unwilling to accept Iowa as an emerging, potentially elite football program.


In 1908 a very smart Frenchman, born to Dutch parents, named Arnold Van Gennep wrote a classic text entitled, The Rites of Passage. If the title is an expression you have used yourself, you can thank Van Gennep. He coined the term, gave it meaning, and more or less started an entire academic discipline (social anthropology) with this one book. In it he describes the social process of how one passes from one status to another-how one makes a transition, a passage as he calls it, out of an old status into a new one. He examined rituals associated with many status changes in a variety of cultures, some tribal others quite civilized. Among the status transitions (and rituals) he studied are, from unborn to born (circumcisions, baptisms, etc.), from youth to adult (bar mitzvahs, vision quests, etc.), from single to married (weddings), and from life to death (funerals).

So how on earth is this relevant to college football you're probably asking? Stay with me.

While examining rituals that lead to social status change, Van Gennep noticed there was a reliable and recognizable schema or pattern to each of these transitions. He then devised a theory based on what he saw to explain all status transitions regardless of culture, and he called his discovery the "rites of passage."


The Rites of Passage (Or, how can Iowa go from being perceived as an average football program to serious football power?)

Van Gennep's theory suggested that in order for societies to "recognize" a status change there is an identifiable passage from old status to new status and it occurs as such:

-       Separation from old status

-       Transition (liminal state) during which there is no status but ritual tests

-       Re-incorporation into new status

I want to focus on the liminal or transition phase, because this is where the Iowa Hawkeyes seem to be stuck, and it is where gypsies are perpetually. I think we can all agree that Iowa left the old status of mediocre/average football program in the years beginning with when Hayden Fry took Iowa to the Rose Bowl in the early 1980s. They have had many years since in which they were invited to a bowl game. In fact, they have been to two more Rose Bowls in the meantime and a BCS Bowl (the Orange Bowl in fact). While Iowa has had many winning seasons over the past 25 years they have not quite completed a transition to full elite program status. Yet they possess many of the markers of an elite program: a top 10 highest paid coach, large stadium that sells out routinely, great facilities, national television appearances, players that receive national awards and are drafted high by NFL teams, and so forth. Iowa has no equal status among the big boys, which Ivan Maisel has conveniently identified for us. Yet, as a team that wins 13 in a row and is undefeated and barreling toward a perfect season, Iowa most defintely proves yet again they are not some middling college football program either. So Iowa is indeed liminal according to van Gennep's theory; they are neither average nor elite.

Van Gennep noticed that during the liminal phase people would often have to pass ritualized tests, which served to elevate them from their prior status and prove to the elders of society they are capable of accepting a new status. Think of the fraternity hazing ritual in many colleges that goes on with a pledge or whatever they call them. If the pledge can pass the various tests he is then incorporated into the fraternity. Fail the tests and he does not.

Maisel and the mainstream college football press position themselves as sort of college football "elders" keeping close watch on the football gypsies and determining whether or not to confer upon them any status change. Maisel's lament was nothing more than the usual backhanded way of identify the haves and have nots. A reminder just in case you forgot. (And it reinforces his place in the confirming process of course.)

A good case study of this notion is Boise State. Like Iowa in the early 1980s they recetnly entered the liminal phase in 2007 when they beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. That win was a demarcation of sorts, identifying Boise State as no longer a typical non-BCS school. But it was in no way a "Welcome to the Elite" moment either. Boise State's win over Oklahoma was a ritual separation from their old status of typical non-BCS football team. By beating Oklahoma in a BCS Bowl they showed a sort of separation from all the other non-BCS schools who rarely challenge the elite (or are even given an opportunity to do so). The next stage for Boise State then is re-incorporation. But until they achieve their new status among the cultural elite they are liminal They are gypsies. Pass more tests and we'll see if you belong, the elite seem to say. But, here is the rub...will Boise State continue to be allowed into the arena to pass these tests?

I know some would like for Iowa to go to the Capital One Bowl and beat an SEC team resoundingly. I understand this thinking too. It is it's own sort of ritualized test that if passed should move Iowa closer and closer to re-incorporation with the elite. However, using van Gennep's theory one could argue too that the Capital One Bowl merely reinforces Iowa's place in liminality. After all, if Iowa plays Mississippi or any SEC team other than Alabama or Florida, Iowa then is merely playing another gypsy program in a non-elite bowl and this test does nothing to advance the program. Iowa is not unlike Boise State. Both programs are liminal. Both programs have to prove themselves to elevate out of the liminal state. But there is a HUGE difference between Iowa playing Boise State in a non-BCS Bowl game and Iowa playing them in a BCS Bowl.

Consider Ohio State, a team that perpetually loses in BCS games. Certainly they receive tons of flack for that. But, the flack they are getting is not pushing them back into liminality; they are not a transitioning program. They are getting flack for not fulfilling their elite program obligations for sure. But they are in BCS Bowl games year after year and as such they are proving that they indeed belong in the cultural elite. They merely are at the bottom of THAT group. They're at the party, just not at the best table. Iowa is not even at the party.

I believe Iowa is capable of becoming a member of football's cultural elite. All the pieces are there. They have the facilities, they have the fan base, they have the coach, and they have the tradition. I hope and assume they have the desire. They just have not passed enough of the right tests. Winning the Outback Bowl last year was nice and it certainly helped the players see themselves as winner. But let's be clear about all this, Iowa needs to play in the Fiesta or Orange Bowl and, of course, they need to win it, if they want to make any serious ascent to the college football elite. A loss in either the Orange or Fiesta Bowls is greater than a win in the Capital One Bowl. Why? Because BCS Bowl games are the affairs of the cultural elite and non-BCS Bowls are liminal affairs. Losing a BCS Bowl game is greater than winning non-BCS Bowl game. In fact, all New Year's Day and later bowl games that are not BCS Bowl games are, likewise, liminal events. They are games for those who want to feel elite, maybe play an elite power, and maybe even beat them. But they are not elite bowl games, and according to van Gennep's theory, those bowls do not advance non-elite schools into the cultural elite of college football.

College football is its own little society and all societies have a social order and to move within the social order one must pass ritual tests, sometimes repeatedly, to alter one's status. Playing in BCS Bowl games is part of the process of moving into the elite and winning BCS Bowl games is an even more important part of the process of moving into the elite. Now, we could go to the Capital One Bowl and we can dominate some SEC team, but that is not a relevant test if the goal is to change our status. Gypsies beating up gypsies are not a test that elevates one to elite status. The test to become an elite power is to play in an elite neighborhood and ideally take down an elite program when you get there. The Capital One Bowl will only delude the gypsies into believing they are moving toward re-incorporation, when in fact they are merely further emphasizing their liminal status.

In a fraternity, the goal is not to be the best pledge in the house; it's to be a member of the fraternity. Iowa needs a BCS Bowl game if they want to join the ranks of Ohio State, Penn State and others, and they need it now. If Iowa ends up in the Capital One Bowl that will be nice and I will enjoy it immensely. But it will not signify anything other than Iowa's place securely among the gypsies.