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A LONG GAZE INTO THE ABYSS

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It could always be worse: We could be Illinois.

Michael Hickey

"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

In 1978, Hayden Fry had his choice of a number of open coaching jobs.  His North Texas team had just gone 9-2 for the second consecutive season, recording victories over the likes of Oklahoma State and SMU in the process, and he wanted one more job before he retired.  There were good jobs available to him, jobs with programs that had had recent success and were much closer to Fry's Texas base, like Oklahoma State and Ole Miss.  But when he asked his assistants where they should go next, his trusted defensive coordinator Bill Brashier told him to go to Iowa.  When Fry asked why he'd go to a northern school that hadn't posted a winning record in 18 years, Brashier said, "Look at this film. Every time Iowa made a first down, the whole crowd erupted. I got to thinkin', my gosh, what would happen if we ever scored a touchdown."

On the other hand, there's Illinois.

I spent the weekend in Champaign, watching Iowa pummel the Illini 30-14 in one of the more methodical beatdowns I've ever witnessed, met by the collective shrug of an entire state.  I watched a flock of Iowans bedecked in black and gold swarm the bars and restaurants and parking lots of a would-be hostile city, only to be met by polite indifference.  I witnessed empty seats where hypothetical supporters were to sit, empty parking spots where theoretical pregame revelry was to take place.  I witnessed the sound made when 35,000 cold people with little hope and even less to keep their interest sit in silence.  I watched people show up at halftime and leave at the end of the third quarter.   I looked at the face of apathy, and Champaign stared right back.

I was in Austin, Texas a few weeks ago, the week before the United States Grand Prix, a Formula 1 race held at their racecourse.  As weird as Austin may be, it still didn't seem weird enough to care about European auto racing.  In three days, nobody mentioned the race.  Every time I brought it up, it drew a shrug from locals.  The cab driver taking me to pick up my rental car cursed the traffic caused by the influx of spectators (and there were plenty of spectators coming to town; my room rate increased to $700 a night by the Thursday before the race) and marveled at my ability to get a rental car with so many tourists there.  "It's bad for traffic," he said.  "But it's good for business."

Champaign treats football games like Austin treats European auto racing: It's a nuisance for the locals but an influx of outside cash for the local economy.  Like Iowa City, hotel rates in Champaign triple on home game weekends -- two night minimum, of course -- and local bars and restaurants are packed with fans.  But if I wasn't there for the game, I would not have known it was happening.  The city simply didn't seem to care.  Football is a necessary annoyance, bad for traffic but good for business.

It extended to the stadium itself, where reserved parking lots stood half-full (the single-game lot available to anyone was filled by mid-morning and roughly 80 percent Iowa fans).  The stadium wasn't crowded.  The crowd was so quiet that we could hear conversations between the referee and coaches from our seats in the upper deck.  I mentioned to nobody in particular how quiet Memorial Stadium was.  The grizzled Illini supporter in front of me turned around and said, "We want to win so that we can go to a bowl, but we don't want to win because a bowl would mean we'd still have Tim Beckman."  When the game was over -- for most Illinois fans, that came with more than 10 minutes to go -- the Illinois parking lots looked as if nothing had happened.

Longtime visitors to this site know that the last three years have included a fair share of teeth gnashing.  Losses have been especially cruel to Iowa since 2012, and hope has been increasingly hard to find.  There has been a decreasing level of discussion and increasing level of anger for each defeat, an aspect of the Iowa fan experience that I have actively encouraged.  In recent weeks, we have asked if you still care, because it's hard to rebound from a defeat as resounding and soul-crushing as the Minnesota game and still give a damn about this season.  I have believed for years that it would be apathy, not anger, that would eventually lead to changes in Iowa's football program -- that It would not be booing fans, but absent fans that would force Gary Barta's hand -- and I thought that day would come soon.  A shrug from Iowa fans would be a catalyst for something better.

I'm done with that.

I saw this weekend what an indifferent fanbase looks like, and it didn't look like anything I ever want to see in Iowa City.  I never want to see a half-filled stadium sit quietly while a game unfolds in front of them.  I never want to hear an Iowa fan tell me they want to see the Hawkeyes lose because it might get the coach fired.  I never want to experience an Iowa City that treats football as a nuisance hosted solely for tourists.  Apathy kills football programs like Iowa's.  Apathy prevents Iowa from getting the best coach the next time around.  Apathy turns Iowa from an athletic program into a basketball school.  Hayden Fry doesn't get out his map to find an apathetic Iowa City.

This doesn't mean that we're going to be uniformly positive.  Losses suck, and inexplicable losses of the kind that we have endured recently really suck, and accountability comes along with that.  While Florida fired Will Muschamp for "doubl[ing] down on extreme offensive conservatism and winning one-score games a full decade after the rest of college football gave up on the concept," we still fully embrace it, and we shouldn't.  But if apathy is the only way of making that change, then my vote is for Kirk Ferentz.  There are worse things than zone stretch left.