Sports fandom is supposed to be a net enjoyable experience (otherwise, what are you doing with your life?), but it's not without its moments of cruelty. Here, let's plumb those depths.
Deadspin asked its readers a simple, yet brutal question: if they could change the outcome of one play in sports, what would it be? Great source of discussion, sure, and yet here you are reliving all your worst memories all at once. CONFRONT YOUR PAIN.
So with that in mind, let's think about the five Iowa plays we wish would have gone differently. The one rule is that we're talking about plays that took place, so it's not like we can bring Nile Kinnick, Cal Jones or Chris Street back to life. Otherwise, that's everybody's top three and it's not even sports.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Brad Banks' fumble vs. ISU, Aaron Greving's safety vs. ISU, Craig Krenzel's hail mary to Michael Jenkins vs. Purdue, 2002
The two worst plays of Iowa's disastrous second half against Iowa State ended up playing a much bigger role than anyone could have foreseen at the time, and the "Holy Buckeye" play cost Iowa an outright Big Ten championship; 2002 was the only year two Big Ten teams would ever finish at 8-0 in conference play (and the only post-war season where two teams finished unbeaten and untied).
It's just that it's hard to say what difference any single one of these plays would have made for Iowa's postseason hopes. If we turn the tables of the ISU game, Ohio State still goes undefeated and takes the #2 spot in the BCS against Miami; if we knock off the Buckeyes, Georgia still finishes ahead of the Hawkeyes in the BCS standings. And since the Rose Bowl was still at best casually interested in a Pac-12/Big Ten matchup, there's not much to suggest anything different than Iowa-USC takes place.
5) Matt Sherman intercepted by Sam Sword, 1997
Have you ever seen a football team get its heart broken? That's what happened to the 1997 Hawkeyes when they watched a dominating first half at the Big House evaporate, then mounted a desperate final drive against Michigan's mammoth defense that got the Hawkeyes within striking range. Alas, once inside the red zone, Matt Sherman threw a pass across the middle and straight into the hands of linebacker Sam Sword, a mistake on par with just about any horror show INTs Ricky Stanzi ever threw, and Iowa's last hope of a Rose Bowl berth was dead, while Michigan went on to split the national championship.
The image of Sherman facedown on the turn after throwing the pick, and the Iowa offense lingering on the field as if they'd just watched their dog get run over, remains seared in the minds of Iowa fans who watched the game unfold. Sherman later injured his thumb punching a locker (so the official story goes, but some theorize he was already hurt when throwing that fateful pick), Iowa slumped to a 7-5 record, and the program fell apart the next year.
We had them. We were in the Big House and we had them.
4) Pembrook Burrows tips in a shot to beat Iowa, 104-103, in second round of 1970 NCAA Tournament
Ralph Miller's 1969-70 Hawkeyes were among the most frenetic and talented to ever don the gold jerseys, averaging over 100 points per game, but Miller's one foray into the tournament was quickly cut short by the Jacksonville Dolphins, led by future Hall-of-Famer Artis Gilmore. Jacksonville met Iowa in the second round after Iowa got a bye, and an epic struggle of a game came down to a last-second tip in by Pembrook Burrows to doom Iowa to the regional third-place game (where the Hawkeyes erased Austin Carr and Notre Dame, 121-106).
That Iowa team could have made a Final Four run; instead Miller high-tailed it to Oregon State where he became the Beavers' all-time winningest coach while Iowa wouldn't win a tournament game for another decade (and yes, that team will come up again).
Gilmore wrote about this game on his blog, which is worth a read if for no other reason than his story about almost becoming a Hawkeye, but choosing Jacksonville for family proximity instead. HOW MANY TIMES MUST YOU BREAK OUR HEARTS, DOLPHINS?
3) Northwestern State hits three-pointer to beat Iowa, 64-63, in first round of 2006 NCAA Tournament
Say what you will about [COACH REDACTED]—and there's lots to say—but his one good season was really, really good, taking Iowa to a level the Hawkeyes hadn't seen since 1987 and haven't seen since. If ever there was a year to make a deep tourney run, this was it—especially in a ho-hum region (2-seed Texas had LaMarcus Aldridge, who would have eaten Iowa's bigs alive, but is there anyone you'd rather face in the tournament than Rick Barnes? Well, aside from [COACH REDACTED]).
This game looked like the formality it should have been for most of the second half, and with under eight minutes left Iowa led 56-42. That's the worst detail: Iowa had the game in hand and just plain blew it. And even if you figure that with [COACH REDACTED] running the show a deep tourney run was never going to happen—a fair assessment—at the very least we'd love to have been spared this gross indignity. Instead, Iowa is just now recovering from this embarrassment, nearly a decade later.
2) Ronnie Lester injures his knee in Final Four, 1980
It's cued up to the fateful play, but you can watch the whole thing if you want. I don't know why you'd want.
Unlike Iowa's first two Final Fours, where the Hawkeyes had to face Bill Russell YES THAT BILL RUSSELL and the San Francisco Dons, Iowa was in a serious position to challenge for a national championship in 1980. Iowa came into the tournament as a 5-seed, but only due to Ronnie Lester's extended absence with a knee injury; Iowa had been undefeated and ranked No. 10 when he went down. Lester was back for the tourney, though, and Iowa ran roughshod through the East bracket, topping Georgetown to punch its ticket to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Alas, while leading a fast break in the first half Iowa's game against Louisville, Lester planted for a shot and the knee gave out. He collapsed under the basket, and with him went Iowa's hopes. Kenny Arnold's 20 points weren't enough to let Iowa keep pace, and Louisville cruised to the 80-72 victory. Lester had scored Iowa's first 10 points of the game, and his offense was impossible to replace. Iowa was drubbed in the third-place game, while Louisville defeated the vastly overachieving 8-seed UCLA for the title.
Lester's knee was a time bomb, which is the only reason this isn't number one on our list; that anti-honor goes to an even more unfair disaster.
1) Corey Wootton sacks and injures Ricky Stanzi in the end zone, 2009
It has to be this play. Iowa was undefeated and fourth in the national BCS standings, DJK was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and 5-4 Northwestern, who had beaten zero teams of merit, was in town. Iowa was already up 10-0 early in the second quarter when Ricky Stanzi rolled out in the end zone, straight into the unblocked path of Northwestern DE Corey Wootton. Wootton dragged Stanzi down by the facemask, crumpling him and spraining his ankle, knocking Iowa's QB out for the rest of the regular season. Northwestern recovered the fumbled ball in the end zone, took control of the game and ended Iowa's national championship hopes.
There's no guarantee that Iowa would have overtaken Texas, who was a spot ahead of Iowa in the BCS when Stanzi went down, also went undefeated and ended up in the BCS Championship. But the gap between the two wasn't immense, and Iowa still had its date at OSU to come, an opponent significantly better than anyone Texas faced that year. Remember, Iowa lost that game in overtime, and if you think Stanzi's worth even one more point in regulation—or that his presence even compels Ferentz to undertake one last drive in regulation—the trajectory of Iowa's 2009 season all of a sudden looks vastly different.
You wish the play call was literally anything different. You wish Stanzi saw a large man lumbering toward him and just took the safety rather than get himself crushed. You wish his legs stayed intact. You wish Iowa had a square shot at competing for a national title. You wish anything and everything about that play was different.