It’s a trophy week. Did you know that?
We’re not being snarky, but the news this week has been dominated by a fixation on Kirk Ferentz’s buyout clause. Now, we appreciate as much as the next person a healthy discussion of good and bad contract buyout language, but we’d like to turn our attention to something a bit more pressing, Saturday’s rivalry football game with the minor school of Iowa.
Kirk Ferentz has been at this in-state rivalry business for quite a while, for a quarter century in fact. Over that time span you’d think he’s figured it out.
As an assistant coach under his predecessor, Hayden Fry, Kirk bore witness to an annual bludgeoning that had some shielding the eyes of their children from the moment of kickoff. In those days Iowa vs Iowa State was a ritual hazing that only ended once the coach’s health literally rendered him unable to coach any longer. Hayden Fry won 80% of these babies in all, but at one point he won 15 straight with an average margin of victory of 25.6 points per game. Funny enough, that margin of victory – as gaudy as that number looks – actually gives an appearance of good sportsmanship when compared to the game tape. In the actual games Hayden’s boys were far more ruthlessly superior than the scoreboard ever showed. In more than a few of those years the Hawkeyes played backups as early as the first half. It did take Fry about four years to figure the thing out, but once he did he used the contest as part organized scrimmage in advance of the rigors of Big Ten play and part promise keeper to forgotten backups who in just about any other week would be nothing more than tackling dummies and scout teamers. Always, though, despite one repetitive blowout after another, Hayden suited up the boys the following year having never lost sight of the significance of winning this game.
Kirk Ferentz was on Fry’s staff for the worst of those 15 beatings. During his last seven years as an assistant the Hawkeyes were 7-0 versus Iowa State, with an average scoring total of 42.7 points per game. After Fry’s build up of the Iowa program from perennial loser of the 1960s and 1970s to national player in the 1980s, the lopsided condition of the two programs were on annual display in the cross-state rivalry and nothing served as a more emphatic display of disparity than practically every final score. By Fry’s fifth year the Iowa Hawkeyes football program had left the Iowa State Cyclone football program, a program that might have been within shouting distance of the Hawkeyes program prior to Fry’s arrival, in the dust, where it’s remained so in every conceivable category since, with one lone exception.
Kirk Ferentz must have developed some compassion from the experience because while Hayden Fry ruthlessly leveraged every ounce of his clear-cut institutional power when competing against his rival to the west, in part to flaunt his program’s ascendancy to prospective instate recruits, Kirk Ferentz, who has arguably enjoyed equal or greater advantage over his rival than did Fry, has struggled to consistently beat the Cyclones. Given the health and wealth of each program, any close contest is an objective mystery and losses are by and large indefensible.
How is it, that despite the benefit of legacy, money, facilities, talent, you name the resource where Iowa has unambiguous advantage, that Kirk Ferentz has a losing record (8-9) against Ames?
"Familiarity is a magician that is cruel to beauty but kind to ugliness." – Ouida
It is a confounding question, but why doesn’t Kirk Ferentz who has Hayden Fry-like advantage over his in-state rival, not have a Hayden Fry-like record against Iowa State? Consider the following when asking yourself that question:
ALL TIME PROGRAM WINS:
Iowa 625 (43rd nationally)
ISU 514 (77th)
SEASONS WITH 8 OR MORE WINS SINCE 1979:
TOTAL WINS SINCE 1999 (year Ferentz becomes coach):
WINS PER SEASON SINCE 1999:
We’re not going to dissect the wealth question, we just assume you accept that Iowa football has more money than the minor school of Iowa, and has invested more of it in the program, in coaching, in facilities, in recruiting, in everything. In football terms, the Iowa Hawkeyes football program lives in a mansion on the hill while the Iowa State Cyclones football program lives in a single-family home in the middle of a busy street at the bottom of that hill.
The talent differential between the two programs is stark and getting starker as Iowa has 6 times as many players in the NFL as does Iowa State. Consider that Iowa State has not had a First Team All-American since 2000, whereas Iowa has one on the team right now. In fact, since 2000 Iowa has had eight First Team All-Americans (five were unanimous selections). I could list first rounder pick comparisons, and various other eye popping disparities, but you get the picture.
So, yes, it is a mystery as to how Kirk Ferentz has consistently struggled in this one game and to such a degree as to leave every Hawkeyes fan completely exasperated, some on the verge of rage. So, sure, maybe you look individually at each of Ferentz’s losses to Iowa State and identify some set of conditions that help to explain why a highly decorated coach with profound program and talent advantages struggled to beat an established weakling that seems to be in constant rebuilding mode, but maybe the simplest explanation is this: Kirk Ferentz doesn’t get it, and Iowa State, regardless of who is coaching them, does.
What is the "it" to which we refer? Rivalry. This game fits the very definition of a rivalry, and it is not, despite the god awful trophy and series name, an inorganic, ersatz, made for television or legislature (if you will) rivalry. It is a very legitimate rivalry, and because it is not properly recognized and internalized by Kirk Ferentz he undermines what inherent advantages he enters the game with, enough so that the game ends up being played on a far more even playing field than it should be.
What exactly is a rivalry anyway?
First off, it is important to identify that a rivalry is not just an ordinary competition. It is competition that is unique to other competitions in that it is relational — you know your opponent, and they know you. You have history with them, and you’re both vying for the same scarce resources. Relational and historical factors are essential features of a rivalry. A familiar foe is far more likely to provoke different psychological and behavioral reactions in you than a less familiar or anonymous one. Rivalry, in other words, is characterized by heightened psychological stakes felt by the participants. By psychological stakes, we mean the subjective importance placed upon the outcome of the competition, (i.e., win or loss).
Over the course of a season a head coach faces a variety of decisions about how to prepare, how to behave, how to compete, and how to attempt to increase his chances of victory. The relationships, and in particular the rivalries, that exist between one team and another are proven to affect these decisions. There is research on this, mostly in the field of social psychology, and it’s unambiguous. People who feel a sense of rivalry are more likely to engage in the kind of behavior that is more focused, more intense, more urgent, more...abnormal.
Does Ferentz feel a sense of rivalry with Iowa State? We believe probably not. Whereas Iowa State approaches this game with a focus unshared by Kirk Ferentz, as a heightened contest with as a specific, identifiable, opponent who poses an objective threat to the realization of their short and long-term goals. And, the feeling is just not reciprocal for Kirk Ferentz.
Consider that Iowa State is in a very different place, psychologically, than is Iowa. Iowa State annually loses most of the prized football recruits from within the state to the Hawkeyes. Iowa State is losing most of the press coverage. Most of the people in the state of Iowa consider themselves Hawkeyes fans. To build their program up to equal or even near equal status to that of Iowa, the Cyclones will need to tip the scales on most of, if not all of that.
When Ferentz loses to Iowa State it is usually by a single score and often (in retrospect) the game is one of Iowa’s worst performances of the year. By the way, this is a broader coaching criticism with Ferentz as well, that when he owns an obvious talent advantage over an opponent he leans excessively on it. In other words, conventional risk is stripped from the game plan and Iowa instead places a disproportionate amount of trust in their physical and skill advantage. Consider, for example, how Iowa played last Saturday versus Miami (OH) as a recent example. Phil Parker used almost no blitzes, and Greg Davis called only a few play-action passing plays. Iowa lined up and relied upon players to win individual match-ups for the overwhelming majority of the game, which in the end, they did. No special stuff was presented, no full use of the arsenal, just a pedestrian game plan intended to exploit a known obvious, if not profound advantage—personnel. The Miami coaching staff settled into a comfort zone of knowing Iowa was playing basic, and next thing you know ‘ol Jed’s almost a millionaire. Unsurprisingly, especially for the seasoned Iowa fan, the Hawkeyes were unable to cover the point spread.
One would think by now Ferentz cannot treat Iowa State as the equivalent or even near equivalent of the Miami (OH) of the world, although this year that just might be the case. Because this game is a rivalry, you cannot trot out a vanilla game plan, one that’s free of intellectual challenge to the opposition and expect to win, because he hasn’t. Okay, he has but an 8-9 record given the advantages he’s working with is awful.
It just might be the case that Kirk Ferentz does not see Iowa vs Iowa State as a contest of equals, which on paper it is not, and thus he organizes his preparation mindset accordingly. Moreover, keep in mind that this is a man who broadly refuses to run up a score to begin with, embarrass an opponent, or exploit his riches when he believes he has them and his opponent does not. It just might be that a layer below consciousness, Kirk Ferentz does not believe this is a fair fight, and thus, for him, it does not conform to the criteria of a rivalry. That might seem like a crazy claim, but if you adopt the mindset of a social psychologist and pay attention strictly to behavior and data you are left to wonder.
"How we behave in competition situations depends on our relationship and history of interaction with our opponent," Gavin J. Kilduff of New York University writes in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. "This suggests that we may be able to boost our own levels of motivation and performance by either forming rivalries or harnessing the ones we already have. It might also get us to think about whether other individuals in our lives may view us as their rivals."
- Perceptions of rivalry are determined more by the relationship between competitors than by their individual characteristics.
Those involved in a rivalry perceive similarity between the competitors, and in the case of this game there is shared location and players who have competed against each other prior to playing at the collegiate level, and so there is familiarity and this fosters greater rivalry.
But, Ferentz likely does not view Iowa State in these terms. He likely views them as an obligatory non-conference game with a team from another conference. He rarely if ever loses a significant recruit to Iowa State. His coaching identity is not threatened by the guy in Ames. There is little if anything he would covet from this neighbor. Thus, his relationship to this game is passive, despite whatever rhetoric he spout during game week.
- Rivalry between competitors is positively related to their similarity.
Regardless of how the fans or local or national media might feel, Iowa State’s coaches and players are every bit entitled to the same mindset that befits Iowa players and coaches. This is a Power 5 program in an historically relevant conference and these players, some or many of them, have received scholarship offers from more than just Iowa State—in fact, some having been recruited by Iowa. When they look in the mirror they see themselves as homogenous to Iowa. Add in that they have a track record during the Ferentz years of beating Iowa more often than not, and BAM...similarity.
But, Ferentz likely does not view Iowa State in these terms. Where Iowa State shines the psychological light on all that is the same, Ferentz shines his light differently. To him they’re from different conferences, pursuing different player skillsets in different recruiting battlegrounds (outside of the state itself), employing different programmatic philosophies, and so forth. To the pedantic Ferentz he likely thinks these are two unique programs that have only a name in common.
- Rivalry between competitors is positively related to the number of competitive interactions in which they have engaged.
While this game has rich history, Iowa has several teams on the schedule with whom they’ve competed more often. The same is true of Iowa State. Nevertheless, because there is history, there are memories. It might be though, that similar to a romantic relationship, the participants remember their encounters differently. Because Iowa has, for so many years, played Goliath to Iowa State’s David, nearly all the warm fuzzy memories belong to Iowa State, who in years in which they win are often a decided underdog, embarking on a season that very often is predicted to have limited potential. For example, Iowa State has never won a championship of any kind in any year. They are, in nearly every year, protecting nothing. They’re almost never ranked coming into this game. This is not so true for Iowa. Iowa is often protecting a ranking or a set of high expectations. That is, for example, yet again, the case this year. They are as David as David can be. In that psychological juxtaposition, David vs. Goliath, the two teams are playing with different emotions entirely.
In the end, rivalry is a psychological phenomenon whose roots are firmly planted in reality. It is often perceived as a slight to say this game serves as Iowa State’s "Super Bowl." But, outside of a low level bowl game, there are few games that annually are guaranteed to offer Iowa State the kind of psychological reward that does this game. Make no mistake, Iowa State has had numerous victories that have more dramatically defied the odds, generated greater local and national headlines, and those games took place within conference to boot. Ostensibly, those wins could easily be pointed to by Iowa State coaches and players as having greater value because they may have moved them closer to the upper-half of their conference and thus it gave them a chance to take a bite of the apple. But, those wins (I’m talking wins like the ones over a ranked Nebraska and Oklahoma State, and even Texas last year), in the end, did not really offer the kind of value that beating Iowa does. Iowa State is not as often competing with Texas, Nebraska or Oklahoma State for its core recruits. They are not competing with them for preseason and in-season headlines in their own local newspapers or on statewide television. Iowa clearly poses the greatest threat to Iowa State as they vie for the scarce resources of a small state supporting two Power 5 football programs: recruits, fans, attention, and ultimately, money. So, slaying that threat carries massive satisfaction, and more importantly, provokes the feeling that you just might be moving closer to meeting your goals.
If Kirk Ferentz is to improve his prospects in this rivalry he is going to have to share in the perception of it as such—a rivalry. He is sitting on numerous advantages that are being equalized by his humdrum approach to this game. Players, naturally, are influenced by their coach and until they see the head man attack this game with the same zeal as his counterpart coach, discuss victory with the same esteem, then you can expect the same uneven results.