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Kirk’s Republic: Has the Iowa offense seen the light?

Plato's allegory of the cave is one of the best-known, most insightful attempts to explain the nature of reality. Can it help explain the Iowa offense?

You don't have to study philosophy at school to be philosophical. You could, just as easily, be a fan of Iowa football.

If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences. It is true that this is partly accounted for by the fact that, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. — from Bertrand Russell's “The Problems of Philosophy”

Such is the conundrum that is, in part, Iowa football. There are those aspects of Iowa football that have, over time, become understood as identifiable facts, and those facts get written about here and elsewhere, endlessly. We can actually wrap our collective arms around those facts of Iowa football, and comprehend them because there are data points or observable truths, repeated, and observed again and again, like a trend. We’ll call these facts part of the science of Iowa football. And, then, there are the other aspects of Iowa football, which may be better described, really, as fragments, and those fragments defy understanding and explanation. They are resistant to classification or codification. Those fragments that demand that you — the Iowa fan who wants to understand — take a philosophical approach. And so we do, and it explains why we are indeed a philosophically inclined bunch, some of us, so as to avoid devolving into insanity.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” ― Carl Sagan

Human beings don’t naturally enjoy ambiguity, and as a result, most of us do not like philosophy. Bertrand Russell, himself a philosopher and mathematician, in his book, “The Problems of Philosophy,” tried to explain the value of philosophy and why it should be studied. He suggested we do so, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions because there are no definite answers if you are truly engaged in questions of philosophy, but rather you study it for the sake of the questions themselves. In other words, you ask “why” for the sake of the why.

If that just gave you a headache, then more often than you would probably like to admit, watching Iowa on offense probably incapacitates you with migraines. Unless you are...philosophical about it all.

Iowa came into the Ohio State game as a 17-point underdog, and that line ballooned up, at some sportsbooks, to 21-points. No one with a right mind believed Iowa had any chance of winning this game outright, and of course many bet they would not be able to even cover that ballooning spread. That assessment was as much a recognition of Ohio State’s accomplishments this year and every year under Urban Meyer, as it was the history of this series, which is grotesquely in favor of Ohio State, and the state of the Iowa offense to compete with such a prolific offensive machine as Ohio State proved to have this season. I’m not gonna breakdown the numbers because if I do you will begin to believe in miracles, and I am not in the business of selling miracles, but trust your unbridled glee on this one, it was one hell of an outlier victory.


No one ever doubts the merit of Iowa football when your microscope is trained only on the defensive side of the football. Under Kirk Ferentz, and really that means under the Parkers, Norm and Phil, this program has been as good as any in America since 2000 at constructing and executing defensive football. Iowa has sent player to the NFL at every level of the defense (DL, LB, DB) and has had numerous defensive players win conference and national awards — often lauding them as the best at their craft (for example, most recently Desmond King won the Jim Thorpe Award). Moreover, and maybe more impressively, Iowa has had numerous players drafted in nearly all the rounds of the NFL draft. Indeed, Iowa has had defensive players win Defensive POY in the NFL, placed on the First Team defense for NFL Pro Bowls, and of course many have earned millions upon millions of dollars to wear NFL uniforms. Iowa, in other words, unquestionably knows defense, knows how to find recruits to play it, knows how to develop them to excel at it. This is not opinion, this is fact.


Iowa’s offense, on the other hand, on a year-to-year basis under Kirk Ferentz has been a mercurial affair by comparison. Whereas the Iowa defense is like an insurance policy on a home in a flood zone—it will be there to ensure you maintain your roots and support your rebuild if necessary. The offense, on the other hand, is like one of those blowup life rafts that come with a sailboat. It may work and save your life or it may never even blow up. Bottom line, don’t expect too much. And really, Iowa fans have lived with this for so long that they, like the sailor, know the risks when they get on that season’s sailboat and begin the journey. They are, in other words, remarkably, and maybe too, sanguine about it all. This is where the philosophical mindset comes in handy.

If we are to try to make sense of the Iowa offense, it may be best to make use of the ideas of the father of Western philosophy, Plato. In particular, let’s make use of one of his most famous “dialogues,” the Republic, in which Plato advances some of his most provocative and useful and enduring ideas about citizens, government, and their place in the world. If you turn in your hymnal, by which I mean the Republic, to Book VII you will read about the "Allegory of the Cave.”

Putting The Gory in Allegory

Chances are you read this at one point in your studies. Maybe in high school, maybe in college, maybe on your own, but most likely you have read it or at least heard of it. Trust me though, it is a useful tool in trying to understand this thing we call life, and for the purposes of this post, this thing we call The Iowa Offense.

As a quick reminder, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is his effort to explain the nature of reality. The cave represents the mindset of most human beings, and the narrative of the dramatic exit from the cave is Plato’s contemplation of the source of true understanding.

Let’s break this allegory down:

Imagine a cave, in which prisoners are kept. These prisoners have been in the cave since essentially birth. They’re all chained so that their legs and necks are immobile, forced to look at a wall in front of them. Behind them is this fire and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, on which people can walk.

These people on the walkway are puppeteers, and they’re carrying objects in the shape of humans, animal figures, and everyday items. The prisoners can only see these shapes as flickering images on the wall, because, you know, they can’t move their heads. So, naturally, they assume these flickering images to be real, but they’re just shadows, representations of what is actually real.

**Now, you may be ahead of me, but if not, let’s discuss this cave in the allegory.** The cave could easily be a symbol of the world of Iowa football, and the prisoners are those who inhabit that world.

Okay. So, Plato in his philosophical musing, offers this plot twist — what if one of the prisoners were to be freed and made to turn and look at the fire? The bright light would hurt his eyes, because he’s been living in a dark cave with only shadows. But once he turns his gaze back to the wall he now cannot help but realize that those shadows, that he’s spent his whole damn life believing were “real” weren't real at all, just shadows of the real items on the walkway behind him.

Wait, it gets better.

What if the prisoner is taken outside of the cave and brought into the sunlight? Now we’re talking major disorientation, because the light of the sun would be much more intense than the fire. But, eventually, wouldn’t his eyes adjust to the intensity of the sunlight? Yes, and then the freed prisoner would be able to “see” beyond mere shadows; he would see a far more intensive and illuminated reality, a more legit reality.

**Again, you may be ahead of me, but if not, let’s discuss this sunlight in the allegory.** The sun represents knowledge and truth and once you are exposed to it, that shadowy half-truth, or worse, no longer satisfies. Now you realize, “OMG, those dudes still in cave are so screwed. I pity the shit out of them for missing…this!”

Okay. So, Plato then contemplated what would happen if the prisoner, after learning of the reality of the world, were to return to the cave and rejoin the other prisoners with the hope of perhaps bringing them, too, into the light. Plato believed, and this is the sad part, that as he tries to explain the beautiful, wondrous reality, just outside the cave, a reality he has personally seen, the prisoners would see him as a lunatic, because, of course, they really have no way to understand what reality is.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Iowa offensive football. How? Because if you see Brian as the prisoner in the allegory, shit gets real…real quick.

Brian was born and raised within his father’s The Iowa Way shadowy belief system about how football exists and thus must be played. Brian was, de facto, a prisoner of this mindset until…perhaps...he was freed from the cave. Surely this was why everyone was so hopeful for him? After playing at Iowa he was able to see with the help of his time within Bill Belichick’s view of football, and with this he was exposed to how things really are outside The Iowa Way cave. Then, one day, he returns to the cave and is eventually given the opportunity to speak of the reality he has experienced outside the cave. But, naturally, it may not have been met with awe and delight, but resistance and frustration. Why? Because it is an implication of the shadows. So it is not well — or at the very least, quickly — received, because it is a truth that is so foreign to that which those in cave have lived with for so very long.

This is not just an allegory that can apply to the coaching staff or players or just the story of Brian and Kirk, but this allegory can extend to fans and even the Iowa football press. The tension that exists between those who enjoy the “truths” of the cave and recoil in pain and confusion when exposed to something other than the shadows (and we know who you are around these here parts (smiley face), and those who want nothing but to escape the cave and to embrace the light, is real.

This past Saturday the light we all confronted was so bright, so stark, that it felt, at first, as if it was overwhelming. It was as if we were soon to be blinded. (I immediately had my doubts that what I was seeing would continue.) But with each quarter, our eyes adjusted and with every pass on first down, with every trickeration, with every aggressive play-call there was this growing comfort with the brightness and by the end of the game the realization that maybe, just maybe the shadows from a flickering firelight will never ever be enough again.

So, my question now is this: Has Kirk, after this weekend, truly seen the light?