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AIRBHG: The Ultimate “What-If” of the Kirk Ferentz Era

What heights might the Iowa football program have reached under Kirk Ferentz’s stewardship if not for perpetual misfortune befalling its running back room?

Iowa v Michigan State
Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson smile after Iowa’s thrilling 2009 victory over MSU, blissfully unaware that they will soon be among the next victims of the Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God.
Photo by Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

SB Nation tasked us with examining some of the greatest “what-if” scenarios in program history, and previous articles in this series have tackled everything from Lute Olson coaching at Iowa for life to Hawkeye super babies (don’t ask). Now it’s time to stop beating around the bush and address the greatest, most enduring what-if of the Ferentz era.

Iowa football was the dregs of the Big Ten at the turn of the century, but unbeknownst to the college football world, its new head coach Kirk Ferentz had a plan to turn things around. Thanks to a few fantastic recruiting classes filled with both blue chips and unheralded gems, a stellar staff of assistant coaches, and a legendary player development program, Iowa clawed its way back to respectability by 2001 and was the Cinderella story of the 2002 season.

Little did Iowa fans know, however, that the shine of Iowa football’s resurgence only served to obscure the maleficent shadow lingering in the darkness. Like the dwarves that dwelled in Tolkien’s Mines of Moria, Ferentz and his staff dug too greedily and too deep while mining for diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail, awaking a demon from the ancient world.

I’m speaking of course, about AIRBHG, or the “Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God.”

It was easy at first for Iowa fans to deny the existence of this vengeful deity. Afterall, injuries happen in football, especially at running back. Senior Ladell Betts finally makes it to a bowl only to miss the game due to injury? Bad luck. Betts’ heir apparent Aaron Greving quits the team? An unfortunate, but not unforeseeable loss that can be chalked up to the emergence of Fred Russell and Jermelle Lewis. Lewis and Albert Young both suffer injuries before the start of the 2003 season? At least we still have Freddie!

By 2004, however, Hawkeye fans could no longer ignore the evidence of AIRBHG’s power. Six Iowa running backs suffered serious injuries over the course of the season, eventually leaving walk-on Sam Brownlee as Iowa’s starting running back for a short spell. While the Hawkeyes managed to weather this storm en route to a 10-2 record, this was just a taste of what AIRBHG had in store. Highly touted prospects like Corey Robertson, Kalvin Bailey, and A.J. Johnson disappeared without making an impact for the Hawkeyes. Other backs like Mika’il McCall, De’Andre Johnson, and Greg Garmon would appear poised for a breakout, only to never be heard from again. Several backs ultimately succumbed to medical issues, some before getting the chance to show all they were capable of (Brad Rogers, Toks Akinribade), while others like Jermelle Lewis showed they had what it took to ascend to the next level only for injuries to deprive them of that chance. Even Doak Walker award winner Shonn Greene had to flunk out of school and do a stint as a furniture mover before finally blowing up.

AIRBHG’s masterstroke might have been the 2010 season, however. Fresh off its Orange Bowl win, Iowa expected to return maybe the most talented trio of sophomore backs in program history in Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher, and Jewel Hampton. Combining the skills of these talented ballcarriers with a passing attack that featured Ricky Stanzi, Marvin McNutt, and the artist formerly known as DJK, Iowa seemed poised to have one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.

But it was not to be: Wegher left the team before the season began, Hampton suffered his second season-ending ACL tear before transferring to Southern Illinois, and Robinson spoiled an otherwise productive campaign by getting suspended before the bowl game, ultimately leading to him being kicked off the team. Iowa appeared to have found mana from heaven when Robinson’s freshman backup Marcus Coker exploded for 219 yards in the Insight Bowl, but he would last only one more season before he followed in Robinson’s footsteps, being suspended for the bowl game before being released from his scholarship. In the blink of an eye, Iowa went from an embarrassment of riches at running back to rolling out an overmatched true freshman as its Insight Bowl starter against Oklahoma. Iowa’s leading rusher the next season after further injuries and defections? Fullback Mark Weisman.

Some Hawkeye fans have claimed that AIRBHG was vanquished after Iowa weathered injuries to Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels to go 12-0 in 2015, had two backs rush for 1,000 yards the following season, and then secured the commitment of star Nevada ballcarrier James Butler as a grad transfer. But like all of history’s greatest villains (Voldemort, Sauron, herpes), AIRBHG may appear to have vanished, but is still lurking behind the scenes planning his next move. In recent years AIRBHG has found a more subtle way to deprive Iowa of running back talent: decommitments. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Michigan’s Karan Higdon, and Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin were all committed to Iowa at one point before eventually defecting, only to become stars at their eventual programs. Most observers would attribute these decommitments to the changing whims of fickle teenagers, but this writer knows better.

AIRBHG is the source of some of the biggest “what-ifs” in Iowa football history. What would Jermelle’s career have been like had he stayed healthy? How potent would Iowa’s offense have been from 2010-2012 had it not suffered historic levels of running back attrition, and could it have saved Hawkeye fans from one of the more disappointing stretches of the Ferentz era? What might Iowa have accomplished had Melvin Gordon and his nearly 5,000 career rushing yards made Iowa City home from 2011-2014? Could the addition of Karan Higdon and/or Eno Benjamin have turned Iowa into a legitimate Big Ten title contender the past two seasons?

Iowa fans will never know the answer to these questions, just as they will never have the full story about what exactly Kirk Ferentz did to anger AIRBHG in the first place (something tells me KOK had a hand in it). All the Hawkeye faithful can do is hope that AIRBHG remains in his relatively dormant state and keeps his grubby little hands away from Tyler Goodson over the next few years.