For the record, this is my third attempt at this piece. Since late last week I’ve written about 4500 words on Kirk Ferentz’s legacy that will never see the light of day. Sometimes you just have a stretch where everything you write is simultaneously good and awful, them’s the breaks as they say.
Fortunately for me, those thousands of words, and several hours of my time, got me on the right track. You see, as I wrote endlessly about the highs and the lows of the last 24 years of Iowa football, I kept coming back to two words, “what if”. That disyllabic question, in a nutshell, tidily sums up my feelings about this coaching administration, and as we approach the start of a new season, we’re right back in that place, with a whole lot of “what ifs” and kickoff in less than 72 hours.
The first big “what if” of this era pre-dates the hiring of Kirk Ferentz. What if Bob Stoops had spurned Oklahoma and come home to coach at his alma mater. Would Iowa fans have watched him transform a good, but rarely great, program into a new blue blood? I don’t expect that he would have taken over and immediately had Iowa in the national championship conversation (Fry’s recruiting had fallen off in those final years), but given 2-3 years like Ferentz had, could we all be talking about 15-20 top 25 teams in 25 seasons, as opposed to 10? Could we be looking back at a team that made a leap and started challenging UM and OSU every year? We’ll never know, but I’m certain that there’s a parallel universe where Iowa is a perennial Top 5 team for most of the last 25 years.
Next up, at least in my mind, is September 14, 2002. What if we pull out a win over a very talented Iowa State team? That’s an undefeated co-B1G champion that maybe, just maybe, gets over the hump and into the BCS championship. I mean, I doubt it (OSU’s schedule was just tougher that season, and Miami was only challenged a few times all season), but it’s a nice little thought experiment. I really wish OSU had been on our schedule that year, if only to know for certain if we had a team that could win it all.
What if we’d had a healthy RB room in 2004? That team went 10-2 with Sam Brownlee starting at RB and beat LSU to finish the season ranked 8th. Imagine what that team looks like with Jermelle Lewis and Albert Young healthy (or even with Aaron Greving staying in the program). I will not speak the name of our least favorite deity, but you all know it, and we all think about what might have been if he had chosen some other school to punish in 2004, or 2010-12, or even 2015. If you want to relive that history @MattReisener covered it better than I can back in 2020
I’m sure I could do this all day, all the way up to and including last season, but enough ink has been spilled on the offensive woes of the 2022 season to fill Kinnick Stadium, so I will move on.
Hope Springs Eternal
To say that this has been a whirlwind offseason is probably an understatement. The last two seasons of Iowa football have seen some lofty highs and some interminable lows. We’ve watched a team win 18 games often through sheer force of will, and lose 9 games in ways that left the fanbase angry and enervated. We’ve seen players ascend to the peak of their abilities, and others flounder under the weight of poor coaching/recruiting/playcalling. Yet, through all of the tumult of the last two seasons, the offseason started with an immediate surge of hope, and just kept getting better and better. A new QB that led a team to a B1G championship (through a drubbing of our beloved Hawkeyes), his favorite TE, reinforcements for diminished OL and WR rooms, and an All Conference linebacker to backfill an all world linebacker.
By the spring game, everything was looking up, sure, a lot of the transfers (not to mention some returning starters) were out with injuries, but they had all summer to rest and recuperate before camp. Then came the gambling scandal, which we were fortunate enough to weather fairly well (though it remains to be seen which of the 21+ year old DBs - Harris or Schulte - is looking at a suspension).
Noah Shannon’s suspension is awful for a plethora of reasons, mainly because I hate that we live in a world where throwing down $100 on a women’s basketball game (in a state where sports gambling is legal) can cost a great player, and by all accounts an even better human, his final year of eligibility. I really just don’t think the punishment fits the (lack of any actual) crime here. But that’s not really a what if, is it? Iowa’s defensive line is deep, and, tbh, Yahyah Black and Aaron Graves have a much higher ceiling than Shannon. His leadership will be missed, but we might actually get an upgrade at the position through a really unfortunate type of attrition.
And yet, after all of the excitement and increased expectations, three days out we’re awash in “what if’s”.
New Year, Same Question
The non-contact injury that Cade McNamara suffered on Kid’s Day a couple of weeks ago looms larger than any other opening week question I can recall over the last 25 years. We’ve been told, almost daily, over the last couple weeks that it wasn’t the knee, that it wasn’t overly concerning, that he would be back at practice and ready to go against Utah St. Well, at least until Monday, when his status started getting a lot murkier, and as of now his status is “questionable”.
So, we have an ever increasing list of “what if’s”:
What if Deacon Hill isn’t ready for primetime?
What if Cade plays and suffers an even worse injury?
What if Deacon gets hurt, is Labas truly ready to go after missing most of camp?
What if the offensive line is still not up to par?
What if Jack Campbell and Seth Benson really were impossible to replace?
What if Harris or Schulte are out for the year?
What if Brian still can’t figure out how to get this offense to score points?
What if, what if, what if…
I started writing this column with the goal of putting together a tough, but fair, analysis of Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz and I’ve now written more than 6000 words that, in all fairness, could be summed up in two: What If?
I certainly don’t think this is revelatory, any one of you could have written this piece with different scenarios and outcomes. Kirk Ferentz has had a HOF career at Iowa and will leave as its all time winningest coach regardless of what happens in 2023. As @BoilerHawk noted in his piece yesterday, Kirk has done enough to keep the fans happy and the stadium filled year after year. Iowans, it seems, are content with a program that wins consistently, steers clear of the worst kind of scandals, and gives them something to be proud of. On balance, Kirk Ferentz has always done that, and given plenty of fans a good excuse to go somewhere warm for a week most winters.
In his press conference Tuesday Kirk said “Sometimes people don’t like how we win”, and I wholeheartedly agree with that. But for my money, I think the inverse of that statement is a lot more indicative of Kirk’s legacy, because a win is always a win (6-4, 7-3, ‘nuff said).
More often than not, my issue is how we lose. I’ll never be upset over dropping a close game to a team that outplays us. I will always be upset when we lose a game that we should win, whether through poor performance or bad coaching, and at the end of the day, Kirk Ferentz’s time at Iowa will likely be judged more on the “what if’s” than it ever will be on the ugly wins.
So as we prepare ourselves for the start of another football season, we hope that everything turns out the way we want it to. We hope that Cade will be healthy from week 1 all the way to the B1G CCG, that the Offensive line will open huge holes for KJ2 to burn through on his way to a 1500+ yard season, and that the number 325 will not matter. Yet, as we surround ourselves with the trappings of a college football game day, all of those “what if” scenarios will be there, hiding in the corners of our mind, as we wait for the other shoe to drop. Maybe that’s just what the experience of being an Iowa fan is, perpetually high hopes tempered by realistic expectations and a whole lot of uncertainty.