Nebraska somewhat surprisingly announced the decision to fire Bo Pelini as head football coach on Sunday, despite the fact that the Cornhuskers rallied from a steep deficit to defeat Iowa on Friday and yet again win at least 9 games in a regular season. At his press conference to formally announce and explain the decision to let Pelini go, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst referenced the Iowa football program (emphasis added):
"Our kids showed great character and resiliency in a tough environment," Eichorst said Sunday, "so it did play a factor. But in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was."
When asked to clarify his comment about Iowa, Eichorst said, "As I looked back on the outcomes, I'm trying to look back at who are championship-caliber football teams at that moment and how competitive we were in those games.
"We weren't playing for a conference championship and neither was Iowa. I have great respect for Iowa. It's a great institution and a wonderful football program. But in the final analysis, their record was where it was and ours was where it was. Fair enough?"
It would be nice to be able to get upset or defensive about Eichorst's comments, to try and refute them, and explain that they don't accurately reflect the state of the Iowa program. Except we can't do that. We can't refute them. The painful reality is that they do accurately reflect the state of the Iowa program.
"I'm trying to look back at who are championship-caliber football teams at that moment"
That's not Iowa. That hasn't been Iowa for quite a while, in fact. Iowa did enter the final two weeks of the season with a shot at winning the Big Ten West (though they didn't fully control their destiny; they needed Minnesota to lose one of their remaining games), but favorable scheduling (loading the games against West division rivals at the end of the slate) likely played a role in that as well. Still, they entered the season's home stretch at 4-2 in the Big Ten and with a not-impossible shot at the division. The last time we could say that about Iowa was that close to a Big Ten championship was probably 2009, when they went into Columbus for a late November game with the league title on the line.
That was five years ago and one of the closing acts of a truly mystifying and miraculous season. Since 2009, Iowa has gone 19-21 in the Big Ten -- and that's despite missing the Big Ten champion in 2011 and 2012 (Wisconsin), as well as a 12-0 Ohio State team in 2012. Iowa also didn't play either Ohio State (11-1) or Michigan State (10-2) this season. That's a lot of top teams to duck -- and Iowa still hasn't taken advantage of those scheduling quirks and been able to put together title-contending seasons.
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, Iowa has gone 15-17 in league play. They're 1-3 against Nebraska in that span, as well as 0-2 against Wisconsin, 0-1 against Ohio State, and 1-2 against Michigan State. Their only win over a realistic Big Ten contender in that span was the upset win over Michigan in 2011 (the Wolverines finished the regular season 10-2, 6-2 in the Big Ten, a game back of Michigan State). That win was also Iowa's last win over a ranked opponent. Over half of Iowa's wins in the Big Ten since Nebraska's arrival have come against Purdue (3), Northwestern (3), and Indiana (2).
But Eichorst is right: Iowa's not a championship-caliber team. They're a middle of the pack team. They're averaging roughly a 4-4 record in B1G play of late and they generally beat the conference's lower class and lose to the conference's upper class. That's what middle of the pack teams do and that's how you get to the middle.
Eichorst decided that Nebraska has been stuck in a rut (not the same rut as Iowa, but one between middle of the pack and championship-caliber) and decided that wasn't acceptable and made a move. Whether that was the right decision or not for Nebraska isn't really at issue here (personally, I think the number of coaches who are likely to improve upon Pelini's success at Nebraska is pretty tiny and it's decidedly unclear if any of them would even want to move to Lincoln and try their luck at doing so); the reality is that Nebraska's powerbrokers saw their program sliding into stagnancy, irrelevance, and a failure to contend for titles and took action. They decided that the results Pelini had been getting weren't acceptable and that a change was needed.
Here's the question for Gary Barta, Kirk Ferentz, and the Iowa football program: what does that say about the Hawkeyes? This program isn't just sliding into stagnancy and irrelevance; it's already bought a time-share there. To be sure, expectations are an important factor to take into consideration here; Nebraska has spectacularly high expectations and dreams of nothing but a return to their '90s salad days (or a reasonable approximation of such, at least). FIVE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS ain't a meme for no reason, after all. Iowa doesn't have such spectacularly high expectations. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing -- championship or bust is a pretty tough standard to meet unless you're a blue blood program. But that doesn't mean accepting stagnation and irrelevance, either.
Nebraska's decision to fire Pelini for, essentially, producing unacceptable results doesn't unquestionably mean that Iowa should also fire Ferentz for producing results that are empirically worse. There are other factors -- expectations, relationships, finances -- that need to go into that decision. (Personally, if Barta reached the conclusion that Ferentz needed to be replaced or if Ferentz reached the conclusion that he wanted to step down... well, I wouldn't fight those decisions.) But at the very least, Nebraska's decision ought to prompt some significant soul-searching at Iowa. Nebraska's decision to fire Pelini and seek out a new coach is a swing for the fences decision. Is Iowa still swinging for the fences? It feels like Iowa might just be hoping to hit a ground-rule double these days.
Every year, Kirk Ferentz says Iowa's goal is to win the Big Ten championship, to contend for a conference title. And almost every year for the past ten years, Iowa hasn't been particularly close to doing so. Is contending for a championship still the goal for the Iowa program? If it is, does Gary Barta still think Kirk Ferentz and this staff can get Iowa to that goal? Does Kirk Ferentz still think this staff can get Iowa to that goal? Because as an outside observer watching this program, it's getting very hard to answer "yes" to those questions after the results of the past few seasons.
For now, Barta and Ferentz are punting on those questions, as indicated by these comments in The Des Moines Register:
Back-to-back home losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska, by a combined five points, soured the Hawkeyes' season. Whether there will be football staffing changes hasn't been discussed, Barta said.
"The emotions are still raw. We'll have time to evaluate, how do we go from here?" Barta said. "I love the team we have coming back (in 2015). We still have a bowl game to play. Then we'll break down the rest of it."
Barta spoke with Iowa 16th-year head coach Kirk Ferentz after the loss. Ferentz said Friday he would not assess big-picture questions until after Iowa's bowl game.
"Right now, he's in the same mode. He's not ready to break down the season," Barta said. "We're going to find out what bowl we're going to. We're recruiting (this week). ... Then when it's all done, that's when we'll break down, where did we need to improve offensively? All that will happen after the season."
Why wait until after the season -- or, rather, after the bowl game? The season is over. Iowa's going to play one more game, yes. But it's an exhibition game on a non-holiday, likely in a bowl sponsored by a chicken producer or a service that helps you do your taxes. In other words, it's a game of no importance, likely against an opponent no one will be able to name two years from now. And for this we need to keep the band together for another month? The same band that's 15-10 over the past two seasons, 9-7 in the Big Ten? That's quite a tune the band is playing -- there's no way it won't be topping the charts before long.
"We'll have time to evaluate," Barta says, and that's true. I just wish I believed that there would be a thorough, full-scale evaluation of the program because that's something that genuinely is badly needed. Iowa hasn't won a Big Ten championship in ten years; worse, they've rarely challenged for one in that span. The two best years in that span (2008 and 2009) featured one of the best running backs in the history of the program (Shonn Greene), two of the best receivers in the history of the program (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt), an elite offensive lineman (Bryan Bulaga), and a defense loaded with guys who would later spend time in the NFL (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Mitch King, Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds, Amari Spievey, Tyler Sash, Shaun Prater); it's hard to look around the current roster and see talent like that waiting to burst out.
Worse, when Iowa has been handed seasons with opportunities to succeed, they've frequently come up short (2005, 2007, 2010, 2014). It's one thing to win 6-8 games if it's part of a cycle that involves winning 9-10 games (or more) down the road; it's another thing entirely to just win 6-8 games on repeat, forever and ever, amen. Are there worse places to be than that? Of course -- we can cast our sight a few hundred miles to the west and see proof of that. But there are also better places to be and it would be a mistake to let a fear of the unknown -- or a fear of failure -- prevent Iowa from striving for something better.
Iowa's been doing roughly the same thing (with roughly the same results) for a very long time now; expecting it to suddenly start producing different results is madness. Nebraska made their evaluation and decided that running in place wasn't going to get them where they wanted to go. It's time for Iowa to do the same thing -- they need to decide where they want to go and how they're going to get there.