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A KODAK MOMENT? TAKING STOCK OF IOWA'S FOOTBALL BRAND

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A snapshot look at the Iowa Hawkeyes football brand in the wake of recent unmet expectations under Kirk Ferentz.

Kodak is famous within marketing circles for being the first company to ever integrate its name and look into a symbol for its logo. Once one of the bluest of blue chip brands, Kodak recently came out of bankruptcy protection in hopes of mounting one final push toward solvency but even their current CEO will admit that the Kodak brand has long since faded to black when compared to its prior authority thanks almost exclusively to its inability to respond to a rise in digital use. Ironically, it was Kodak engineers who actually invented the technology that would be principally responsible for its eventual demise, the digital camera in 1975. Like most innovations the idea was not deemed particularly useful by an executive management team that was deeply cemented to the film business and suffering from an arrogance of success. By 2009 when the last spool of Kodachrome film rolled off the line in Mexico, Kodak had flatlined. Despite the fact that Kodak's brand awareness is now manifestly extinct, for a coach of a certain age (whose cliches remain superglued to a pre-digital timeline), Iowa football's "Kodak moments" persist endure.

Of course the world of business has other examples of seemingly rock solid brands, painstakingly built over the course of years of success, only to experience decline. Consider the current states of the Toyota, Kmart, BlackBerry, and Yahoo! brand. All are current examples of declining brands despite appreciable growth in their respective industries. When comparing thriving brands against those that are weakening, the improving brands are just better at identifying what consumers want or they're better at shaping their desires. Struggling brands, on the other hand, ignore signs of decline until confronted with inescapable setback.

Marketers will tell you consumers have never been more sophisticated in the purchase process. Customers are no longer uncritical or passive patrons and the marketplace is saturated with competition. Brand loyalty, therefore, is more elusive and thereby more important than ever. Brand loyalty, after all, is what helps smooth the inevitable ups and downs between consumer and brand. Brand loyalty is the shock absorber that allows a product ride through the rough spots.

So, where does this leave Iowa's current football brand?

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Before we debate that, let's first agree on what is a brand? Most marketing textbooks pretty much agree that branding is the idea that when anyone hears the name of a product they have some impression, some understanding of what that product stands for. When a brand is recognized by potential customers, as in the consumer actually knows enough about the product to correctly associate it with a brand, this is called "brand awareness." Branding, thus, is when the consumer has an unspoken expectation about what a product will deliver. In the case of Iowa football, which is sports entertainment, the consumers are the fans and the product is the team's play and performance.

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These days we accept that college football is unabashedly branded entertainment. But this was not always the case. It could be argued (and has been) that 1984 was a turning point for college athletics in general, but especially for college football.

Back in 1984 the NCAA negotiated all national television deals and limited college football teams to six television appearances in a two-year span. The University of Georgia and the University of Oklahoma, representing the sentiments of a significant block of major college football programs (although certainly not all of them) sued the NCAA with the belief that the NCAA television plan violated the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts.

In 1984, the Supreme Court set the new course for college sports when it ruled on NCAA v. Board of Regents, an antitrust lawsuit brought by member schools who objected to the NCAA's control over television broadcast contracts.

The NCAA argued that if it lost, it would doom college sports.

The NCAA lost. Since then, the annual growth rate of Division I-A (FBS) college athletic departments has been 8.2 percent, fueled by growing TV contracts negotiated by conferences. Big-time college sports has grown faster than the U.S. economy (5.0 percent). Even McDonald's (7.7 percent) can't compete.

-- From ESPN.com

The Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of the universities, finding the NCAA's actions were in fact "a restraint of trade." The Supreme Court had based their decision on the notion that by the NCAA restraining price and output of college football games they had created a system that was unrelated to a free and competitive market.

"It changed the landscape," said antitrust expert Gary Roberts -- former dean of the Indiana University law school in Indianapolis. "Instead of the NCAA being able to limit and regulate how teams sell their product to television so that we can keep a level playing field, it unleashed a free enterprise kind of culture that elevated the pursuit of revenues above the interest of the student-athletes.

"It was an antitrust decision that forced major college athletic programs to function like they were for-profit businesses."

-- From The Supreme Court and the NCAA by Brian Porto

In the wake of the ruling college football slowly transitioned its primary concern away from the student athlete and began operating, as do all for-profit businesses, with an even greater concern for the consumer...the fan. Interestingly Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens, wrote in his majority decision a kind of prediction on where college football was likely to go:

Moreover, the NCAA seeks to market a particular brand of football -- college football. The identification of this "product" with an academic tradition differentiates college football from and makes it more popular than professional sports to which it might otherwise be comparable, such as, for example, minor league baseball.

So, back to branding. There are obvious benefits of creating a brand for a business. Brands create consumer trust and cultivate emotional attachments. Brand image is the "personality" that people associate with a product. It adds to brand equity by creating an emotional connection between consumers and what they buy. When people can relate to a brand, they tend to stay loyal to it over time. And here is the key benefit of a brand: it allows a business to create a price premium. People will pay to be associated with a brand. A brand serves, too, as a differentiator, in a marketplace where the basic product or service is widely offered. A well conceived brand can establish a product as unique, and in a marketplace driven by supply and demand, people will pay premium prices for unique products.

It is well known among frequent visitors to this blog that for a number of years now Iowa has been among one of the best athletic departments in the country at generating revenue (recently ranked 11th). A year ago ESPN's Outside the Lines looked at revenue earned by university athletic departments specifically through licensing, sponsorships, advertising, and royalties for a seven-year period, concluding with the 2012-13 season. Within the Big Ten the top three programs in this particular study were Michigan with nearly $110 million earned, then Nebraska at $64 million, and Ohio State at $60 million. Seeing those three teams at the top is not especially surprising. Each have multiple national championships to bolster their awareness. The fourth team on the list, however, might take a little of your breath away: Minnesota ($48.5 million). The fifth team? Iowa, with $42 million.

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Manish Tripathy, a marketing professor for the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics project, has spearheaded research using publicly available data to measure and rank a sports teams and their brand equity. As Tripathy points out, brand equity with sports entities is an intangible asset that depends on associations made by the consumer, so analysis requires indirect measures. Tripathy believes brand equity for sports entities is very closely tied to intense fan loyalty. He measures this through a concept he calls "fan equity."

Our baseline concept of fan quality is something we term fan equity. This is similar in spirit to "brand equity" but is adapted to focus specifically on the intensity of customer preference (rather than to consider market coverage or awareness). We calculate fan equity using a revenue-premium model. The basic approach is to develop a statistical model of team revenues based on team performance and market characteristics. We then compare the forecasted revenues from this model for each team to actual revenues. When teams actual revenues exceed predicted revenues, we take this as evidence of superior fan support.

For the fan equity analysis, we build a statistical model using publicly available data from the last fourteen years that predicts team revenues as a function of metrics related to team performance such as winning percentage, bowl participation, and other factors such as number of students, stadium capacity, etc.

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In 2014 Tripathy ranked Iowa in the Top Ten nationally in fan equity. It is important to reiterate that in Tripathy's methodology he controls for factors such as market size, and short variations in team performance. He is trying to find out who the real overachievers are and to over-value market size or fleeting success would compromise that effort. By contextualizing market size and outlier winning seasons he can generate a measurement that is more stable or that evaluates "true" preference levels for a team. To the general public, who has a very short attention span, today's winners always appear to have strong brand and fan equity. But Tripathy and his team know better. So while it might have been a bit surprising to see Iowa ranked so highly (above), by looking at things from Tripathy's perspective it makes it far less nutty to see the Hawkeyes in a Top Ten alongside so many other bona fide blue bloods.

If one were to spend a week reading football commentary here at BHGP over the last few seasons they would no doubt come away believing Iowa football fan loyalty is on the wane, but Tripathy's lofty ranking of Iowa's fan equity might be revealing testimony to the power of the Hawkeyes sports brand. While Iowa is a modestly sized university within the Big Ten (Iowa is currently ranked 12th in the Big Ten in enrollment and endowment) and the program must share its small state with another FBS athletic program, it is still the case that Iowa is among a handful of college football teams that has considerable appeal beyond the borders of current and former students.

Iowa fans who are loyal to the Hawkeyes despite not having attended the university are occasionally identified pejoratively as Tavern Hawks, especially by that other FBS fanbase in-state who are overwhelmed by the attention that is lavished upon the Iowa Hawkeyes (much of it even within their own backyard). Tavern Hawks are a powerful faction within the fan equity equation for the Iowa athletic department. There is no way to know when most of these folks initially developed their relationship to the Iowa Hawkeyes brand, but their intensity can likely be traced back to one man.

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"Where I come from, it’s called selling the sizzle before the steak." — Hayden Fry

When Hayden Fry arrived on campus in the late 1970s he immediately went about the task of revitalizing, indeed reshaping the Iowa Hawkeyes football brand. Iowa had endured 17 seasons in a row of non-winning football yet Fry was eager to take on the daunting task of turning Iowa's football fortunes around, but not by winning. At least not right away. Fry knew attitudes had to change before performance could follow.

His first order of business was to change the uniforms. Fry, a psychology major in college, understood that in order to manifest change he would need to first separate Iowa's identity from any markers of its losing past. Fry had coached Mean Joe Greene at North Texas and kept close watch on his career to the NFL where he had become arguably the best defensive player, playing for the PIttsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were the dominant NFL franchise in the period that marked Fry's arrival at Iowa. Fry reached out to Greene to inquire about getting replica jerseys for the purpose of possibly creating some kind of facsimile, which led Greene to introduce Fry to Steelers ownership. Fry asked the Steelers to grant Iowa permission to imitate their uniform scheme and the Steelers agreed, with a few modest modifications. And well before any on-the-field success was achieved, the Hawkeyes became one of the first and only college teams to take on an NFL uniform scheme.

Next up for Fry was the introduction of a new logo. Many college teams (including Iowa at the time) were using logos designed as cartoon characterizations of the mascot, but Fry wanted something much more graphic and contemporary (if not more fearsome looking to boot). After an initial failed effort to find a desirable design through a campus contest Fry turned to a Cedar Rapids art director who would eventually design the Tiger Hawk logo. Fry now had a new logo for his helmets and new uniforms. For longtime fans the Hawkeyes had undergone a complete visual makeover, and the natives were unsure what to think. But by Fry's third year Iowa was in the Rose Bowl and just like that fans adopted the logo and uniform change that marked a new era in Iowa athletics.

Side note: Fry recognized there was financial opportunity associated with the new Tiger Hawk brand, of which he owned at the time, and struck a deal with J.C. Penney stores around the state selling Tiger Hawk gear. Fry wanted to sell his new brand of football, and in the process made himself a ton of money. Then in 1982 Fry outright donated the Tiger Hawk logo to the university. Licensing deals were quickly developed and Iowa had a cash cow on its hands.

What Fry was able to do with the Iowa brand was by every measure so incredibly successful as to become a model of success. Former Fry assistant coach Bill Snyder took the model lock, stock and barrel to Manhattan, Kansas upon his hiring as head coach at Kansas State in 1988, and crafted what was once a completely disregarded and disgraced program into arguably the greatest turnaround in college football history. Again, first by changing the brand and then by fortifying it through winning.

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Tiger Hawk logo vs. Power Cat logo

When Kirk Ferentz arrived on campus in 1998 as Hayden Fry's successor, the Iowa brand was very well established, although the winning of the earlier Fry era had faded. Had Ferentz chosen to make some superficial changes to the program's branded look or feel, as Fry had done some 20 years earlier, it would not have been surprising (although it might not have been met with much enthusiasm). Coaches often introduce new rituals, uniform modifications, etc. to signal a break with a past that, usually, has included some untenable losing -- new coaches are hired, after all, to improve things. But Ferentz understood that fans were fond of what Iowa football had become under Fry and were not looking for a new attitude, they just wanted to win again. Besides, having grown up in Pittsburgh it's possible that Ferentz was plenty thrilled with the look of the uniforms anyway.

While Ferentz might not have made changes to Iowa's branded appearance, he made clear-cut changes to the way in which his teams would play and how he would run the program. Since their personal brands could not have been more different, the Iowa brand under each coach would become a direct reflection of the men themselves. Whereas Fry, a former quarterback, chose to innovate on offense, Ferentz, a former linebacker who had become an offensive line specialist as a coach, eschewed trickery for tradition.

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Fry was happy to wear white slacks and USS Iowa caps on the sidelines (Fry later explained that his sideline dress code was dictated by needing to stand out so his quarterback could find him for playcalling purposes). Conversely Ferentz's sideline dress was khakis and no hat at all, instead choosing to blend in with the myriad of coaches and football personnel roaming the sidelines. The Ferentz-led Hawkeyes settled in on a defense-first approach, and committed to rugged offensive line play to make way for a smashmouth run game. Ferentz introduced a "balance" and "execution" mantra and following a string of exceptional, if not historic seasons, an updating of the Iowa brand had taken shape.

Ferentz's recruiting approach has proven to also stand in contrast to Fry's. Fry believed Iowa's high school talent pool was too shallow to support an elite college football program. So Fry also recruited nationally. Under Fry players came from California, Texas, Florida, and Queens, NY, and every place in between. Fry then relied upon one of the best coaching trees in the history of college football to achieve his goals. Ferentz has arrived at a different solution to the tenuous Iowa high school talent pool. He has turned Iowa into a full-scale developmental operation whereby he scouts the best players in Iowa, especially through his camps, looking for guys who are most suited physically and mentally for the Iowa developmental model. Then he similarly tries to unearth diamonds in the rough in the backyard of Iowa's midwest rivals, and more modestly within certain hotbed recruiting areas beyond that. Ferentz's "Iowa Way" is to let his strength and conditioning coach and positional coaches take it from there.

Within a few years of his taking over as head coach at Iowa, the Hawkeyes became known as a program that played a very physical brand of football. Ferentz believed in and sold the full developmental cycle to recruits and fans alike, believing it created a talent pipeline on campus by allowing players to reach their full physical, emotional and intellectual potential under the watchful eye of he and his staff. Ideally, under Ferentz's model, players would be making their greatest contributions in their final years on campus--assuming they bought into the model and stayed to complete the process.

Unfortunately, the last few years under Ferentz have seen less stellar results than the first few, and one has to wonder what impact this might be having on Iowa football's brand loyalty. It is easy to say that Ferentz is far less savvy or even interested in branding than was Fry. Fry appeared to view the self-esteem of the program as an outgrowth of external positive feedback. If the chatter outside was negative, the chatter inside would naturally follow. This was one of the reasons Fry would so often go to war with the media over their characterizations of his team.

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Iowa football, like the University itself, is an open system. It's the football program of a public university. Information abounds, by law. But, Kirk Ferentz thinks differently than did Fry. Whereas Fry was courting interest, often, Kirk Ferentz is trying to restrict it. He attempts to organize the program as existing within a bubble that emerges only every so often...on Saturdays, for example. Ferentz spent critical developmental years in the NFL, a viciously copycat league with coaches and players moving back and forth from team to team. Controlling information in the NFL is nearly impossible and akin to national intelligence concerns, as NFL coaches often view it as paramount to success. Ferentz struggles to talk openly and often about the affairs of the program as a result. When other coaches meet with the media it can feel like witnessing video footage of Russian life before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For many years Ferentz has more or less tried to isolate the football program from the surrounding environment. It is a model of communication that's been nearly impossible to sustain in the age of social media. As much as anything, Ferentz's reluctance and discomfort at doing the one thing that came so naturally to Fry, support the football brand identity, is what might be his greatest challenge as a head coach in 2015. It is worth noting, however, that the early returns of 2015 suggest a shift in public relations efforts for the football program and Ferentz. But time will judge the sincerity of these early efforts.

Introvertedness, competitive anxiety, control -- all might help explain why Ferentz is explicitly if not vigorously nostalgic when he speaks with the media. Ferentz has chosen to adopt a position as guardian of the Iowa brand as constructed by Fry, which frees him up from having to creatively and actively cultivate and enrich the brand around himself. Just listen to a Kirk Ferentz press conference and you will be given a lesson in Iowa football history. The history lessons might be a reminder of his glory years as coach, or they might be a reminder of the glory years of Fry. On January 14th, at one of his most recent press conferences -- a press conference he called to discuss the "future" of Iowa football -- he invoked the 1980s and 1990s at least 10 times:

  • "Amy Thomas picked me up my first day of work in 1981."
  • "I've always felt fortunate to be here going back to 1981."
  • "I don't think I ever felt lower than 1981 after Minnesota beat us out there..."
  • "...we got here in 1999, and at that time we were looking up at basically everybody in our conference and pretty much on our schedule."
  • "Going back to 1999 I don't think I've ever put a timetable on things."
  • "I've said this publicly too, realistically we weren't going to Pasadena in 1999."
  • "As I came here, our attendance wasn't great in 1999."
  • "But I'm coaching the way I did in 1999."
  • "Again, I'll just reemphasize in 2000 and 1999, realistically it would have taken a lot for us to end up in the Rose Bowl."
  • "...I said 16 years ago and have said on and off between December of 1998 until now. Things haven't changed a heck of a lot from my vantage point."

Under Kirk Ferentz, almost 35 years after Fry's initial rebranding of Iowa football, the program can feel like a time capsule buried at midfield in Kinnick stadium and dug up roughly 7 times a year on Saturday afternoons.

When Good Brands Go Bad

People who study marketing believe the seeds of brand decline are often sewed at the moment one is arriving at greatness. Building the brand slips almost unnoticed into preservation of the brand, and soon forgotten is the discipline and objectivity that got you in the lead in the first place. As you would expect, brands are weakened the most when they take the customer for granted -- this is, unequivocally, the deadliest sin of marketing. Fry appeared to understand this fully when he considered coming to Iowa in the first place. The story is now legendary, that when Fry was considering where to go after North Texas State for his next head coaching job he zeroed in on Iowa's extraordinary fanbase. "I walked into the film room, and all my coaches were watching film of the University of Iowa playing someone, and every time the Hawkeyes would make a first down, the entire Kinnick Stadium would just erupt," Fry recalled in his autobiography, Hayden Fry: A High Porch Picnic. "They'd all get up and cheer. I got to thinking, 'My gosh, what would happen if we made a touchdown?' "

When a successful brand just de facto assumes the customers who bought-in in the past will continue to buy-in in the future, out of brand loyalty and fidelity alone, the cracks begin to emerge. It might be that history will show that signs of an Iowa Hawkeyes brand decline of any significant measure were most apparent at the TaxSlayer Bowl game. While Tennessee had some 50,000 fans in attendance in Jacksonville, Florida, Iowa is estimated to have had between 3,000 and 5,000 fans.

Tennessee fans lavish attention upon their 7-6 football team prior to the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Whether the former or latter estimate is more correct, either number is staggeringly low for a program that has a stunning history of vigorous and on some occasions jaw-dropping fan following (some have claimed Iowa had over 10,000 fans outside the Orange Bowl the night of the Iowa vs. USC game). Far and away, this year's TaxSlayer Bowl serves as a fan following low point in the program's history.

So what is happening here? Typically short-term focus edges out long-term thinking, and the erosion of the brand (tied, of course, to product quality) inexplicably takes years to become apparent to the keepers. One could assume that Barta and Ferentz's recent post-season press conference was an odd and awkward first step in acknowledging Iowa's depreciating brand. That only now these two are willing to address matters seems unforgivable given all the signs so obvious to interested observers, both local and national. It is not as if Iowa, and Ferentz in particular, haven't been identified as relics of the college football world, out of step with the changing times. Stewart Mandel was an early adopter nationally with such an opinion, and since his article there have been a slew of others questioning the wisdom of Iowa to keep on keepin' on with Ferentz at the controls. Just as the kneebone is connected to the shin bone, so too is winning and doing so with sizzle to growing one's brand.

So what might be some signs of decline?

Competition Blind Spot:

Who is Iowa looking to as its standard these days? When Hayden Fry first arrived he changed the Iowa uniforms to copy those of the most successful NFL team of the times, the Pittsburgh Steelers. He put a bull's eye on Michigan, the winningest program in college football history at the time, as the dragon that must be slayed. Identify and pursue their goals as a pathway to realizing their standing in the conference and beyond. However, under Kirk Ferentz it is unclear to me whose success we are now trying to follow. In fact, too often I hear Barta and Ferentz trying to convince folks that Iowa is merely trying to emulate...Iowa (usually articulated as contemporary Iowa trying to recreate Iowa's fill-in-the-blank period of prior success). Meanwhile, we seek not to extend our brand in other areas of program development. We have not expanded our recruiting territory in the past 16 years, and have likely contracted it. Despite winning seasons the last couple of years Iowa is off the grid on night games. (Ed. Note: Although that is changing this season.) Despite being the dean of Big Ten coaches, and having had a front row view of a changing college football landscape, Ferentz is almost nowhere to be seen on issues nationally. No one asks his opinion and it is unclear to me why. It seems, frankly, almost impossible that Kirk Ferentz is a silent voice nationally. Iowa now lives in a bubble, with its introverted and blinkered coach, which is very different from when Fry was the head coach.

Self-image (aka Ego):

Repeat after me, "The Iowa Way," "The Iowa Way," "The Iowa Way." Who knew that the successful operating model that got you Top Ten rankings and BCS appearances could also be like a Narcissus reflection in the water? Has Iowa's Iowa Way brand fallen too in love with itself not realizing it is merely a constructed image and images require constant attention? To be sure, for the first half of Kirk Ferentz's tenure Iowa's national brand was almost impenetrable. Seemingly every analyst that called an Iowa game would gush about how "Iowa does it the right way" or that "Iowa is where I would send my kid to play," but the second half has been almost a complete inversion, especially of late. Criticism by national columnists -- mostly anchored to his annual salary -- has become a cliche. But recruiting rankings can be a ruthless yardstick. And it is there that Iowa looks more and more diminished (Iowa has been ranked in the low to middle 50s by Rivals.com for the last two years, and is trending backward). And like many Iowa fans, I too have fallen into the trap of defending Ferentz and The Iowa Way against criticisms by outsiders, mostly in the name of self-preservation. By indiscriminately defending The Iowa Way over the past few years, keeping it free of unvarnished criticism, fans and local media may have been inadvertently emboldening a resistance to change.

Loss Of Objectivity:

Kirk Ferentz is not especially progressive in confronting negative feedback. Of this we all know. The net effect of his leadership style is that real discussions and real criticism can sometimes get pushed underground. Many press conferences are like the television series, Intervention, with Ferentz grumbling at any suggestion he or his staff have any real problems to confront. Often the subtext of a Ferentz press conference is that the problem is not his or the program's, but the media's. One cannot help but to fear that the meetings inside the football complex for the last several years have reflected the rhetorical character of a Ferentz press conference. The Iowa Way culture, which was founded and bred on early success, is in great peril of transforming into a culture where criticism is comically minimized ("that's football") and real problems are suppressed, and thus never frankly and effectively addressed publicly or privately.

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Iowa football has had two winning seasons in a row and has been invited to two consecutive bowl games and yet the sky is falling for Iowa football. That is how many on this site feel; these critical comments are easily found. It is also how many on other fan sites see us. It's not hard to find national columnists suggesting the same. Wouldn't this suggest there is a branding problem going on here? Despite back-to-back winning seasons the collective feeling among the fanbase appears to vary from apathy to antipathy. Thus, despite Tripathy's Emory Sports Marketing findings discussed above, it is hard to see the brand as anything other than damaged.

Can the very people who stood by as this happened be trusted to recognize and revitalize things? Probably not. Ferentz's argument is that he deserves credit for helping to strengthen the brand in the first place. Therefore, he knows what he's doing and he deserves to be given the time to do it again. This is the Ferentz 3.0 argument. But the same Kodak executives who helped build the Kodak brand also facilitated its destruction. Ferentz has had his Kodak moment, and like a faded glossy print of a kid in bell-bottom jeans and a trucker's hat, he is ready for his rightful place in Iowa's football photo album. But the chances of this happening anytime soon seems remote.

As no successful marketing executive will ever tell you, "That's branding."

Poll

What is your impression of the Iowa Hawkeyes football brand currently?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    It is a durable local/regional brand that has and will continue to endure under Ferentz (and Barta) because it is bigger than both of them
    (81 votes)
  • 26%
    Sure, the shine is off the brand currently but it is resilient enough that a good season will erase any recent slippage
    (265 votes)
  • 61%
    It is declining across the board and without changes in leadership it is going to decline dangerously further
    (610 votes)
  • 3%
    It is permanently damaged, the degree to which is still unfolding
    (36 votes)
  • 0%
    Other (stated in comments below)
    (8 votes)
1000 votes total Vote Now