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Les Miserables? Evaluating The Transitional Iowa Hawkeyes In The Year 2013

Are wins and losses the most effective or fair way to evaluate change?

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Matthew Holst

Our buddy Stewart Mandel has predicted a season of squalor for Kirk Ferentz, a coach he recently decided is terrible. His prediction is not particularly outrageous, as many pundits have decided that Iowa is likely to struggle to win more games than it loses. It got me thinking more broadly about what should be the definition of success for the Iowa Hawkeyes this upcoming season. Which is precisely what these predictions are intended to do, provoke fans into an early set of expectations, which they reflect upon as the season unfolds. In the end, these predictions frame the final analysis for the season as a success or failure. At this point the expectations for Iowa appear to be about as low as they've been since Kirk Ferentz was hired as head coach, which might actually be a good thing. Why, you might ask, are painfully low expectations a good thing? Because in the sport of college football perception is king.

In my first semester of college I recall a resident hall assistant pointing out to me the importance of perception in determining one's own happiness, and I have never forgotten the the conversation. I had more or less confessed to being unsure if Iowa was a good choice for me, given that I was struggling to make friends. He asked me how many friends had I made? I told him I had met two people with whom I'd become somewhat close, "and that's it." He looked at me and then asked, "How many friends did you expect to make in your first semester of college?" I thought for a moment and said, "five or ten." He started laughing and then said, "That's ridiculous. No wonder you're so upset." And he was right, making two friends in less than three months - two friends, as it turns out, that I still have a relationship with some 25 years later - was a remarkable success. The reason I have hung on to that conversation for so long is because it always reminds me of the power of my own perception. Had I gone to college thinking it would be great to make just one close friend, and I'd made two, I would have been over the moon. But, because I expected to have as many close friends as I had just left behind in high school, to be made in less than 90 days no less, set me up for enormous disappointment.

Stewart Mandel and the many other pontificators who've predicted a season of glum for the Hawkeyes, has done Iowa fans a favor. He's made it almost impossible for us to be surprised or disappointed by this Iowa team. I'm being somewhat facetious because we all know at least one fan out there that will be disappointed with anything less than 10 wins, a New Year's Day Bowl appearance and wins over Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska along the way. But what is Iowa really capable of in this upcoming season? How should we fairly evaluate this program at season's end? Should we merely look at the number of wins to determine whether the program is back on firm footing? Or, should we be more preoccupied with subtle indicators of progress?

Well, let's think about it.


"You are what your record says you are." - Bill Parcells

I can see how the Bill Parcells perspective might be a useful point of view in the NFL, where there is a rock solid playoff system that effectively determines a convincing champion. But in college football? Not so much. Look at all the markers of success available to the Iowa Hawkeyes this year. In the Iowa football complex sits a big, cumbersome trophy case and the only thing in it, right now, is a bronzed pig. This year once all is said and done Iowa could potentially have six trophies in that case:

1.     Cy-Hawk Trophy (Iowa State)

2.     Floyd of Rosedale (Minnesota)

3.     Heartland Trophy (Wisconsin)

4.     The Heroes Trophy (Nebraska)

5.     Stagg Championship Trophy (Big Ten Champion)

6.     Bowl Game Trophy

History has proven that Iowa could collect all that hardware with a pretty mediocre record. In theory Iowa could win all those trophies with a 7-6 record. Winning all these trophies or even most of them would suggest that Iowa is considerably more than its record says they are. So, focusing solely on one's record in college football is dodgy business.

If Iowa is able to win some trophy games, it might go a long way in helping fans view this season as a success, even if (particularly if) the overall record is not great.


"Always remember ... Goliath was a 40-point favorite over David." - Ralph "Shug" Jordan

In the valley of Elah, with only a hill separating two armies, the Philistines and the Israelites were prepared for battle. The larger of the two armies were the Philistines. They were armed to the teeth and had a ringer named Goliath. The smaller army was led by Saul, King of the Jews. Goliath challenged the Israelites to send forth a man to fight him, in a winner take all battle. The loser would become servants to the other, which of course is just a form of Biblical bitchmade.

Few things hearten a fan base more than a win that should have never been, especially against a rival. One coach who has absolutely harnessed the mystique and power of the finely crafted upset, for the purpose of survival if not prosperity, is Paul Rhoads. By any other measure his tenure at Iowa State has been a failure. Rhoads has an overall record of 24-27, he has never won more than three measly conference games in any of his four seasons, and he has a losing bowl record to boot. But, Paul Rhoads has engineered several remarkable upsets that have visually impaired the fan base in Ames into seeing a star.

The same recipe could be helpful to Kirk Ferentz and Iowa this season, if Ferentz were to produce the right upset. A win this year on the road over an undefeated and highly ranked Ohio State, for example, could very well cancel out any otherwise humiliating loss or even collection of more understandable losses. Upsets, on occasion, serve as season validaters, as fans will relive them for years to come without the slightest effort to contextualize the victory within broader terms. Upsets are powerful enough that they even stoke feelings of righteousness. Framing an upset within the David vs. Goliath archetype demands as much.

Goliath was over 11 feet tall, and clad in armor and iron he was a seasoned warrior for a group of people who were essentially roving pirates, whereas David was the effete youngest son of King Saul, asked to stay home during the battle to tend to a flock of sheep. Of course, David would eventually come forth to slay the gigantic Philistine without the use of armor or even conventional weaponry; just a slingshot with some smooth pebbles. His feat, his upset if you will, proved that he prevailed because a) goodness was within him, and b) unconventional tactics are required when you're outmatched. Both are compliments any fan base will bestow upon their beloved team following an upset, and then blow out of proportion for years to come.

If Iowa is able to manage a great upset win, it might go a long way in helping fans view this season as a success, even if (particularly if) other more conventional markers of success are absent.


"Cut out this stuff around the ends; go in there low and hard;
Forget all this New Football as you move on yard by yard;
And, more than all, when you are thrown or tumbled with a crack,
Don't lie there whining, hustle up and keep on coming back.
"Keep coming back with all you've got and take it with a grin
When Disappointment trips you up and Failure barks your shin;
Keep coming back, and say to Fate, the while her minions gloat;
‘Come on and take my shirt and hat, but you can't get my goat.'

Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your map,
Let every scrimmage find your still somewhere within the scrap;
For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes - not that you won or lost -
But How you played the Game."
-- Grantland Rice

How does Iowa play the game? That used to be the easiest question in all of college football. With a staff turnover rate of zero for half a decade, Kirk Ferentz had dialed in and perfected, then concretized the Iowa identity. Iowa was so recognizable they barely needed jerseys. And the Iowa football identity extended to well beyond Xs and Os. If you followed Iowa closely enough you knew what kind of athletes were being recruited (which means you also knew which kind were not), what sort of personalities these recruits were most likely to have, and so forth. Thanks to that formula Iowa had become a triple threat program: Bowl games were de rigueur; players (intentionally plural) got drafted into the NFL; and, the NCAA barely paid any attention to the program, if at all. The last one was particularly important to the culture of the school if not the state. Thus, it had become well known that how Iowa played the game was cleanly, correctly, and winningly. But, coaching turnover and a 4-8 season challenges one's commitment to all this.


The truth is that Iowa is not Iowa right now. They are a morphing, transitional version of its former self, and if Iowans are not comfortable with all this (and they're not) one can only imagine what things must be like in the Ferentz household. The reality is that this season is going to be a referendum for many on coaching and system, and winning may not adequately satisfy some people's taste. Which means, too, that losing may not be a deal breaker either, assuming that the direction displayed is appealing.

Consider the basketball transformation under Fran McCaffrey - he made it very clear that he was going to bring an exciting style of basketball to Carver-Hawkeye and on the heels of Todd Lickliter, fans agreed to show patience and let him do his thing. In his first two years he endeavored to overhaul the program, and what fans saw they decided to like. It helps, of course, that he improved the win total in those years, but Iowa fans are smart enough to know if the style he promised and then delivered was sustainable for this program. McCaffrey has, so far, proved that it is. Back to football though, it appears to me that Kirk is engaged in a similar effort in a much more unwieldy sport.

After having seen Iowa play a certain style of football for so long Iowa fans had, more or less, not only adapted to it, they had adopted it as their preferred style of play. Losing staff and then games has, however, forced people to reconsider things. Last year the Iowa program reminded me of a father at Christmastime reading the directions to an unassembled train set while everyone impatiently stood in silence. There was uncertainty that this could be put together properly in time for anyone to enjoy it, if it could be put together properly at all. Eventually everyone leaves the basement to go eat Turkey, and that appears to be where we are at with this team. We are going to go back down into the basement a week from Saturday and see the progress on putting this thing together. And what we have may still not be completely assembled.

If Kirk Ferentz delivers a style of play this year that is compelling then the number of wins will be negotiable for many people. Most fans are looking for progress, and long-term viability with this team. There is still ample patience surrounding this program, as long as the direction seems reasonable and convincing.

No one can predict with any certainty the number of wins Iowa will get this year, but that doesn't make the predicting any less fun. But this year the predicting is serving a greater purpose than it might have in previous years. The low expectations that are being published across the college football media landscape are making it so that any capability shown by this Iowa Hawkeyes team, and Kirk Ferentz, will strike a positive pose. It also allows fans an alternative approach, that instead of them entering the season with a bottom-line mindset ("We better win X number of games or else!!"), there may instead be a greater interest in the process. Whereas in past years the process might have been taken for granted and this allowed fans to be focused like a laser beam on wins and losses, this year it's proving to be a bit of a mystery. How are we going to actually move the ball? Inquiring minds want to know. It challenges people to look for other more subtle indicators of progress besides total number of wins.

In 1905 Arnold Van Gennep outlined a theory of social change in which he suggested there were three phases. Phase One, he said, was separation and in that phase people withdraw from their existing status. In Phase Two, he pointed out, there is the transition itself. Van Gennep called this the liminal phase, and it is the period between states, during which one has left one status or way of being but has not yet fully entered or joined the next. In Phase Three, the final phase, there is reincorporation. In this final phase one has assumed their "new" identity and re-enters society with the new status.

If we use this theory to examine where Kirk Ferentz and Iowa is at this moment, we can see they are entering the liminal phase where they are seriously working out their new identity. Last year was about killing part and pieces of the past. This year, suggests the theory, will be about testing out and getting comfortable with the future identity. For those who have read Van Gennep, you know that in the liminal stage are lots of mistakes, and it requires commitment and patience as everything is worked out to the point of comfort and competence. A worthwhile approach to this season would be to evaluate Iowa as a liminal entity, carefully adopting new norms and finding ways to be convincing in its new skin. If things go well, by season's end they will be on the verge of Phase Three, reincorporation to the college football world of winning, but with a new and improved identity -- an identity that we Hawkeyes fans can believe in.