Sure, Iowa State may not have been in one of the bowl games ESPN chose to hype beforehand on Capitol One Bowl Week. Heck, watching the broadcast after we got back on TIVO I was struck by just how little ESPN talked about the game and Iowa State in general while the game was going on. Did they even say anything about the Cyclones at halftime?
Nonetheless, it was a great trip to Shreveport and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The Independence Bowl doesn't take place in a tourist haven, and there isn't much to do besides getting overly inebriated and freely donating money to the plethora of casinos in the area. Nevertheless, it was great to be in some warm weather and share the experience with many members of Cyclone Nation that chose to make the trip. One thing I learned those three days—it isn't about the destination as much as it's about the people you get to spend time with.
I took the trip with about 120 other Cyclone fans courtesy of the Cyclone Gridiron Club Independence Bowl charter. If you're one of the few not sure what that is, it's a booster club solely intent on raising funds for ISU's cash-strapped football program. Every dime they get goes right back into ISU's coffers, and they keep none for themselves. Mike Lacey, Tom Broderick, and Mark Hill are the three men who run it, and they do it strictly as a labor of love.
These guys take care of you, and I would strongly urge all of you to hit the road with the Cyclones with them. We took a charter flight service instead of commercial, so we were able to fly directly from Des Moines to Shreveport in at least half the time. They put us up in a very classy hotel, definitely one of the nicest rooms I've ever stayed in. The other folks on the charter, as well as those I met at the spirit rally, made the trip a blast with their enthusiasm, graciousness, and politeness.
I'm guessing that many of you who chose not to make the trip are now wishing you would've done so. Don't worry, I'm guessing you'll get a chance to right that wrong a year from now. And I'm guessing that could be a bowl game in San Antonio, San Diego, or even Dallas. But we have another eight months or so to discuss that further.
The major pregame event we attended was the ISU Spirit Rally, and I think we all were pleasantly surprised at the amount of Cyclone fans there as well as the intensity of their support. Nobody really knew what to expect, but everyone from Bruce Van De Velde on down was impressed with all of you who chose to show up. ISU Alumni Association leader Jeff Johnson really did a great job of firing up the crowd while they were waiting for the team to arrive.
Once the squad got there, one thing you didn't see behind the scenes was how much of a stickler the coaches were for discipline. I noticed assistant coaches making sure idle chatter was kept to a minimum and they were also on the players to wear their hats in the right direction. Absolutely no sloppiness was tolerated. I remember thinking at the time that if they had that much attention to detail at a pep rally, they must be really zeroed in on the game. Turns out they were.
Dan McCarney had little trouble rallying the crowd once he took the stage, but he didn't speak that long. I liked the fact he let all of his senior captains address the crowd individually. Ellis Hobbs got the biggest ovation, and rightfully so. Yet I thought Erik Anderson got off the best line when he told us he was "up $350" at the gaming tables while teammate Nik Moser "was down a couple hundred."
From there it was off to the media dinner, which was held at a snazzy New Orleans-style restaurant whose name I can't remember, but I do recall the groovy gravel parking lot. Do you want to know why so many of us in the fourth estate are overweight? All you need to do for your answer is attend one of these shin-digs. This was like a seven-course meal, and it was all free, even the alcohol.
The highlight of this event was the piano man, who turned out to be a former basketball player at Oklahoma State for legendary coach Hank Iba. He had an extensive library of musical selections that broke down into two categories for the most part: country and western. The poor fellow kept getting pestered by a certain media member – who will remain nameless – to play dedications. Some of those included Confederate Railroad's "Trashy Women" to Heidi Soliday, Conway Twitty's "Slow Hand" to Jeff Grummer, and "You've lost that loving feeling" by The Righteous Brothers to ISU sports information director Tom Kroeschell. He didn't find that too funny, by the way.
Against my better judgement, our very own Bill Seals went for that second bowl of gumbo, and those breathing the air in our hotel room certainly paid for it afterwards. The next morning there was enough methane floating around in there to set the entire Horseshoe Casino ablaze.
We left the next morning for the stadium several hours early in time for me to do two different radio shows and for Bill to hit all the pregame festivities, for lack of a better name. The weather as kickoff neared was perfect. I spent several minutes talking to a member of Miami University's broadcast team, who told me he thought there could be a pregame announcement of his school's new coach. Turned out he knew what he was talking about.
I watched ISU warm up from the sidelines, and the mood was quiet, intense, and focused. But unlike the Missouri game there wasn't a sense the young Cyclones were tight for a nationally-televised bowl game. Rather it seemed they were treating this like a business trip.
Once the game started there was no doubt who the physically superior team was. ISU was clearly bigger and faster, especially on defense. In fact, I can't imagine there have been many ISU football games over the years where the defense was flying to the football the way they were at the Independence Bowl. Miami was clearly stunned early, and it took the Redhawks almost a quarter and a half to catch up. By that time ISU was just up 10-0, although it could've – and probably should've – been worse.
In fact, this game should have never came down to that interception by Hobbs to seal it, but poetically I am glad it did. It was the perfect stamp on a surprise season. Sure, the Cyclones dominated the stat sheet and had ample chances to put it away, but when it's just your second bowl win ever let's not get greedy.
Once the clock went all zeroes the Cyclones were obviously excited with the bowl championship. Yet there was continual talk of this being a stepping stone, not mission accomplished. One postgame exchange I witnessed between senior captain Cale Stubbe and freshman quarterback Bret Meyer summed up this sentiment:
Stubbe: MVP baby, you're the MVP!
Meyer: This was for you, this was for all you (seniors).
Stubbe: Now you have to keep it going.
One of the first things Mac addressed in his post-bowl press conference was next season, and how he expects his Cyclones to be good. He even brought this up unsolicited by the media. Before leaving the field I think Mac shook hands with every Cyclone fan he could reach in the stands. After that Texas A&M homecoming loss some of those fans probably would've rather gave Mac the Matt Roth salute. Now the Big 12 Coach of the Year is hyping his team and we're buying in.
What's one more surprise for this season of surprises?
This season just ended, but it's never too early to take a look ahead to the following one. Currently, ISU has one hole left to fill on its non-conference schedule.
Originally, the Cyclones had planned to play a Division I-AA team, but since they had to use their exemption this year to be bowl-eligible they have chosen a different route. Right now, the favored opponent looks like Arkansas State, which is a low-level Division I-A team. What ISU would like to do is play Arkansas State on October 8th, and move the Baylor game previously scheduled for that day to the season-opener on September 3rd. Fox Sports Net would be interested in televising that game. For that to happen, Baylor has some logistics of its own to hash out.
This isn't a bad idea at all, and anything ISU can do to get on television more is certainly a positive. Yet might I suggest a more daring approach?
Nebraska was scheduled to face Houston at Reliant Stadium on September 1st, the first of ESPN's nationally-televised Thursday night games. The suddenly struggling Huskers have backed out of that game, and will now play Maine instead. That leaves the Cougars and ESPN looking for an opponent. I'd like to see Mac and Van De Velde volunteer ISU for that game.
I'm guessing ESPN would at least offer ISU $500,000 to play it, which is not much less than it grosses for a home game that isn't sold out anyway. And let's face it, it's tough to sell out a game at Jack Trice Stadium against anybody not ranked or not named Iowa or Nebraska.
Then there's the great national exposure ISU will get. Everyone watches the first game of the season on TV, because fans across the country are starving for football after the long layoff. Houston is also a very beatable Conference USA opponent. And the fact that the game is played at the host site of the 2005 Big 12 Championship Game is a great selling factor for the players. Mac could tell them throughout the offseason "we begin and end our season right here in Houston." That has to be motivation.
The fans could make this a long Labor Day weekend, almost a second bowl game trip, and organize charters to go down. Plus, it would give ISU separation in-state apart from Iowa's season-opener. Not to mention Houston is fertile recruiting ground.
It's a win-win for everybody. Which is probably why it won't happen. However, there could be a sliver of hope for this scenario if enough of you fans voiced your support for it. Ultimately, the customer is always right and always gets what he wants. What do you think?
Sneak Peek at 2005
Here's a look at some of the teams likely to be mentioned prominently by the preseason magazines, which I think come out just about a month from now. Is it just me, or do they hit the newsstands earlier each year?
1. USC…If Matt Leinart returns, the Trojans bring back 16 starters and will be favored for a third straight national title run. The offense should be nearly unstoppable with Reggie Bush, although the defensive front seven has a few holes to fill. Still, the schedule is friendly again with just three road games against teams that had winning records this season.
2. LSU…Les Miles should feel very fortunate. Not only did Nick Saban leave him with a roster overflowing with talent, but a very favorable schedule as well. The Bayou Bengals don't have a road game next year against a team coming off a winning season, and seven home games in all.
3. Florida…Chris Leak should flourish with Urban Meyer at the helm, and one should expect the Gators to play more disciplined as well. Plus archrivals Tennessee and Florida State come to Gainesville. The October 15th visit to Baton Rouge could be the first of two games between the Tigers and Gators.
4. Texas…A total of 16 starters return, including Vincent Young, who will enter next season as a Heisman favorite. The schedule is a big problem, though. Road games at Ohio State, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M plus the annual grudge match with the Sooners.
5. Louisville…The Cardinals return the bulk of their record-breaking offense as they enter the Big East Conference, where they will be the favorites in their first season. Brian Brohm takes over at quarterback. They may finish undefeated if they can survive a non-conference trip to N.C. State.
6. Michigan…The Wolverines return 16 starters; 17 if All-American Ernest Shazor says no to the NFL. They have seven home games, including Ohio State. However, Iowa City and East Lansing are both on the travel schedule, and those are two places where they haven't played well in recent years.
7. Tennessee…This team certainly has the talent to be ranked higher than this, but an excruciating schedule that features road games at Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Notre Dame could prove to be too daunting. The Volunteers also have several juniors who could leave early for the NFL draft.
8. Ohio State…The Buckeyes return the most experienced team in the Big Ten, and enter 2005 with momentum after drubbing Michigan and Oklahoma State. Yet their schedule features heavyweights Texas, Iowa, and Michigan (on the road). Then there are those nasty NCAA allegations to contend with.
9. Miami (Fla.)…Somebody has to win the rugged, and very balanced ACC. So why not go with the team, that on paper at least, has the best personnel? New quarterback Kyle Wright gets a tough debut—at Florida State on Labor Day Night on national television.
10. Georgia…The D.J. Shockley era finally starts at quarterback, and he has an experienced team coming back to bolster him. The wide receiver position must be re-stocked, but the defense should be salty. The schedule is a three-game season: at Tennessee, Florida in the Gator Bowl, and at Georgia Tech.
Eight others for honorable mention (in alphabetical order):
- Florida State… Seminoles always have elite talent, but without a playmaking quarterback that's not enough in the unforgiving ACC anymore.
- Iowa… Hawkeyes must replace stout defensive line of senior studs but the offense should be even more explosive behind Drew Tate.
- Iowa State… Call me presumptuous, but more than 80% of the roster returns. Another ally is the schedule and the state of the North Division.
- Oklahoma… The Sooners lose more to the NFL than anybody else, but still have a championship schedule.
- Penn State… Laugh now, but with their defense and schedule the Nittany Lions will rebound to win at least eight games.
- Pittsburgh… Dave Wannstedt steps into a good situation with 17 returning starters, including Tyler Palko, and a weakened Big East.
- Purdue… Everybody but Kyle Orton returns, and the Boilermakers miss Ohio State and Michigan on the schedule.
- Texas A&M… A senior playmaking quarterback and 15 other starters return, but has road games at Clemson, Colorado, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship station of the Cyclone Radio Network.)