10. Gymnastics makes national noise.
Lost in the shuffle of all the excitement regarding football and the men's and women's basketball teams' success this school year lies the story of the Iowa State women's gymnastics team. A sport that most Americans only pay attention to every four years at the Olympics has become the Cinderella story inside the Jacobson Building. The woman responsible is Coach K.J. Kindler, who has turned ISU into a national power in her five seasons at the helm. She led the Cyclones to the NCAA Championships for the second time this season, winning her second Big 12 Coach of the Year and first National Coach of the Year as a result. But she's not alone; assistant coach Lou Ball shared the National Assistant Coach of the Year award as well. Capping off another stellar season was the performance of All-American Janet Anson, whose runner-up finish was the best ever for a Cyclone.
9. The rivalry reloaded.
As if the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry needed any further fueling. Nonetheless, last August the two schools announced the formation of the Hy-Vee Cy-Hawk Series, taking the in-state feud to the next level. Besides making money for all the parties involved, the series is designed to draw more attention to sports beyond football and basketball. The initial contract is for four years, and it will be extended if the series gains in popularity. Unfortunately, bragging rights in year one went to those Hawkeyes.
8. Bruce Van De Velde's "contract."
It's become a tired subject, a Cyclone cliché if you will. That, of course, would be the seemingly constant speculation about the long-term future of Bruce Van De Velde, Iowa State's often embattled and misunderstood athletic director. And just when we thought it would come finally come to a head, and a merciful resolution would be found for all of the parties involved, the buck was passed and the notion of "at-will" employment was introduced. What a way to reward a chief executive that has steered the ship through an unprecedented era of revenue increases, budget crunches, athletic success, and controversy. Instead of a contract extension, which would have cemented his stewardship, Van De Velde will operate without a contract starting July 1st and instead be reviewed on an annual basis. He will be the only athletic director in the Big 12 working under such conditions. Yet another handicap ISU has to overcome in the conference arms race, except this one is self-inflicted.
7. Don't call it a comeback.
He's been here for years. Except Bill Fennelly's women's basketball program had slipped into transition mode after an era of unparalleled success that had included: six 20-win seasons, six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, two Sweet 16 appearances, an Elite Eight appearance, Big 12 titles, and fan support that was the envy of most of the nation. Still, Fennelly had tired of the recent mediocrity, and laid down the gauntlet in the preseason—NCAA Tournament or bust. Thankfully, his Cyclones heard his call and went boom instead. The Cyclones finished 23-7 – Fennelly's seventh 20-win season – returned to the NCAA Tournament after a three-year hiatus, and lifted Fennelly to the WBCA District 5 Coach of the Year award. In addition, Fennelly's contract was extended through 2011, meaning he'll remain in Ames for the near future.
6. How'd they do that?
Nobody saw that coming. Not if you were one of the multitude that vacated the premises prematurely during Texas A&M's nightmarish Homecoming route of the Cyclones. Not if you were one of the multitude mocking ISU's late "rally" to best lowly Baylor. Not if you were one of those calling my radio show or posting on our message boards wondering aloud if it were time for ISU to look for a new football coach. Well, if you were one of those folks, you re-learned a valuable lesson: never count out Dan McCarney. In a whirlwind span of four weeks the Cyclones went from doormats to contenders, and they found different ways to get the job done. Against the Bears it was the two-minute drill. Against the Jayhawks it was an outstanding defensive performance, led by Brent Curvey and Ellis Hobbs. Against Nebraska it was an aerial assault orchestrated by Bret Meyer. Against Kansas State it was eons worth of Manhattan misery pouring it in a stunning final few moments. All of a sudden ISU found itself one game away from appearing in the Big 12 Championship. Of course, we all know how that turned out. Nonetheless, when it was all over, Todd Blythe was named a freshman All-American, Tim Dobbins was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Hobbs was first team All-Big 12, and McCarney became the first ISU skipper to ever be named the Big 12 Coach of the Year.
5. How'd they do that…again?
Nobody saw that coming. Not if you were among the multitude that witnessed the debacle that was that horrific home loss to Colorado. Not if you were among the multitude calling my radio show and posting on our message boards wondering aloud about the long-term job prospects of Larry Eustachy's successor. Well, if you were one of those folks, you learned a valuable lesson: don't ever count out Wayne Morgan and company. Does this sound familiar? It should, because the men's basketball team took its cue from the football team in the fall and rebounded from oblivion to end ISU's four-year NCAA Tournament drought. At the midway point of the campaign the Cyclones were suffering through a six-game losing streak, and a 0-5 start in the Big 12. Suddenly, the thought of returning to a third straight NIT didn't seem so bad. Finally, ISU broke through against eventual Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma at home at the end of January. The end of the conference road-losing streak – at nationally ranked Texas, no less – that must no longer be named followed that. Then there was an overtime upset of second-ranked Kansas, at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The strong second half of the season propelled the Cyclones to their first winning conference mark since Jamaal Tinsley went to the NBA. Despite the loss of a veteran assistant coach on the eve of the season, despite playing with a depleted six-man rotation because of injuries and a trimming of the fat, and despite having the worst three-point shooting team in the conference, the Cyclones rode a tenacious defense and the exploits of Curtis Stinson and Jared Homan back to the NCAA Tournament.
4. Dance partners.
The past few years it seemed as if Selection Sunday had lost its true meaning around here and instead had devolved into a worthless pursuit for a legitimate NIT bracket. That all changed in March, when dual Selection Sunday celebrations were held in Ames. First up were the women, who learned that after a three-year absence they would head out to Fresno as the seventh seed in the region. Next were the men, who before a national-television audience found out they were destined for Charlotte as the ninth seed in their region, with a CBS camera crew stationed in the home of assistant coach Damon Archibald to witness ISU's bubble bounce before the assembled team, fans, and media. The women's return may have lasted just one game, and the men may have followed their first NCAA Tournament victory in five years over Minnesota with a tar-and-feathering by eventual national champion North Carolina, but wasn't it nice to see the Cyclones listed among the elite again? That, in my mind, is worth a million NIT victories.
3. Independence Day.
A bowl game victory. It has only happened once in ISU football history. And when the Cyclones were languishing at midseason, few would have forecasted the second go around would come this season, but that's exactly what happened. ISU was invited to the Independence Bowl for the second time in four years, this time looking to avenge a controversial 2001 loss to Alabama when even the locals swore Tony Yelk's kick at the end was good. The opponent would be Miami University, which proved 2003's run to the top 10 of the national polls under the departed Ben Roethlisberger was no fluke for its tradition-rich program. Stevie Hicks had a bust-out game and crossed the 1,000-yard threshold, Bret Meyer was the game's MVP (not bad for a redshirt freshman), and fittingly Ellis Hobbs made the game-clinching interception as ISU won just its second bowl game ever. And when it was over, Dan McCarney took to the post-game podium and sent a message for 2005: watch out for the Cyclones.
2. Hail Cael!
Just when you think ISU's four-time, undefeated NCAA wrestling champion is done making headlines, he tops even himself. Cael Sanderson joined his former coach, Bobby Douglas, on the United States Olympic Wrestling Team in Athens, Greece. But Sanderson did more than just make the team; he made some room on his mantle for a gold medal. Sanderson overcame highly-touted Cuban Yoel Romero in a tightly-contested semifinal match, and then defeated Korean Moon Eiu-Jae to win the 185-pound gold medal. Shortly after Sanderson emerged victorious, Douglas and former Cyclone wrestler Kevin Jackson – the U.S. Olympic Coach – mobbed him. It was a sight that all of Cyclone Nation will cherish for years to come. At some point even this guy has to run out of encores, doesn't he?
1. Select company.
You can all the money you want. You can have all the facilities you want. You can have all the name recognition you want. Yet corporate success still comes down to one thing, and that's the quality of the people you hire. Considering how its budget, facilities, and name recognition compares to a lot of other schools in major conferences, you could make the case that ISU is among the best-run athletic departments in the country. The Cyclones were just one of eight schools during the 2004-05 school year to boast a bowl game champion in football and an NCAA Tournament participant in men's and women's basketball. The others were Connecticut, Boston College, Texas Tech, Minnesota, Louisville, Texas, and Utah. Among those schools, only Utah spends less on athletics than does ISU. That, my friends, is something to be proud of.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)