By Seth Nailor
Special. Extraordinary. Monumental. Record breaking. These are just a few of the ways to describe the feeling that every Cyclone fan can't get rid of these days. That feeling that years of being Cyclone fans tells us to hide, to push way down inside, because if we talk or even think about it then it might vanish and leave us searching for it all over again.
Iowa State fans are the worst kinds of optimists. We're like Chicago Cubs fans, only we haven't actually been to the promise land. Every year we think that something special could happen. And every year we are given a reason to doubt ourselves.
"One of the things about Cyclone fans is that we are always optimistic. So every season that starts everyone is optimistic, and that's the way as a fan I like to do it," said Carol Custer, director of university marketing and an Iowa State employee for 18 years.
Custer is a season ticket holder, a member of the National Cyclone Club and Alumni Association member. She, like the rest of us, bleeds Cardinal and Gold.
"We have great hopes for this football season," said Custer. "We came off of a great ending to last year's season. I think the university is riding high on going and winning a bowl game, and I think from reports that we hear from the football program that this could really be a very exciting season for us."
Optimistic might be the way to describe the fan base, but resilient would be the way to describe the team. Coming off a 2-10 season, not much was expected of the 2004 Cyclones. Starting the season at 2-4 made the season prognosticators seem right. Then the resiliency took over. It took a group young guns and determined veterans, but 2004 was an unexpected success.
The Cyclones reeled off four consecutive conference victories that put them a home game away from an outright North Division Championship, but it was snatched away in overtime. Redshirt freshman quarterback Bret Meyer's pass was intercepted in the endzone, ending the Missouri game and Iowa State fans' Kansas City travel plans. It was a deflating loss. Silence engulfed Jack Trice Stadium and left the Cyclone faithful thinking, "What took so long?"
So close, yet so far away. But this Cyclone team was different. The Missouri loss was apparently less devastating and more motivating to the players. They bounced back and became a bowl champion. They defeated a quality Miami University team in Shreveport in the Independence Bowl and set the stage for a special season.
"Special" is the feeling in Cyclone country, and for some reason it can't be lost. We try to hide it, temper it with cautious enthusiasm, but we can't help letting it find its way into our conversations.
In a way the Independence Bowl was just that: independence. Freedom for the fans and the program. We won our freedom from seasons past by winning that game. In past years, and even past decades, the Cyclones would have been done after that loss to Missouri. They wouldn't have gotten back up off the canvas and the fans would have stayed down there with them. But not here, not with this team. And that is why that darn feeling keeps creeping back into our minds.
The fans aren't the only ones feeling the good vibes. The 2005 Cyclones have received plenty of attention and hype from the media, national and local alike. The feeling is that these Cyclones are a few breaks away from special, or a few key injuries away from average.
All seem to agree that the Big 12 North Division is up for grabs again and the Cyclones have as good of shot as anyone to claim it, maybe better. But being the favorite in this conference isn't ground on which the Cyclones are accustomed to walking.
John Walters, the voice of the Cyclones and the WOI-TV sports director, has been covering the team for 23 years. He doesn't believe he has ever seen an Iowa State team picked to do this well. Walters also believes that this team might just live up to its billing.
"I just think that there is that chance for it to be a special year," Walters said. "And I think if they can play up to their potential and get a few of those bounces. And win a few of those close games, then they've got a chance to have something really special."
When it has been 93 years since you have won a conference championship in football, and the last time you were ranked in the preseason was in the 1978 AP Poll, it means something to you when national pundits put in print that you could be playing in the conference championship game.
This team is being picked by many to at least challenge for a spot in the Big 12 championship in Houston this year. Sure the Cyclones were a missed field goal away from playing for all the marbles last year, but anything past win five was icing on the cake a year ago.
That team was great story that played beyond what anyone outside of the program thought they could. This team now has to play up to what fans, media, and their coaches think they can do. Now the question isn't if they can get bowl eligible, its can they live up to the unprecedented hype that they are receiving.
"You hate to say hype is deserved," said Walters. "I just think they can live up to it. I think they can accomplish the things that people are saying they can do. I think they've got that potential for sure. A lot of things are going to have to go well. I mean last year they won a lot of close games, got over the hump in a lot of those close games. They are going to have to do that again, but I think they are very capable of that. I think there is a great chance for it to be a special year."
One thing Walters believes is necessary for this to become a year to remember for Cyclone faithful is the fan support. Around 21,000 season tickets have been sold, and with the students returning in August, Iowa State could see upwards of 28,000 season tickets holders at every game this fall.
"People are jacked up," Walters said. "They can't wait for it to get started. I mean for people to be this excited about it in early July I think is rare. And now it's just going to build and build from there. And I think you are going to see 27- or 28,000 season ticket holders, full houses just about every Saturday at Jack Trice. That could create a really special environment and tough place for other teams to come in and win. And they have to protect that home turf if they are going to have the kind of season they want to have. I think the fans interest is a big part of that."
To understand just how special this team, and this season definitely could be, you have to understand what this program has been through to reach this point. To earn the right to feel okay about feeling this way you have to know what it is to be a Cyclone.
This is a program that has been to seven bowl games. Not seven bowl games in the last ten years, seven bowl games ever. Coach Dan McCarney has given this program four bowl games in the last five years. Over half the school's bowl appearances have come in the last five years.
This is a program that wants badly to take that next step. A New Years Day bowl for this team would indeed make this team special. The fans want it more now than ever. But you have to understand that this is a program that once finished 8-3 and second in the nation in total offense but went without a bowl bid. Iowa State and eight win seasons are not synonymous with one another.
When you span the last 34 years of Iowa State football and find seven bowls to your record with only two of those resulting in wins, you have to believe that the best is yet to come. And you also have to believe that the best might be right around the corner.
Frank Randall, associate athletic director in charge of facilities, has been around for every bowl game Iowa State has ever played. Randall has been working for Iowa State for 35 years and has been involved with football one way or another for all of those years. He has been in the training room as head of the athletic trainers and is in charge of all travel arrangements for the team, a job that allows him to travel alongside the players.
Randall also believes that this team could be something special, and he offers a seasoned eye that has seen everything Iowa State has done in the modern era of football. With that unique perspective Randall proceeds with a cautious enthusiasm.
"As a trainer being with the players day after day after day, you get a gut feeling of how successful you could be, more than how successful your going to be," said Randall. "I think that's kind of where we are now. We've got a few young players and I think you feel good about how good we could be. But will we? I don't know."
This team isn't like some that Randall has seen. It is being picked to possibly do big things at Iowa State, to take them another rung higher on the Big 12 ladder. With the improved facilities that Randall helps oversee Iowa State is peering into uncharted territory. They are being led by young stars into a bigger football world, one where being picked to challenge or win the Big 12's North division might feel like commonplace.
A new era of Cyclone football where Cyclone fans won't be afraid to be optimistic about our chances with the Nebraska's and Colorado's to people who aren't also Cyclone fans. With Randall having the privilege of seeing so many Iowa State football teams throughout the years, does he think that this one stacks up with some of the best at Iowa State?
"I could say that you know with (Johnny) Majors and (Earl) Bruce and everybody that there are years that you get a little bit more excited about what you're seeing," said Randall. "I think the coaches right now are pretty pumped up about the season. I think there is a prospect that we'll be pretty good. Not only this year, but next year and the year after that too."
With a host of young stars to call upon and a fiery and determined head coach that has already taken Iowa State football to new heights. Cyclone football could be looking at its greatest year ever. One can only hope that Randall is right, that it doesn't stop with this year.
By Mike Dempsey
Is it possible?
I'm asking you, Cyclone football fan. Will this go down as the most memorable season in Iowa State football?
Is it possible? You've been there through all of the wins and losses. You've shivered and sweated in the stands cheering at Clyde Williams Field, Cyclone Stadium, and most recently Jack Trice Stadium. This despite the fact there's been too many years you had to fictionalize a reason to even clap loudly.
Why can't it be possible? We've had our share of happiness. Johnny Majors guided the Cyclones to a couple of bowl games in the early 1970's, and later in the decade Earle Bruce accomplished the same feat.
Do you think it is possible? We've also witnessed in person, or on the radio when we couldn't be in the stadium, too many autumns where Iowa State was bowl ineligible before Halloween. Yet as scary as some of the previous seasons were, August brought you renewed optimism for the upcoming season before the opening September kickoff.
Is it possible? We've had our moments of living right during Dan McCarney's reign. Five straight wins over our nemesis to the east, the Hawkeyes, is a beautiful example. Your Iowa State Cyclones have also appeared in four bowl games in the last five years, including winning the first two in the history of this not-often storied program. That's more bowl wins and appearances over the last five years than Notre Dame and UCLA, supposed traditional football powers.
Anything is possible. 2004 brought a preseason of limited expectations and hype following a two win season the year before. Beating both Nebraska and Kansas State in the same season in most years would keep the Cyclone fan base satisfied. We desired more. Unfortunately, a chip shot went wide right preventing Iowa State from participating on national television against Oklahoma in their first ever Big 12 championship game.
Do you really believe it's possible? Cyclone fans have been teased before. We've been frustrated, like in 1999 when our halftime domination turned into a loss to a top-10 Kansas State and Texas.
We could only shake our heads and spit as we witnessed an exciting and magical team led by Seneca Wallace descend from No. 9 in the national ratings to an ugly loss on a cold blue field in Boise just a couple of months later.
The worst hurt for Cyclone Nation, at least from my vantagepoint, occurred just last November. The storybook underdog script was written, but the team from Missouri left the stadium with smiles while Cyclone players ,coaches and fans walked silently away. It should motivate the team to understand what they can accomplish.
It's possible. Most of our impact players are back on both sides of the ball, including 17 starters. Also, Iowa State has a friendly schedule, which means the only way we watch Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech this year is on television. We also have the Hawks at home.
So what do you think, is it possible? Is this the season Iowa State brings home a another trophy to the Jacobson Athletic Building, except missing the word "Co" before "Champion"? Will Cyclone fans who have endured throughout the years, yet remained loyal, have an opportunity to brag about the team's success as they clink a toast at midnight eagerly awaiting a New Year's Day bowl game kickoff?
An upswing in football season ticket sales seem to indicate that many fans are believing this could be one of those special seasons. Iowa State Athletic Ticket Manager Jared Sturtewagen is noticing the increase in enthusiasm and as a result ticket sales.
"People are obviously excited about by the finish last year," Sturtewagen said.
As of the end of June, season ticket sales were up 3,500 from this time last year. Sturtewagen is confident sales will top off between 25 and 30 thousand, which will be higher than any previous season.
Other parts of the ISU Athletic Department are noticing the anticipation of football, including Frank Nogel, the Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs. Nogel's football duties include marketing, fundraising and fan atmosphere at games. He can sense unprecedented anticipation for the opening kickoff on September 3rd.
Nogel reiterated that ticket sales are going strong, which means the fence sitters that show up at games only when the team is winning are buying into the hype. He mentioned that there is a solid group of Cyclone supporters that stay by the team "through thick and thin." Nogel hopes this team can help turn some fair weather fans into annual season ticket holders.
Nogel says he avoids predictions, but believes a quick start is crucial for Iowa State this fall.
"With a young team, we need to get out of the gate fast," Nogel said.
After the opener at home against Illinois State, the Cyclones have a tough early stretch: at home against Iowa on September 10th, followed by road games at Army and Nebraska. Although undefeated is his best wish scenario, Nogel believes a special season can happen if Iowa State can come away with three of the first four games.
Is it possible? The Sporting News College Football Preview believes it is. In their 2005 annual, they not only have the Cyclones ranked #22 in their preseason national rankings, but also winning the Big 12 North Division crown.
Tom Dienhart, an Associate Editor and writer for The Sporting News, can't recall one of their preseason publications picking Iowa State to win the conference in his 15 years.
"In the past (our pick) is usually Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska, with a Kansas State occasionally thrown in for good measure," Dienhart said.
"It wasn't an easy choice. Whether it's parody or weakness, the Big 12 North is up for grabs. You can toss a coin in the air for three or four teams."
Dienhart added that nearly every team can put together a decent offense, but it is teams with defense that stay consistently strong.
"Iowa State isn't the next Florida State or Miami, but their defense is overlooked," Dienhart said.
What Dienhart seems most impressed by is the fortitude and patience of Iowa State to stick with Dan McCarney despite some shaky years.
"It's well documented with teams that go through coaches every four or five years; it doesn't work," Dienhart said.
He didn't mention it, but you need only look a couple of states to the east at the consistently dismal Indiana Hoosier football and their revolving door of coaches as a good example.
So a national publication thinks it's possible, what about others close to the Iowa State program?
B.J. Schaben is the Sports Director at 1430-KASI in Ames, a Cyclone Radio Network Affiliate. He hosts a pre-game radio show prior to home football games and also monitors a Sunday morning call in show while Cyclone athletics are in session.
Schaben says the Cyclones have the recipe for a special season.
"They're young and they know how to win," Schaben said.
He likes the competitiveness Iowa State displayed last year after the 2-4 start to the season. He sees the strength as the core nucleus on the offensive and defensive lines.
"We all know they have a lot of talent back," Schaben said.
But like any Cyclone fan, he has his concerns.
"The linebacking core needs to develop," Schaben said as one of the keys for Iowa State living up to expectations.
Along with improvement in the running game, Schaben hopes sophomore quarterback Bret Meyer will show more development.
"I think he's the type of player that will," Schaben said.
Ames resident and Cyclone supporter Tim Gleason is the driver of the vintage fire truck that leads the football team from the bus to the Jacobson Building on game days. Gleason and the fire truck has visited football settings many only have the opportunity to see on television or imagine as they listen to road game radio broadcasts from Iowa City, Austin and Norman.
Last December Gleason drove the open-air truck to Shreveport, starting out on a frigid Iowa December morning. Gleason is hoping for a more tropical destination than northeast Louisiana this bowl season.
"The cards are in place," Gleason said.
The life-long fan says that with Meyer having another year under his belt, and nationally recognized wide receiver Todd Blythe and Aaron Brant leading the offensive line, Iowa sate might be ready to take it to the next level.
"We've been close in the past, but have always been a peg short," Gleason said.
Still, like any devoted Cyclone, he ended with a confident guarantee.
"We're gonna beat Iowa," he exclaimed.
Veteran broadcaster Eric Heft, described many Cyclone fans when asked if this will be a season to remember.
"It could be a special season, but I'm cautiously optimistic," Heft said.
After 22 years in the booth , the majority with Pete Taylor and the last two with John Walters, how could he respond any other way? He's seen it all.
His primary worry is that the young squad lacks depth at key positions, which would include everything except wide receiver and defensive line.
"They need to avoid key injuries or a rash of injuries," Heft said.
In order for the Cyclones to have a successful season, the Director of Network Operations for Cyclone Sports Marketing also believes Iowa State must have continued development on the offensive line. He's confident Offensive Coordinator Barney Cotton can achieve that goal.
If the Cyclones can avoid injuries and have aggressive play up front opening holes for Stevie Hicks and allow Bret Meyer time in the pocket to find an open receiver, Heft can envision a season that will satisfy even the pessimists within the Cyclone fan base.
"If those two things happen, they should contend for a title and definitely play in a bowl game," Heft said.
So do I believe it's possible 2005 will be a fall to remember?
I'm confident Iowa State will again be "bowling", but the margin of error is small for Iowa State to play in the Big 12 Championship. These are the areas of the program that I think will be vital for the Cyclones to contend.
Avoid the injury bug—This is what every team hopes for prior to the season, but with the young squad Iowa State already fields, they need a few breaks (or more importantly no bone breaks). The Cyclones have inexperience behind starters at nearly every position. Keeping Bret Meyer healthy for every needed snap is particularly crucial.
Momentum turning plays on defense—Remember how bleak the season appeared in the third quarter of game three last year? Northern Illinois had scored 27 unanswered points for a 14-point lead. That's when the defense saved the day (and possibly the season). First Nik Moser intercepted a pass in the end zone with the Huskies driving. Moments later, Ellis Hobbs blocked a punt that LaMarcus Hicks recovered in the end zone. An aggressive and opportunistic defense can help get an offense out of a little funk with field position and points.
Expect to win—On paper, the Big 12 North again appears to be weaker than normal. Last year, it appeared Iowa State even surprised themselves with wins over Nebraska and Kansas State. This season, the Cyclones must believe those are games they should win. It's hard to believe the Big Red and K-State will be down for much longer.
Team Chemistry—With Ellis Hobbs off to the NFL, what Cyclones will take on the role of leader? Will Jason Berryman's reinstatement to the squad have a positive or negative effect on the team's camaraderie? Unity will be necessary to overcome the bumps in the schedule.
Pound Army—I know it's not a very patriotic thing to say, but this game scares me. Not only is it sandwiched in between emotional foes Iowa and Nebraska, but it's a Friday night nationally televised game that will get the home team's juices flowing. Iowa State has better talent and should win, as long as the Clones are focused.
Right through the uprights—The kicking game is a recurring theme for Iowa State, and like previous seasons will ultimately determine whether this team can hoist a title trophy. Last year in midseason emergency duty, walk-on Bret Culbertson performed admirably. But will there be any lingering effects of the missed chip shot against Missouri? Will Tony Yelk stay healthy throughout the entire season and regain his form of booming kickoffs out of the end zone and long punts to give Iowa State a field position edge? If asked to assist on field goals, can Yelk put the pigskin through the uprights? Close games are decided by special teams play. Iowa State doesn't need to lead the Big 12 in every special teams category, just be consistent and solid.