Soberting State of the Nation

If you like your ears tickled and only want to read positive thoughts, you would be wise to steer clear of this column as our founder bluntly assesses what is going on with an Iowa State football program off to a less than inspiring 3-3 start this season and facing a road game at Oklahoma as a three-touchdown underdog.

State of the Cyclone Nation: The 2006 Season at the Midway Point

The cardinal-and-gold clad natives are restless, and they should be.

For the second straight year they are looking at their beloved Cyclones getting off to a ho-um 3-3 start. For the third straight year they are looking at their beloved Cyclones getting off to a 0-3 start in the conference. For the third time in four seasons they may be looking at their team underachieving.

That's an ominous trend.

The 2003 Cyclones clearly underachieved with a 2-10 record. The 2004 Cyclones rebounded nicely and Dan McCarney deservedly won Big 12 Coach of the Year from his peers. The 2005 Cyclones were better than 7-5, and that unfortunately may go down as the ultimate missed opportunity in the entire history of Iowa State football. We have a half a season to go to find out which way this season will play out.

Coach Mac is the Renaissance Man of Iowa State football. The only reason Iowa State football is even a commodity is because of Dan McCarney. The only reason we even care is because of Dan McCarney. The only reason we even have expectations is because of Dan McCarney.

He is a man of high character, integrity, and more than just a coach he is also a leader and molder of young men. I've been a guest in his home, had my children pictured with him, and I have probably enjoyed as much access to his program as any other member of the media in the state of Iowa.

His help greatly aided the launch of this product. Despite the differences I have had from time to time (like bringing Jason Berryman back) I would have absolutely no reservations about entrusting him with my son (if I had one) for the most formative four or five years of his life. And I would have no reservations in recommending the same thing to any of you as well.

I point these things out for two reasons:

    1. So you, the reader, understands I have no personal grudge or motivation for writing this other than a concern about the direction of the program.
    2. So those among you calling for Mac's head right now might take a deep breath and recognize what he's done not just for football at ISU but for Iowa State University as a whole.

Right off the top, the idea of publicly calling for Coach Mac's head midway through the season is shortsighted at best and traitorous at worst. Every time we have put Mac's head on the chopping block and placed his name on the coaching version of the endangered species list we have been wrong. Like him or not, appreciate him as a tactician or not, we all have to agree he is nothing if not resilient.

He is the dean of Big 12 coaches, and less than two years removed from being Big 12 Coach of the Year. He has done more with less than just about any coach in college football who doesn't cheat. He actually has more respect in college football circles outside of Iowa than he does within it. And if all of you melting down right now had been supporting the program by purchasing season tickets the last 10 years you might have gotten more of the results you're looking for on the field. All of the upgrades you've seen in your athletic department in the last several years are all a by-product to some extent or another of what Coach Mac has done with ISU football.

Nevertheless, he hasn't earned nor does he deserve a lifetime appointment as head football coach at Iowa State. He has made millions of dollars coaching this program the past 12 years. Although he may not rank in the upper tier of Big 12 coaching salaries, he has been compensated quite well compared to 99% of his fellow Iowans.

On top of that, Iowa State gave Coach Mac grace during an early controversy shortly after he was hired, gave Coach Mac grace with a sixth year in 2000 after he suffered five straight years of losing to begin his tenure, and Iowa State gave Coach Mac grace after he went 2-10 in 2003. In the SEC and at some places in the Big 12 one season of unmet expectations gets you fired. Just ask Frank Solich, David Cutcliffe, and Wayne Morgan.

And for that grace afforded to Coach Mac, Iowa State has received a solid return on its investment. Record numbers of season tickets sold, unprecedented exposure for the program, increase in overall revenues, a relatively clean and respectful program off the field, several appearances in the national ratings, and the only two bowl victories in school history just to name a few things.

But with new management comes a new era. With a new era comes new expectations. With new expectations comes new pressures. This is the Church of What's Happening Now after all.

After 12 years and 28 conference victories (only two of which have come against teams that finished with a winning record) Cyclone Nation is perfectly within its right to expect more. Add into that the $135 million gauntlet laid down by Athletic Director Jamie Pollard's ambitious and expensive vision for the future of ISU sports and Cyclone Nation is certainly within its rights to expect more if it's going to be asked for more.

Overall, it could be argued that ISU football has never been healthier. But it also could be argued the program has stagnated and missed its window to take the next step while Nebraska and Kansas State were both down.

In between those two factions are a bunch of fans who genuinely like Mac and want to see him succeed but are tired of hearing about how their team is one of only 54 undefeated teams at home, tired of hearing about how every team they're playing is ranked when a I-AA foe is being included in that spin, and tired of seeing their team play from a paradigm of fearing what could go wrong as opposed to aggressively making things go right (think the final drive in regulation against Kansas last year, for instance).

I count myself among this group.

For those of us in this faction the act is getting old, the pattern stale, and we've been there, done that, and bought the tee shirt. We love Mac, but we wonder how it's possible that K-State is just two wins away from bowl eligibility in Ron Prince's first year, but ISU is in serious danger of staying home from the postseason or scraping together enough wins to qualify for another nondescript bowl game nobody outside of the state cares about in Coach Mac's 12th year?

We love Barney Cotton, but we wonder why the offensive line isn't any better now in year three than it was in year one, despite the presence of four senior starters this fall?

We wonder why after getting turnovers from a young defense struggling to make plays this season our offense has called quarterback draws and option runs to the short-side of the field as opposed to going up top for the kill-shot?

We wonder why week-after-week we have to listen to national college football broadcasters whose careers call for them to travel the country watching the best and brightest in the sport wonder why ISU doesn't get the ball to Todd Blythe more? Say what you want about Dan Fouts and Terry Bowden as broadcasters, but one is a NFL Hall of Fame quarterback who knows a thing or two about the passing game and the other is a former National Coach of the Year. Yeah, they don't know anything about football.

We wonder why the experienced ISU offense hasn't scored more than 23 points in regulation against a Division I-A team this season? We wonder why the Cyclones the past two years have played passive, uninspired football until the game or the season is on the line? We wonder where is the pride, sense of urgency, and leadership among the players?

We are beginning to wonder if the program is going to respond to Jamie Pollard's vision the way the fans have started to with their wallets?

Better facilities and more money don't help you avoid losing to Baylor at home. Better facilities and more money don't help you hold a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against Missouri. Better facilities and more money don't help you coach not to lose against Kansas with three timeouts, the wind at your back, and the Big 12 Championship on the line. Better facilities and more money don't help you put away Toledo. Better facilities and more money didn't have anything to do with falling behind, 21-7, to Northern Iowa.

And please don't blame that awful officiating crew for the Nebraska loss, and don't tell me the defense played well in the second half. Bill Callahan learned from his last trip to Ames and ran the football. Nebraska toyed with ISU, and when your defense surrenders 251 yards rushing and allows two guys to rush for 100 yards it hasn't played well, period. It just goes to show how low our expectations have gotten for that unit this season that we actually look at the Nebraska effort as a positive.

Should Austin Flynn's touchdown have counted? You bet. In fact, it was a catch in the NFL, too. But you know what would've happened had that touchdown counted? The Huskers would've opened the offense back up and won the game 35-21 as opposed to 28-14. The Cyclones were out-classed by a Nebraska team that is nowhere near the class it was in five or 10 years ago.

Is this harsh? Yep. Is this assessment of things blunt? Yep. But I also contend that once the spin cycle has run its course it's the cold, hard truth. And real change only comes once an honest, pull-no-punches appraisal of how we got here in the first place takes place.

The reality is that if Mac is saying behind closed doors the trite cliches he's saying to us in press conferences than he doesn't have both ores in the water and won't be coaching here much longer because he doesn't recognize reality. And the Coach Mac I know pulls no punches behind closed doors.

So I'm guessing Mac is challenging his guys right now. Will they respond? Or will they pay lip service and then move on because they've heard this all before? When a coach is 12 years into his tenure and a pattern like this gets established you have to wonder if he can still motivate his players or if they have tuned him and the staff out.

How will we know the answer to that question? What are signs of progress at the end of the season? I think there are four criteria Cyclone Nation should look for when the season is all said and done.

    1. Did the team get noticeably better as the season went on?
    2. Were they finally able to represent the North Division in the Big 12 Championship Game.
    3. Did ISU finally qualify for an upper-tier bowl game (i.e. Alamo, Holiday, Gator, etc.)
    4. Regardless of what bowl game ISU was invited to, did they win?

I would suggest that the answer must be yes to at least two of those questions for Cyclone Nation to believe the program hasn't stagnated. Anything less is stunted growth, and a lack of growth really means no growth. And make no mistake, Pollard has let it be known that it's all about growth right now inside the Jacobson Building.

Finally, some of you may be asking what I think should happen if there is no growth? Should there be a coaching change?

Well, since I don't have to pay to get into the games I'm uncomfortable calling for any coach to get fired who hasn't given Pierre Pierce his scholarship back or gone Fast Times at Ridgemont High with some Missouri coeds. That decision is really up to you, the paying customer, and Mr. Pollard.

Personally, I think Mac has earned the right to coach himself out of a job, so I would give him a chance to tackle next year's even more challenging schedule before pulling the trigger.

But in marketing perception is often reality. And if the program doesn't grow this year public perception may be so negative that Pollard may have a tough call to make because he has 30,000 more season tickets to sell next year.

(Steve Deace founded Cyclone Nation in 2002. He can be heard on the radio each weekday from 4-7 p.m. on 1040-WHO and seen each week on television on Mediacom's "Cy-Hawk Talk: State of the Nations." His opinions are just that, his opinions.)

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