Holly Rowe High on the Hawkeyes

ESPN sideline analyst has seen the transformation of the Iowa program up close..and personal

Oh, what a difference a few years make.

Back in 1999, a small group of Iowa writers circled around coach Kirk Ferentz inconspicuously in a tiny corner of a downtown Chicago hotel. Other than that, he roamed around unnoticed.

Fast forward to Monday's Big Ten gathering here, where Ferentz found it difficult to walk anywhere without someone wanting to shake his hand. As for the media, it attacked the coach like a pack of wolves going after raw meet, pinning him in the corner before Iowa Sports Information Director Phil Haddy tore him away for a schedule interview. If not, he'd probably still be there.

While his popularity has changed, Ferentz is the same. He answers the questions in the same polite way he did back in '99. And it's always an interesting study to see the reaction of non-Iowa reporters who expect some conceit created from success. It's not there.

Perhaps no national media member has spent more time around our captain than ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe has. She covered the 49-3 massacre at Michigan State in 1999, Ferentz first year as head coach, witnessed a host of games during the magical run in '02, and took in last year's unlikely Big Ten Championship clinching win against Wisconsin.

Rowe attended the Big Ten press conference here on Monday and lit up when she asked to talk about the Hawkeyes. Her job requires she be objective, but you could sense some of that flew out the window due to her familiarity with the program.

"2002 was the year that we went to Iowa City a lot, and I can say that I honestly fell in love with Iowa football because of the passion," she said through a huge smile.

It seems strange now, but nobody really allotted Iowa a second thought heading into the campaign. Sure, many talented players returned, but nobody expected an 8-0 Big Ten run and a trip to the BCS. The major television networks were included in that group. As a result, the ESPN broadcasting team of Rowe, Bob Davie and Mark Jones, were sent to Iowa City what seemed like almost every weekend.

Rowe, who has covered games throughout the country, gained a sincere sense of the powerful home field advantage Kinnick Stadium provides.

"It's one of the hardest places in the Big Ten to play," she said. "It just tickles me to think about it. I hope that I can still sound objective, but still appreciate how great the fans are there and how amazing it is to be there. I often wonder how the opponents even can compete there because it's so crazy."

Hawkeye football is woven into the fabric of the state. Fans of the team provide a true home field advantage. The act pushes the envelope, but refrains from going over the top.

"It's disrespectful, and it's rude," Roe said of the Iowa fan behavior towards opponents. "It's what you'd expect. It's college football, and a lot of the fans have been tailgating. But it's never been abusive to the point where I've said, "Oh my God, I can't believe they just said that." It's just all in the fun of college football.

"I don't remember seeing anybody throwing things. I don't remember any time where I said something was inappropriate. And there have been places where I've felt like the fans get out of control. It's mean, but it's not going over the line."

Iowa owns a winning streak of 18 games at Kinnick. Rowe extends her compliments of the facility.

"It's probably one of the Top 10 places to be for a game in the country, not just from the experience of being on the field," she said. "The facility is great. The Ped Mall is great. I know that might sound weird, but I love it there. Anytime they say we're going to Iowa City, I'm thrilled."

Rowe also has gained a great deal of respect for Ferentz. She has been thrust into raucous post-game interviews, and also met the coach in pre-game meetings regarding telecasts.

"He's the consummate professional," she said. "He's never too high. He's never too low. We've had meetings with him when big things were happening, and he was exactly the same as he was at the beginning of the year when he wasn't sure how good they were going to be.

"That's something that his players feed off of because they know where he's going to be every single day. At the same time, he's fiery enough. He has that passion. He gets excited on the sidelines, but he's not going crazy. I just think he's the perfect blend."

Rowe gloats about being a fan of Ferentz before it was sheik. During a conversation with Davie in 2000, she ranked the Iowa boss among the game's elite.

"(Davie) was like, "Come on, great? Do you categorize him as great yet? We're talking Joe Paterno and that kind of level,"" she said. "I said, "Yes, I think he is a great coach because his teams are prepared. Those kids know everything that is possibly going to happen that game. He's organized. He is ultimately organized. He's a teacher. He's the whole package." I thought that before the big contract extension."

Rowe calls Ferentz "the Golden Boy" of college coaches and believes he will be mentioned as a candidate for most major coaching jobs that open. She feels he ranks among the best coaches in the nation.

"He is the same guy he was back at Michigan State in ‘99, and that's what I love about him," Rowe said. "He had a plan. Even when they were struggling, there wasn't a lot of panic that he showed. Maybe at home he was staying up late, but there was this confidence that it was going to happen. He didn't feel panicked.

"Sometimes you leave a game, and you're like, "Oh that poor team. They don't have the tools." You worry for teams. I never felt that way because he had a plan, and you could sense it."

For a second year in a row, Iowa rated third in the Big Ten media's preseason poll behind Michigan and Ohio State. Rowe said the Hawkeyes have earned their place among the conference elite.

"They're going to have some really down years before they drop out of that consideration," she said.

The way the scribes came at him Monday, Ferentz might opt for an armored suit for next year's gathering here if the Hawkeyes claim another Big Ten title this fall.

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