The 2001-2002 Hawkeyes were ranked in the Top 10 during the pre-conference portion of the schedule, but the Luke Recker and Reggie Evans led squad finished with a dismal 5-11 record in league play, lost to LSU in a first round NIT game in Iowa City and closed things out with a record of 19-16. Considering they were 12-3 at one point, that club finished 7-13.
The Alford Era honeymoon was clearly over and the fan base began to grow apathetic.
Then in September, Pierre Pierce made a horrible decision that caused harm to a female student and caused harm to his teammates that depended on him.
Welcome to Iowa, Jeff and Greg.
A destination they had dreamt about for much of their lives was quickly becoming their version of ‘Paradise Lost'.
Over the course of the next three years, there would be more lows than highs, there would be fewer fans in the stands, incredible and unfair scrutiny for the duo and a lot of questions; why is this happening to us?
For their part, they just kept giving the Iowa basketball program and Steve Alford all they had to give. Through broken bones, numerous bruises, jammed fingers, sore backs and damaged psyches, the two native sons from Iowa kept plugging along.
Outwardly, they kept a straight face. Inwardly, they hurt.
As the calendar turned to October of 2005, the two once again had dreams of grandeur; hope that this year might be the one to pay for all.
In November, before the games began, I dropped a quick note to Greg Brunner. I have always admired the way he has played the game, seemingly undersized to do what he does night in and night out, and certainly underappreciated.
I told him that I would not probably talk with him again during the season, as that is not appropriate. I didn't communicate with him much out of season to begin with, but you get to know these guys when they are in high school and you can't help but root for good things to happen to them.
Part of what I said in the brief note was, "I just have this feeling that this season pays for all….that the legacy that you, Jeff and this entire team leaves behind is one of healing and one of unification."
Then came Kansas City and their win against a then Top Ten rated Kentucky team. I waited around the tunnel until Brunner was done giving his interview with ESPN, and as he jogged off, I said, ‘I told you so.'; he smiled and jogged away.
There were bumps along the road this year, to be sure. The back to back losses at UNI and Iowa State caused some fans to feel as if they were once again playing Charlie Brown to Lucy's pulling away the football just before the kick.
The optimism that had been built up in Kansas City quickly froze into pessimism after two bitterly cold nights in Cedar Falls and Ames.
There was a concern that Jeff Horner might not play again after the knee injury against UNI.
When the Hawks lost by double-digits in their league opener at Wisconsin and were coming home to face a ranked and then undefeated Illinois team in Carver Hawkeye Arena, the buzzards were circling.
Prior to the start of that Illinois game, the Illini players were in the tunnel saying, ‘This is our house!' Coach Alford relayed that message to his team in the pregame locker room speech. He also said something prophetic; "Someday people are going to write a book about this Iowa team."
He might be right, and he certainly would have been right if Iowa had held on and claimed a share of the Big Ten title. But it was close enough.
Iowa sat 14-5 after its 30-point loss at Michigan State and it had yet to sell out a game at Carver Hawkeye Arena. The next game, a Tuesday night contest against Indiana, failed to sell more than 12.000 tickets.
Iowa won that game, and proceeded to win six of its next seven league games. It spent nearly a month in first place in the month of February, something that had not happened since 1982.
Iowa sold out four of its remaining five Big Ten home games, with the non-sellout against Penn State bringing in over 14,000 fans.
HEALING AND UNIFICATION
When Horner and Brunner gave their goodbye speeches after the Wisconsin game, both nearly broke into tears a few times.
Horner acknowledge that he thought his career might have been over after suffering that partial PCL tear against UNI.
" I just want to thank God for giving me a second chance. I thought I was done six or seven games in, but he saved my knee there. I just want to thank him for that." Horner said.
And for all the rumors and such about Horner and Brunner wanting to leave Iowa, about being unhappy with Steve Alford, etc, they had some glowing comments for their head coach and each gave them with a cracking voice, being overcome with some strong emotions.
Horner: "Coach Alford. (Pause) We've been on the ride for about four years now, it hasn't been always good, but the way we ended it this year was just awesome. I just want to thank you for always being there for me, I know you'll be there for me in the future. You've been like a second father to me.
Brunner: "Coach Alford, wow. I'm not going to cry. These past four years you've been like a father to me. I know you're hard on me because you know how good I can be, and I couldn't ask for anything else."
Reading these quotes is just not enough. If you heard them say these things, the impact is far greater and the meaning more significant.
For me, the respect they paid to the Iowa fans, the student section in particular, is the core of what I felt this season could be about, what I hoped it would be about.
Horner: "I want to thank the students and all the fans that come out here. I know we haven't given you all that much to cheer about the last 3 years, it's been pretty tough on you guys too, like I said in the paper. We've finally done our part for you guys, and hopefully we can keep this tradition and pack this place."
Brunner: "And finally, the fans. This has been the best year of my life. The past three years have been a struggle, but look at the Hawk's Nest, all the way up. Thank you everybody."
For me, this year's team will leave a legacy of healing and unification. Horner and Brunner fought the good fight. They leave the program in better shape than it was when they arrived; people are happy and they brought the smiles to their faces.
They will be remembered for giving it their all no matter the circumstance. They never lost a single game in front of their fans during their senior season, something that has not happened at Iowa since 1966.
Horner probably played more minutes in an Iowa uniform than any player in its history, and he leaves as the school's all time leader in assists and three-pointers made.
Brunner leaves as the school's all time leading rebounder and he has a shot to be one of 11 or 12 players in Big Ten history to score 1,000 or more points and pull down 1,000 or more rebounds.
They will leave Iowa as likely the 10th and 11th most prolific scorers in school history, joining Iowa natives Jess Settles and Dean Oliver as the only native sons of the state to score at least 1,400 points in their Iowa careers.
They also created a new generation of Iowa fans who will be shooting jumpers out in their driveways or back yards, pretending to be Horner or Brunner with the time winding down on the clock and sinking a game winner.
They have left a great legacy with room to add to it with two more tournaments to play.
Sports legends fade away only after those who witnessed their work and effort are dead and buried.
A friend of mine took his six year old to the game on Saturday, and he took a picture of his son standing atop the Carver Hawkeye Arena concourse, wearing his #2 Jeff Horner jersey, his favorite player. The picture was taken from behind, his son's arms draped over the gold safety tubing that rings the top rows and the boy looking down into the bowel of the arena.
It's a fitting and touching picture. Though not uncommon, as many of us have had days like that in that building or in the old Fieldhouse, it was a picture of sports immortality, at least to me.
The six year old might one day tell his own children about the day he went to Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner's last game at Iowa, and how he went with his father and grandfather, three generations of Iowa fans enjoying a great game, an end to a great home season, and enjoying it together as a family.
15,500 enjoyed that game together as a family. As is the case with all families, there can be fighting at times and times when we don't get along all that well.
But in the end, we are family and that matters most.
Thanks in large part to Horner and Brunner and their American Gothic work ethic, the Iowa basketball fan base was a reunited and unified family once again.
It was a long and hard road, but the destination seemed like old times and perhaps woke up some echoes ages gone by. It made me think of names like Lester, Hansen, Carfino, Stokes, Payne, Waite, Arnold and more.
Thanks for the memories.