SAN ANTONIO, Texas _ While Iowa labored through the 1999 and 2000 seasons wining just four games, progress often was measured in moral victories. Kirk Ferentz spent those two years building a foundation for his system to succeed.
The Hawkeyes finished up the '99 campaign with a tough 25-21 setback against Minnesota, fighting valiantly despite losing their eighth in a row and 10th of 11. When Iowa won a Big Ten title a few years later, then Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby pointed to the spirited preparation for that game against the Golden Gophers as a sign of good thing to come.
Iowa managed just three wins in ‘00, but fell to Minnesota and Wisconsin by a total of nine points. Again, hidden in the 3-9 record was a team starting to find its identity, which earned them the tag of Bullies of the Big Ten.
We fast forward to today and in many ways the Hawkeyes have returned to their status as major underdog and afterthought on the college landscape. Pundits have labeled them one of the biggest disappointments of the season. ESPN analyst Jim Donnan said on Friday that he expects Texas to run the ball down Iowa's throat.
Few so-called experts are walking out on the limb to pick the Hawkeyes in Saturday's Alamo Bowl, where they meet the defending national champions. And really, why would they? The thought of that Iowa team that ended the regular season in embarrassing fashion at Minnesota getting hooked by the ‘Horns seems quite plausible.
Let's face it. Iowa trots into San Antonio as an average team as illustrated by its 6-6 record. You might even consider it well below the Mendoza Line with a 2-6 Big Ten mark. As of now, it's a team that lacks the passion and talent to compete with the Longhorns based on the way it performed through the season.
"Losing has never been a big thing to me, it's how you play," Ferentz said on Friday in his final media appearance before the game. "It sounds cliché, but it is true. To me, if we don't start with the basics, playing with great effort, playing fundamentally sound, and playing smart then we're not going to be successful."
And that's really for what all Hawkeye followers should be looking in this final game of '06. If Iowa plays with the grit and intensity that saw it win 10 or more games from 2002-04, the athletes and coaches can exit the Alamodome with their heads held high and their eyes looking to a brighter future.
Iowa fans might find it hard to swallow, but the term "moral victory" could come into play on Saturday. A scoreboard win would be great, but it's quite possible that a great effort could fail to produce a victory if the Longhorns bring their "A" game.
Can you live with that or does a loss sour this season even more for you? If you're having a problem with it just remember that this is a fragile sport and teams like Rutgers and Wake Forest could just as easily slip back down after historic runs in '06. Sometimes it's much harder to stay up on the mountain than to climb up there.
"It's important that we get our feet back on the ground and really focus on what's important," Ferentz said. "It all starts with me. We need to do a better job of focusing on the things that are going to make the difference in games and seasons. That's kind of been our approach. We just back to where we were in November of '99. That's been the attitude we've taken this month.
"Hopefully (Saturday) we'll go out and play a clean football game, play aggressively and give ourselves a realistic chance to compete against an outstanding opponent."
WHO Radio Personality Steve Deace has talked about his Michigan team's loss to Nebraska in last year's Alamo being a blessing because it forced the Wolverines into making changes. That might have forced Lloyd Carr's hand, but something tells me changes were coming anyway.
To construct an analogy between what happened to Michigan and what needs to occur to Iowa this season would be to say that the Hawkeyes must be exposed for having an archaic scheme and players that have become fat cats as Ferentz called them earlier this season. Texas blows them apart and sends them back to Iowa City a humiliated bunch, causing Ferentz to execute wholesale changes.
I just don't see anything good coming out of a beating resulting from a lackluster Iowa effort. They can catapult into next season by showing Ferentz what he wants to see. And the coach isn't likely to throw his ideas out the window no matter what happens here on Saturday.
Believe me, I don't relish the thought of accepting a moral victory, but unfortunately the program sits in that position right now. I wish it sat at the 11-1 I picked for it before the season, apparently in the Hawkeye stupor.
I first started covering Iowa football in a smaller capacity back in '97, the last season for Tim Dwight and Tavian Banks. That team underachieved according to prognosticators and looked horrible in a 17-7 loss in the Sun Bowl. The Hawkeyes went on to win just seven games over the next three campaigns.
The success throughout most of this decade has jaded many Hawkeye fans. They've grown to expect 2002 to happen every season and forget the late ‘90s. I've grown to appreciate that year more and more as time passes.
I know stomaching a moral victory at this stage in the Ferentz regime hurts, but accept it. Pull for a win, but hope harder for the effort and competitiveness you've come to love from your Hawkeyes. You'll sleep better at night knowing that this team is heading into the spring with the fire in its belly to fight back and return to the top of the mountain.