A segment of the Iowa fan base says, ‘Who cares, and what is this stuff doing on a Hawkeye website?'
I think that segment of the fanbase is in the minority, or rather, that segment of the active posters on this website is in the minority. It may also depend in which part of the state you live, as to how much you care about this story. If you live in the 515 area code, you probably work with at few, if not more, Cyclone fans.
Those fans are probably quick to run a little smack at the water cooler whenever the Cyclones knock off the Hawkeyes in one of the main sports. PS: If they run volleyball smack at you, just turn around and go back to your cubicle without say a word.
Of course, many of you run the same smack back at them when the Hawks win, so it's all in good fun.
My reason for bringing this topic up in this Bits and Pieces column is for Iowa fans to take a long and hard look at the situation Iowa State finds itself in.
There was a small, yet vocal collection of Iowa fans back in late September and very early October that were quite vociferous with their displeasure at the state of affairs in the Iowa football program. This came after Iowa had lost three straight games by a combined nine points.
The Hawks were 3-3, and Kirk Ferentz was under assault from some. Ken O'Keefe might have won the least popular man in the state vote at that time, or rather, that vocal minority of fans would have you thinking that.
In the end, the Hawkeyes won five of their last six games, they beat the #3 ranked team in the nation on a last second field goal and they will be bowling on New Year's Day in Tampa.
Such sentiments are nowhere to be found now, of course.
But if some folks had their way, Iowa would have been looking for a new coach.
As I said at the time, such opinions were very foolhearty and short sighted. Some fans think that Iowa has some lock or right to go to bowl games seven or eight years out of every ten.
For those of us in mid to late 30's, that's about what we have known. But it wasn't always like that, and being that Iowa's latitude means a healthy dose of winter each year, and the state of Iowa doesn't have the football producing population base that some similar sized southern states have, this is going to be a job that requires excellent head coaching, excellent talent evaluation and an excellent strength and conditioning program.
Fortunately for Iowa, they have that in Kirk Ferentz and his staff, and they have proven it not just one lap around the track, but several.
I am not going to sit here and try and convince you that the Iowa and Iowa State jobs are on equal footing, because they are not. Iowa State doesn't have near the tradition that Iowa has; since 1981, Iowa has won better than 60% of its games, a winning percentage that is fourth in the Big Ten and 29th in the nation. When you take out non-BCS conference teams, Iowa has the 23rd best winning percentage in the nation 1981 through the 2007 season. Its eight wins this year will only improve it's place among college football programs.
So you can say that Iowa has been one of the Top 25 football programs in college football since Hayden Fry's Big Ten Championship team of 1981. Again, for a state this size that doesn't produce a lot of BCS conference caliber players on an annual basis, Iowa fans can be very, very proud of their program.
During that same time, Iowa State has won less than 40% of its games, and it ranks 96th out of 115 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as D1-A.
But in the last decade, Iowa has 64 wins to 57 losses, and they have won, on average over the past decade, just one more game per season than their in state rival Iowa State.
Of course, the past decade of Iowa State football might be the best ten year span in that school's history, and they still have won just 44.1% of their games.
Yet, Iowa State has closed the gap to some degree on its Big Brother to the east. That might be the biggest reason that Iowa fans pay keen attention to what is going on in Ames, as the Cyclones are no longer a guaranteed win for the Hawks on the gridiron.
Since Iowa pasted the Cyclones in Ames in 1997, the Hawkeyes have won there just once. Iowa is back on more solid footing in this series, having won four of the last six.
However, the goings on in Ames are worth keeping an eye on, as Iowa does compete with Iowa State for some in state recruits on an annual basis.
ISU is at a crossroads in its football program right now, after Gene Chizik bolted for greener and warmer pastures at Auburn. He left the Cyclone football program in a bit of a lurch, likely in worse condition than when he took over two years ago.
Iowa State is just 5-19 the past two seasons and they are in the midst of an ugly 10-game losing streak. Their defense is in total disarray, one of the worst squads in the nation from this past season. They do return a lot of players on paper, but some of their best performers haven't totally ruled out the possibility of transfer due to the coaching change.
All of this brings me to Tuesday's revelation from Buffalo Coach Turner Gill's agent that his client declined to speak with Iowa State regarding their head coaching vacancy.
If that is accurate (Gill's agent said exactly that on Tuesday's Marty & Miller program on 1460 KXNO in Des Moines), what does that say about the Iowa State job, circa 2008, and is Iowa's hand ‘in state' only growing stronger?
Over the weekend, one of ESPN's college football talking heads said that he didn't think Gill would have interest in the ISU job, and he called going from Buffalo to Iowa State a quote ‘lateral move'.
Three years ago, if Buffalo wasn't the worst head coaching job in all of FBS football, it was #2. Since Buffalo entered the FBS in 1998, the only team with fewer total wins through the 2007 season was Duke. Prior to the 2007 season, Duke and Buffalo were tied for the fewest wins from 1998-2006 with just 12.
Turner Gill arrived on the scene in 2006, and he has taken that program from the bottom of the FBS to respectability, winning a MAC Championship this year. His compensation package is somewhere just north of $250,000.
Iowa State was reported to be very interested in Gill, as were other FBS schools this year. If ISU really wanted Gill has their coach, Gill would have been looking at a payday that would have increased his salary by a factor of at least four per year; he would have been a million-dollar man per year, earning in just 12 months what it would take him four years to earn at Buffalo.
Yet according to Gill's agent, he declined to even speak with Iowa State about their head coaching vacancy, to remain at Buffalo.
Well, that is one way to look at it. Another possibly scenario is that Gill is going to bide his time, either until another more attractive job comes along this year, or more likely, after next year.
Gill is choosing patience and a possible chance at having more of an opportunity to pick the right job for him, rather than the first one that came along that really wanted him.
That's a bit of a risk, considering Buffalo's track record. Their current level of success is by no means guaranteed for next year and beyond.
So again I ask; what does that say about Iowa State?
Is this job now seen as being one of the most challenging jobs in any BCS conference?
Des Moines Register columnist Sean Keeler pointed out that Mike Leach has been successful in Lubbock, Texas. He called Ames the Lubbock of the Big 12 North.
ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard shocked a lot of people when he plucked Chizik from Texas two years ago. Chizik was one of the hottest names on the ‘future head coaches' list that year. Many folks at the time, including me, felt that Chizik would not be around in five years. He would either fail miserably in Ames and be terminated, or he would succeed and move on to a better job.
Well, he failed miserably and still was able to move on to a better job.
The margin for success in Iowa City has typically been razor thin. The Hawkeyes need solid coaching, solid talent evaluation and development skills, they need to avoid the injury bug and then they have to have solid special teams play and not turn the ball over.
Miss out on any one of those things in a given year, and Iowa is fortunate to even qualify for a bowl game. That's just the way it's been.
Hawkeye fans should count their blessings that Kirk Ferentz and his staff are firmly entrenched in Iowa City, because they typically bring all of the things they can control from the list above, to the table.
Those same challenges exist in Ames, for Iowa's arch in state rival. Then add an exponent of two onto that list, and that is how challenging things are at Iowa State.
So it's not surprising that a large number of Iowa fans are paying close attention to what is going on in Ames. Some are doing it out of entertainment, some out of sheer curiosity. Some folks live next to and/or work alongside ISU fans and the friendly rivalry draws them in.
The bottom line is that Iowa State is at a very hairy crossroads, teetering on the brink of returning to the abyss of college football, or hanging in there, fighting to earn respect. The drama is high, therefore the attention is on Ames right about now.
Or at least until after Christmas, when all eyes will be focused on the Hawks in Tampa….
EARLY BIRD POLL
The folks over at nationalchamps.net are known for one thing, and one thing only; their early bird preseason Top 25 poll. They have released their 2009 Top 25 earlier than they ever have, and they have Iowa checking in at 15th. Now, they are making the assumption that Shonn Greene will return, in addition to some other assumptions on underclassmen returning to teams. I remain convinced that Greene will turn pro, which will have an effect on how Iowa is viewed next year for the mostly meaningless (if you aren't in them) preseason rankings.
That being said, it's better to be in those polls that to be left off of them, and if Iowa beats South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, my guess is the Hawks will check in somewhere between 22 and 25 in the first AP Top 25 poll for the 2009 season, with or without Shonn Greene.
I also think Iowa has a very, very good shot to return to a January Bowl game next year. But more on that after the bowl game.
REAL OR FAKE?
I also remain convinced, after having conversations with several people, that Iowa is going to move away from natural grass next year. I believe that sometime over the next three weeks, Iowa will announce that they are going with Field Turf, the new brand of artificial surface. Iowa already has this surface on one of its outdoor practice fields at the Kenyon Practice Facility, in addition to having that surface on the field inside the bubble.
If Iowa goes this direction, it would leave Northwestern, Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State as the only schools in the conference with real turf. Iowa plays at Michigan State and Penn State next year, which means six of their eight Big Ten games would be on the fake stuff, and 9 of their 12 games would be on Field Turf.