Sportsball and The Crippling Weight of Expectations
Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be an Alabama fan. I mean, you'd have all these expectations every single year. Winning your division? Oh hell yes. SEC Title Game? You better believe it! Making the playoff with a shot at a national title? Absolutely! There are 131 teams in FBS football and I would be willing to be that at least 125 of them would be willing to trade places with Alabama in a heartbeat. (Hell, the number might be higher than that, to be quite honest about it.)
But alas, through accidents of geographic relocation, parental employment* and just the wheel of life itself, I am not an Alabama fan. I grew up in Iowa City, I graduated from the University of Iowa and somehow ended up right back here working for the University of Iowa in a job that revolves around athletic events of some flavor or another for about six months out of the year. So, like it or not, Iowa Football is all up in my shit on multiple levels pretty much all the damn time.
Which raises the question: what should the expectations be at Iowa? For 43 years- longer than I've been alive, Iowa has had precisely two football coaches. I appreciate the consistency and for sure, it seems like the eyes of the fan base have been firmly fixed to the horizon for decades now instead of loftier goals like, you know, the metaphorical moon of a national title. The loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Title game robbed Iowa of a chance at the playoff. We got the Rose Bowl instead and I think, despite the fact we were absolutely trucked in that game, most of the fan base accepted it gladly- hell, maybe they even preferred it to getting (potentially) vaporized by Alabama the way Michigan State did.
Throw us bowl games on the regular, an occasional Big Ten title and every once in awhile a major Bowl appearance and win and we're good. 7-5 to 10-2 with a decent bowl somewhere warm and I think that's the baseline of expectations for the Iowa fanbase- everything above that is a delightful bonus and everything below that is... well, it sucks.
I don't have a deep knowledge of football. I don't know offensive schemes or defensive coverages or shit like that. I watch football, I like being entertained by football and fully expecting Saturday night's game versus Illinois was going to be a hot pile of dog shit, I chose to do other things with my time- hoping that I'd be pleasantly surprised at the end of the night. Turns out, I wasn't and we lost to Illinois for the first time since 2008 and dropped to 3-3 on the season with a bye week and a trip to Ohio State on deck for the next two weeks.
What I do know is this: Ferentz-era football at Iowa has been a journey of peaks and valleys interspersed with blessedly few ditches. Unfortunately, we appear to be in one at the moment.
The quote making the rounds on the internet:
"We won 10 games last year I don't know if you're aware of that..."
I am. It was nice, wonderful even right up until the point Michigan pasted us in the Big Ten championship game. But last year, while nice, doesn't provide us with much help this year. Where we are dead last out of 131 teams on the offensive side of the ball.
It's worth noting that this isn't Ferentz's first rodeo. He's been here before and pulled rabbits out of hats much grubbier looking than this one it could be we find four+ wins somewhere on the schedule and the offensive flickers to life and they can go into the next season with something to build on that resembles actual tangible progress. The coaching staff keeps insisting that something is there- but at a certain point, fans need to see the something on the field in front of them. They shouldn't have to go into a film room and do a play by play analysis to scrape something, anything, resembling good news about the offense.
All of this could wind up being a moot point. I will acknowledge that.
But what if it's not?
The Big Ten's new media deal is reportedly going to pay (eventually) between $80-$100 million a year to it's schools. For schools like Michigan and Ohio State, that's just extra money in their Scrooge McDuck-like money vaults. For mid-tier Big Ten schools like Iowa- suddenly, that's serious money. Serious money that could be used to pitch to coaches we may never have been able to get before.
Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst after multiple 9-3 seasons. Whether they did that to get in on the Lance Leipold sweepstakes or to keep their (reported) 'next guy' Jim Leonhard from going somewhere else I don't know-- but Wisconsin has prized consistency and in many ways adopted the Iowa blueprint more successfully than Iowa ever did and if they're going to fire their coach? Whatever the reasons or the internal calculations in Madison, it certainly gave me pause.
The playoff is going to expand.
Divisions are (probably) going away.
Kirk Ferentz's current contract ends officially in January of 2030. He's currently 67.
The college football landscape is shifting and changing rapidly. I don't know if we urgently need a Coach that can adapt to the landscape more readily than Ferentz seems to be and who knows? Maybe he'll adjust and adapt and hang up his hat on a high note and ride away into the sunset, his place in the pantheon of Iowa football solidly assured.
But barring a turnaround, I'm now convinced: I don't think it was a 100% certainty Ferentz would serve out his contract, but now I'm sure he won't. With the money and the changes all coming in hot, Iowa is going to be in a position to hire more people and attract more interest than the fanbase can probably grasp at the moment.
While Iowa's overall expectations might be less ambitious than other programs, I feel confident in saying that we shouldn't be dead last in any phase of the game.
If the weight of those expectations are too crippling for the current program leadership to fulfill, then (and I realize there's a veritable Alderaan-like amount of voices on the internet calling for this, anyway) it's time for a change at the top.
*True Story: given my Dad's background in ice and snow, they purchased a Subaru with no air conditioning fully expecting to end up in Alaska. I could have been a Seawolves fan! (Or a Nanooks fan?)