Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Welcome to the Franimal House (Wish I made that up)

So, Iowa hired a new basketball coach on Sunday, in case you're living under a rock or Scott Dochterman's voyeuristic video camera stalker trip didn't pique your interests. And, despite the hot mid-major resume and professorial appearance, he couldn't be any more different from severed incumbent Todd Lickliter. Fran McCaffery, fresh off a "fran-tastic" three year run at Siena (upstate New York) where he guided the Saints to three straight NCAA tournaments, including first-round upsets over fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in 2008 and the Evan Turner-led Ohio State Buckeyes in 2009 (the game when Bill Raftery popularized "double onions!"), is our new head man. After his explosively perfect press conference on Monday, the bespectacled, stately gent know as "White Magic" for his street-wise playing days in urban Philadelphia has already won over the black-and-gold faithful in ways pretty boy Steve Alford and "systematic" Lick never could.

Fran is the only D1 coach to have guided three different teams from traditional one-bid leagues to the NCAA tournament, spearheading vast turnarounds at Lehigh, North Carolina-Greensboro, and of course Siena. The 49-year-old doesn't run a "system," per se, which should be refreshing to fans sick and tired of hearing Lickliter's favorite justification for success. During the presser, Fran said his teams will play up-tempo and switch up defenses based on match-ups, terms foreign and frightening to Lickliter. There will be obvious eyebrow raises concerned with the current roster's ability to run-and-gun (Cougill on the fastbreak is a scary thought), but Coach has reiterated that he will adapt to the strengths of his players. His teams at Siena shot an inordinately low amount of threes, directly contrasting with the previous regime, and were known for hardly ever fouling. Recruiting is a question mark, if only because McCaffery, a Digger Phelps assistant at Notre Dame during the '90s, hasn't been in the Midwest in quite some time. It will be interesting to see if he still decides to primarily recruit the East Coast, or strengthens pipelines in Chicago and the Twin Cities. His wife, Marge, a former All-American player herself at Notre Dame and Minnesota native, has a feisty reputation for dogging officials (she was kicked out of an '06 game) and baking apple pies for potential recruits. He has four young kids, and made sure they were on display throughout Monday's festivities.

Essentially, he's the anti-Lick.

The theme ran rampant during the press conference and continued into a meet-and-greet with Iowa students and the general public later in the evening: change is here. Fran emphasized the benefits of raising a family in Iowa City, community interaction, and getting fans back in the seats. He spoke of having relationships with players, inviting them to his home and making them feel like family. He wants recruits to feel safe, parents to trust their children to his hands. He talked about moving the student section behind the opponents' bench, telling anecdotes from his first visit to Carver in the '80s when his Lehigh team was crushed in front of a raucous sell-out crowd by George Raveling's primetime Hawkeyes. The interaction with the media was a night-and-day difference — Fran was smooth, poised, with a quick East Coast-drenched swagger in his voice. He told humorous tales about recruiting former Hawkeye greats Jess Settles and Kenyon Murray, delineating a knowledge of Hawkeye history that Lick could never grasp. He didn't inundate the media with tales of his successes at Siena: he knows this is Iowa, and made it clear this was his first job choice, a job he pursued instead of openings at Seton Hall and St. John's.

Fran clearly outlined a blueprint for improvement and keeping current players/recruiting class, discussed possibly nabbing a former Hawk player as an assistant on his staff, and even laughed politely when Barta made a joke about Mrs. McCaffery needing seat-belts on gameday. Talk rampaged of bringing the fans back with fast-break ball played "the right way," getting the arena "rockin' again" and making it impossible to buy tickets. Talk of practice facilities and renovations generated excitement, not excuses. It's undeniable — Fran said all the right things, and it was obvious he set out to portray himself as everything Lickliter wasn't. He was comfortable, the opposite of aloof, friendly, engaging, and told the fans everything they wanted to hear. Expect improvement year one, per Fran. How much? Nobody really knows, but I would pencil the Hawks in for 13-15 wins. Am I lost in the allure of a Fran-high? Maybe. But I am already more excited for basketball than I ever was under the Lickliter era, and my hardwood pulse is gradually thumping along again. That's an important aspect that cannot be overstated.

Step one is out of the way. Now comes the hard part. Can he recruit in the Big Ten? How will the current players adapt? How soon will the Hawks be back in the tournament? Nobody knows the answers to these questions. But here's one thing I'll guarantee — the fans have warmed up to Fran like no coach in the past decade, and the arena will be vastly more full next year. If Fran starts the non-conference slate with a good, winning record, watch out. The fans will come back. Now about that pep band...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Crisis of Hawkeye Basketball: A Ship in Disrepair

A storm has rumbled through Iowa City and swept up the apathy of an entire basketball-starved student body in the seemingly vast time span between my last blog post in December and the beautiful spring day materializing outside my window.

Bowl season has long come and gone, with gaping doe-eyes focused on the recent onset of spring football, a statewide attraction every year under Kirk Ferentz, and the not-so-distant date in May when that beautiful sun won't just be a painful classroom diversion but a sweet summer companion, too. Since December, I've been fired from a job, made some friends, watched some basketball, drank a bit too much, re-committed to a relationship, made above-average grades, and lived what most would call the stereotypical college existence. Though I miss the comfort and the weather of a beautiful Texas home (not a plantation, for you damn Yankees), I truly can't complain about a single thing. Well, almost. The University of Iowa has been everything I could have dreamt of and more, but there's just one pesky problem keeping me awake at night.

I toss and turn underneath my oppressive sheets, and wake up consumed by a numb stupor. I scour rumor-mongering message boards filled with keyboard-chattering twelve-year-olds and grown men stealing time on Mom's computer while she's at work, salivating over every name and every thread despite the fact that I consistently learn nothing from these "well-informed" batches of posters. I spend too much time on Twitter. I listen to crappy sportswriters with multitudes of anonymous tips. I get excited when I read about the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Scott Dochterman stalking Gary Barta at the airport, have nightmares of a chain-smoking Pat Harty wearing Blues Brothers' shades, and, like every blue-blooded young man, long for an elusive serving of "Big Ups." I think I am going crazy.

Why do I put myself through this seemingly inane struggle? Because I am a basketball fan. Much more than a fan, actually. I am a deviant, obsessed, thirsting for the game during my every waking moment. I bleed orange and sweat hardwood. It's unhealthy, but at the same time cathartic and comforting. I attended every single home contest (minus the holidays) for the hapless 10-22 Iowa Hawkeyes "basketball team" this past year, the worst record in school history by a long-shot. Maybe that wasn't the best idea for a guy who has battled depression in the last year. We are a national laughingstock, marked with an empty arena and a football team looming over the entire athletic department that marked up more wins than the black and gold hoopsters this past season. Including the Hawks, only two teams in the entire Division 1 landscape share the dubious distinction of having the football team post more wins than the basketball team. The program is stuck in the 1980s, with problems ranging from student section placement to a terrible pep band and a complete disconnect between the coach and the fanbase, which began with Steve Alford and culminated with this current mess. Ouch.

So athletic director Gary Barta did what he had to do. He fired Coach Todd Lickliter after a dismal and brief three-year tenure where he chalked up, you guessed it, the worst stretch in Iowa basketball history with a humbling 38-58 record. Player departures ran rampant, and more threatened if Lick was kept around. There was no sign of hope on the horizon. Perhaps his most egregious offense in fans' eyes was playing his diminutive son, John, a player horrifically incapable of saving face in Division 1 basketball and a move that was lampooned by state media outlets. The former National Coach of the Year at Butler, Lickliter guided the scrappy Bulldogs to a pair of Sweet Sixteens as head man for his alma mater, a tiny and basketball-obsessed private school in the heart of Indiana. He popularized the cliche and obnoxiously overstated "Butler Way," exemplified by selflessness and the strict adherence to a slow-down system chock full of shot-clock sapping three-point shooting, reduced turnovers, and defensive tenacity. Why was this system such a failure at Iowa? Where does the program go from here? Do the problems run deeper than merely a bad coach? What can we expect next year, and when will a new coach be hired? There are so many questions, and, since I haven't posted in more than three months, I should probably be reminded to pace myself. I'm afraid of going over the deep-end on my word count, seeing as I haven't even ventured near the meat of this blog post, so I better get started here.

These are my ten key questions regarding the present and future state of the "car-crash-can't-turn-away" Iowa basketball team, a sorrowful lesson in ineptitude.

1) The Lickliter firing may not have been the right thing to do, but it was the only thing Barta could do, right? How important is this next coaching hire?

First of all, yes, Barta had no choice. With hands tied behind his back and the bloodstains of a boneheaded hire coating his hands, he was forced to fire the only major coach he's ever hired. The fans had turned away in droves, revenue was dwindling with a dearth of booster support, and, if the rumors hold true, another pair of marquee transfers were bound to happen if Lick was given one more year. I think even the most ardent Lick supporters would contend that we couldn't afford any more transfers. It was Lickliter's head, or another year of vacant seats and potentially even Barta's job on the line without guaranteed improvement in 2010-11. But to say Lickliter was respected in NCAA coaching circles would be a vast understatement. Just look at Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo's recent lambasting of the firing and general critique of the "win-now" culture in NCAA coaching.

Granted, Izzo has no understanding of what's going on within the Iowa program and likely wouldn't say those things had Lickliter dominated the head-to-head matchup, but still, it's a microcosm of how Lick is viewed by virtually every coach in college basketball — with admiration and respect. Three years is an awfully short amount of time to turn a program around as badly damaged as Iowa's, but if Steve Alford dug the Hawks a hole, Lickliter happily leapt inside, content to be buried alive. It's difficult to explain to outsiders how bad the program had become, and how much apathy had grown.

It's impossible to build a system like Lick's predicated on experience and discipline when there's such a high player turnover rate, and it's difficult to be feasible when the fans aren't showing up anymore. Lickliter was aloof, awkward with the media, and distant from his players. He was an old-school coach and teacher, with no desire to be coddling or friendly. Just think back to his "feelings hurt" remark about Cougill or the treatment of Tucker after his second public intoxication charge. His style of basketball is not entertaining when the team isn't winning or scoring many points, and his personality whiny and disengaging. Fans were tired of the excuses about the schedule and facilities, too, though the latter had some merit. I'll get to that later. And when you've been playing basketball for 100+ years, it's a pretty big deal when you lose 20+ games for the first time.

Lick was making $1.2 million a year and his buyout won't be cheap, paying him 800K for the next few years, but it had to be done. It's not a good situation for anyone, and Lickliter seemed like a kind man with good intentions who was in way over his head. He tried to run a mid-major system at a Big Ten school, and the recruiting suffered. Iowa is such a different school and culture than Butler, where you have to recruit a special kind of talent (blue-collar, high ACTS, etc.). Winning in the Horizon League is just such a different initiative than winning in the Big Ten and competing week after week. It just is. I truly believe his heart never left Butler either. Sean Keeler of The Des Moines Register recalled a funny anecdote when Lick called him to complain about a column Keeler had written the previous week. The article? It was about Butler. And the tragic irony of the whole situation? Lickliter is rumored to be a prime candidate for the head coaching job at Toledo University. Remember when I said there were two Division 1 programs whose football teams won more games than the basketball team? Well, Toledo was the other one.

As for this being an important hire, I think Barta's job depends on it. Since taking over as AD in 2006, Barta has signed Kirk Ferentz to an extension, a move Helen Keller would consider a no-brainer. He's also overseen the Kinnick renovations and spearheaded the long overdue Carver renovations and construction of a practice facility. Nothing really ambiguous. His only major move was hiring Lickliter, now considered a pretty substantial fail. White-hot rumors of bargain bin mid-major candidates turning down interview requests are sure to have the restless fan base in a tussle (not helping his case), but Barta did an excellent job of keeping the Lick hire a secret until the day it was announced, so I don't think we'll know anything until we hear the final gun. The next coach needs to be exciting, engaging with the media, and a good recruiter. It has to be somebody the general fan has heard of, and it has to be someone excited to be here, not looking to jump to bigger lakes at the slightest opportunity. It's going to take more than a solid Xs and Os mind, or a middling Horizon League stiff whose made a couple of NITs with Wright State. This next coach will make or break Gary Barta, mark my words.

2) Barta needs to understand a new coach won't solve Iowa's basketball problem. What is the national perception of the program right now? What else needs to be done?

I'm starting off with a bang here. As I stated earlier, the insidious problems influencing every blackened inch of the program are much deeper and more difficult to pinpoint than just Lickliter being a poor coach. If Alford is named Coach of the Year this season for his work at New Mexico, a realistic possibility, Iowa will have fired or forced out two of the last four National COYS. Hmm. First of all, the facilities have been some of the worst in the conference for the better part of a decade now. Basketball needs to be made a priority in the athletic department, plain and simple. We all know football is the cash cow, but when the ballers are forced to share a practice court (the CHA floor, nonetheless) with the volleyball team and work around the schedule of Lisa Bluder's female hoopsters, then that's a serious problem for a Big Ten school. The construction of a separate practice facility along with new weight rooms, coaches offices, and other arena-specific touch ups will all be crucial in attracting more high-end talent, pleasing our coach, and fielding a successful basketball team in the 21st century. We can't keep riding off the coattails of the 1980s "Golden Age." It's been 30 years since our last Final Four appearance, and administrators need to wake up and acknowledge that. The practice facility is a good start.

Also, the gameday atmosphere is absolutely abysmal. The pre-game energy is as electric as my toothbrush and crowd noise resembles a funeral. Come to think of it, a funeral is a pretty good metaphor for this past season's success. Student turnout is bare unless tickets are dispensed for free, which might have to be a temporary solution until we right the ship, despite the inevitable financial losses. Senior citizens dot the crowd like it's bingo night, and the majority of Carver's wrinkled denizens sit on their hands and clap politely after each minor success. To call the arena dead would be insulting to those who are no longer with us. The student section needs to be moved from behind the basket and plopped courtside, behind the opponent's bench. More students would show up with the better seats, and arena noise would be amplified astronomically. We need a raucous atmosphere.

There's also a massive chasm between program and fans. An entire graduating class of UI students is about to don the cap and gown without having seen the Hawks compete in one NCAA tournament game. There is no tradition or culture with the current batch of students, no interest in the moribund basketball team. It's all football, and wrestling for the niche knuckleheads who love that stuff. We need an entirely new marketing strategy, to sell the program back to the students. The general fans will come back when the winning starts anew or if they take kindly to the new coach, but the students need to be convinced. They've turned their backs on the program. I wish it didn't have to be that way, that we weren't such a "football" or "tailgating" school and recognized the proud tradition of Hawkeye basketball, but with such a divide, it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be a gradual process. Finally, the lovably dorky pep band needs to update their song list from the 1970s, stock up on band members, and generate some more excitement. The arena needs to crank up the volume on their music as well. Small steps back to respectability.

And the national perception of the program? Not good, but it depends on who you talk to. Bruce Pearl gushed about how great the job is and credited Iowa City's unique charm, constantly referencing the fans, Dr. Tom, and of course, the tradition. But the Hawks gave Pearl his coaching start and he's obligated to say those things. Most outsiders view the fans as fickle, the administration as quick-triggered, the local media enhancing a pressure-packed fishbowl environment that makes it difficult to win. Whether that's true or not isn't important; it's what many people think around the country. As you've most likely discovered, the Hawks are the only game in town, and all of the focus of the tiny state is beamed upon Iowa City. They see how Dr. Tom Davis was run out of town, how Steve Alford bolted for greener pastures and a school that appreciates him, how Lickliter faced the guillotine after only three years. It's not an attractive position right now. Recruiting to Iowa will never be easy, with the harsh winters and corn-fueled stereotypes. It's going to take someone eager to man the black-and-gold helm, and it's going to take time, before the national world recognizes Iowa as a legitimate basketball power again. It all starts with recruiting...

3) Should we want Anthony Tucker back?

Randy Larson, Tucker's lawyer, Prime Time League operator, and an Iowa City fixture, said Tucker would come back to the program if the new coach would have him. This is a tough one for me. Tucker is obviously a supremely-talented player with a divine stroke and decent first-step. He's blessed with a variety of offensive skills and instantly gives you 12-15 points a game with the long-range shooting. But, ignoring his off-court transgressions for just a moment, are his limitations as a player and locker room presence even worth bringing him back? Tucker is a terrible defender who seems preternaturally opposed to moving his feet. His shot selection is bad, and stalled the offense on more than one occasion last season. And rumors (I know, I shouldn't operate on rumors) float around cyberspace that Tucker was a primary catalyst for the divisive nature of the team, or a cleaving force for the Team Lickliter-Team Not Lickliter conflict seemingly inflicting the team last season. That could be totally false, for all I know, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. It's not as if Tucker were a sterling leader for the "younger" (Tucker was only a sophomore) players on the team, twice getting nabbed for embarrassing public intoxication charges and failing to qualify academically as a freshman. I've supported Tucker again and again because he is such a talented player, and God knows the Hawks need talent more than anything at this point. But is it worth selling one's soul and compromising values for the sake of having one good player back on the team? Tucker has been lazy and ungrateful for his second chance, generally a cancerous influence on the team. I've flip-flopped on this issue innumerable times, and you know what, it's just public intoxication. I'll release my inner college student and say "Bring 'em back!" After all, it could be good PR for a new coach with a knack for player relations.

4) Will anyone transfer?

Hell, I have no idea, and neither does anybody except the players. My inclination tells me no, but it's a legitimate fear for the whipped puppy emotional state of Hawkeye Nation to bear after witnessing nine transfers in Lick's tenure, including two leading scorers. The floodgates will always fling wide open with a new coach assuming the head mantle, so nothing should be too disturbing if someone decides to leave, but it's important to know who will be on the team going forward. Though Matt Gatens' and Aaron Fuller's names both emerged as the players who discussed leaving with Barta, I think it's safe to assume that at least Gatens will stay with the new coach. Though it's been tested the past two years, his blood has deep black-and-gold roots and he will be a Hawkeye for life. For him to even consider transferring from the school he committed to in the 8th grade is a testament to how bad things must have gotten behind the scenes with Lickliter. The one player whose name is consistently brought up is freshman point guard Cully Payne, because he defended Lickliter (he's one of his recruits) and publicly said after the season-ending loss to Michigan that he would consider leaving if Lick was canned. Seeing as he's the only true point guard on the roster right now, I think it would be foolish of him to go somewhere else, but his loyalty to Lick is the key factor. Remember, Payne switched his committment multiple times in high school from DePaul to Alabama and then finally to Iowa. A lot will depend on the new coaching hire, and the type of system he runs. Lickliter essentially attempted to run Alford's players off the team in 2007-08, most notably with star shooting guard Tony Freeman. Will that happen with the new coach? For Hawkeye fans chomping at the bit, they just have to wait and see.

5) How about the recruits?

Iowa has a fairly highly-regarded recruiting class set to join the Hawkeye ranks in 2010-11, with four three-star prospects and another potential scholarship offer if Anthony Tucker isn't interested in coming back for the next coach. Will each one stay true to their commitment despite the coaching change? This is pure speculation with no real basis until the next coach is announced, but each high school senior appears to bring a style of basketball that would fit in most any system or coach's wishlist. Cody Larson is a 6 ft. 8 power forward from South Dakota with the versatility, strength, and inside-outside game to draw comparisons to Butler's star pivot man, Matt Howard, who succeeds with savvy moves and raw effort instead of pure athleticism. He's considered a fairly sought-after commodity and has already stated he intends to stay with Iowa.

Zach McCabe is a slashing guarding from Dubuque, Iowa, and he played on the same high school team as current Hawk Eric May. McCabe, who was offered after Marshalltown car-dunker Chanse Creekmur de-committed last year, should bring a similar game to May's with more of an emphasis on perimeter shooting than explosive dunking. Chicago-area guard Ben Brust, a friend of Cully Payne's and AAU teammate, should stick around as long as Payne does. He would add much-needed scoring and ball-handling depth in the backcourt. Finally, Roy (or Devyn) Marble, Jr., son of the famous Hawkeye baller, rounds out this top-35 ranked class. The young Marble is a chicken-legged late bloomer with a sweet stroke, nice hops, and the baby-face of a 12-year-old. Older Hawkeye fans are predictably ecstatic with the pick-up, as inevitable visions of daddy's heroics flash across their minds, and the tweet-happy youngster appears poised and excited to start his own legacy. Though they won't bring instant gratification, this class could form a nice building block for the future if everyone stays committed. Like those restless, impatient message board posters, all these guys can do is sit and wait for the next coach to be announced.

6) What happens to Lil' John? And how will the Hawkeyes replace the stellar all-around play of Devan Bawinkel?

As you can tell with the quality of the ideas here, my stamina is obviously declining. Isn't this the question everyone hoped The BStiles would ask at Barta's press conference almost two weeks ago? Obviously, John Lickliter will follow his dear dad to whatever hokey mid-major show he decides to conduct next, or maybe he'll just try to make the team at Wartburg, which could be an insurmountable challenge. Poor John's confidence must have taken a hefty blow this past season with the ridicule not only from campus peers and message board dwellers but even the Des Moines media, which ran a painfully hilarious spoof bit mocking the Hawks' ineptitude and John's ability to play D1 basketball, which was admittedly lacking. The size of a frumpy hobbit, Lil' Lick (Lotta Bite) was forced to put in minutes after Tucker's midseason departure. Nobody can blame the poor guy for trying, and there were times early on when the tiny terror actually looked fairly competent, such as his mini-offensive explosion against Purdue, but as the season wore on and he was forced to guard people like Kalin Lucas and Evan Turner (yikes), viewers felt like they had to turn away before witnessing something terrible and graphic. It was something that neither John or Dad probably wanted to happen, but it did, and in playing his son, Coach Lick provided endless fodder for critics and fans already fed-up with his coaching tactics, player relations, and style in general. But there's no denying Lickliter truly lost the confidence and faith of Hawkeye Nation when Lil' John first suited up and took the court.

And Bawinkel? He's one of the nicer guys you'll meet, and all his teammates loved him. I felt I should get that out of the way before I blast him. He took an unorthodox path to Iowa, which probably should have been an immediate red flag, as Wink marauded as John Beilein's three-point marksman at West Virginia before Bob Huggins took over and ran him out of town. Hawkeye spectators discovered pretty quickly Bawinkel was a one-trick pony whose one trick didn't always work to perfection — much to the chagrin of many, Wink would do absolutely nothing but stand in the corner and wait for a pass, and if he wasn't open for a set three point shot, he would just pass it back to the point guard. This happened literally every game, and whether Lickliter forced into his mind that the only skill he possessed was propelling long-bombs or it was honestly the only thing he could do, shooting threes was the only thing Wink ever did in his two-year Iowa career. He almost single-handedly won the Northwestern game at Carver this past year, exploiting NW's 1-3-1 zone and launching 15 points worth of threes from his favorite spots. But the man famous for his lack of free throws and two-pointers will probably do the Hawks a favor by graduating and allowing Iowa to field five players on defense instead of usual four whenever Wink took the floor.

7) Can wide receiver Marvin McNutt pull double-duty this next season?

A popular running joke on campus this past season was that the football team could seriously take it to the basketball team on the court. Nobody laughed. Stocked with former hoopsters like defensive end Adrian Clayborn, tight end Tony Moeaki, and wideout Marvin McNutt, the Orange Bowl champs could be seen playing at the Field House on occasional weekends, throwing alley-oops and skying for rebounds 40 inches in the air, circus tricks and magical feats when paired next to the flat-footed ground dwellers occupying the men's hoops team. There were legitimate questions of whether anyone on the team besides Cole and Fuller could dunk until Bawinkel left the nation aghast and dropped a baby slam on the Big Ten Network's Mike Hall during a cute game of H.O.R.S.E. The point is, when the majority of the straight-faced student body proposes that the football team could beat the basketball team in a regular game and the coaches should scout intramural games for more talent, things are not where they need to be with the program.

8) Was there anything positive to build on from last season?

Not much, but moral victories (if they exist) took precedence and at least the Hawks finished above Indiana and Penn State in the final conference standings. Any time a coach is fired, you are essentially starting from scratch with uncertainty anyway. Iowa battled with uber-talented Texas early in the season until the second half, and had victories all-but-sealed against both Ohio State and Michigan at Carver until late-game jitters proved costly and finished in a pair of losses. The Hawks swept the Hoosiers, who may be the only team with less talent and more mess than Iowa, and scrapped out a tough victory over Penn State and the Fightin' Taylor Battles as well. The home win over Northwestern was a satisfying feast of revenge for the soul-crushing football loss, as the Bawinkel-sparked victory effectively shattered the 'Cats' NCAA hopes. And Iowa competed in road losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. But the way the season concluded left a familiar, sour taste that Hawk fans have come to know the past three years: no improvement was made. This was painfully evident in blistering blowouts at the hands of Wisconsin and Minnesota, historically bad defeats not seen in roughly a century. Cully Payne showed flashes of the scoring guard he can be with a 25-point outburst against Michigan in a 59-52 Big Ten tournament defeat (another in the first round), but under Lickliter, it was common for such a performance to be followed up with a 4-point, 6-turnover showing the next game. There was no consistency, and maybe youth played a role, maybe not, but it's difficult to take anything tangible from the minor, scattered victories last season.

9) Will fan support be any better next year?

No. Actually, it depends on the new coach, but with the mid-major quality names getting thrown around, anything short of a major-college head man leaving a comfortable post for a tough rebuilding job would likely generate mild excitement until the winning picks up steam and some quality recruiting classes start suiting up for the black-and-gold. So unless Barta has something grand up his sleeve, I don't think we'll see a huge improvement. But there is a lot of offseason between now and November, so it's hard to say right now.

10) Finally, what should our expectations be for next season? Am the only Hawkeye basketball fan left on campus?

It will be interested to gauge student interest next season. I think season ticket renewals could be at an all-time low. I'm tired of seeing the same 20 people at every Hawkeye game, lovable social outcasts searching for school spirit but with an inability to muster up the yells or the masses to generate real noise. The Hawks' Nest tries, but there's only so much they can do when the perception is so strongly anti-Lick and the quality is so poor. The student section needs to get better organization, a new name (no Alford!), and a more defined seating area. Without Lick, I am interested to see if more people will give basketball a chance. My guess is students will come out in decent numbers at first, but if the losing begins to mount again, you'll see the same apathy. That's just the way students are. And, our expectations?

Expect a hearty upset or two, but 12-14 wins should be the ceiling. It's just going to take some time, and fans have to realize the size of the hole the program is in. Whoever Barta decides to hire will need time to get his own recruits into the fold, but an important sign will be to see how he adapts to the core he is given right now. That's something Lickliter was terrible at, and Hawkeye basketball can't afford another 2-3 year of waiting for "the system" to develop.

Go Hawks!

Coaching Hire? If we are going for an unproven assistant, I want Steve Forbes from Tennessee. The Lone Tree, Iowa, native, ranked 8th nationally for assistant coaches on FoxSports.com, has said multiple times the Iowa job is his dream. The program need someone who wants to be a Hawkeye (not a Bulldog!) and would bring that enthusiasm. The noted recruiting guru may not be a big name, but he would bring in guys right away, he knows the state/program/culture, and would generate immediate excitement with the prospects he would garner. I promise. Brian Gregory from Dayton would also be a good choice because of his recruiting chops and ability to bring a relatively dead program up to a national level, once steering Dayton to a national ranking of 14th in the country. If we are waiting for a coach still in the tournament (I'm NOT mentioning Bruce Pearl), I want Baylor's Scott Drew. He has a prickish reputation and there's chatter concerned with sleazy recruiting tactics, but what he did with Baylor when they were about to cut their basketball program after all that scandal is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And he can recruit like a champ. Iowa could offer him a big raise from the 400K he's currently making, too. But my favorite choice? B.J. Armstrong, baby! He is a beloved former Hawk from the Detroit/Flint area, and he won some championships with MJ's Bulls. That cache alone would make him an excellent recruiter. Despite the fact that he doesn't have any coaching experience, the current super-NBA agent could bring in some top-flight assistants to take care of the Xs and Os. Sadly, it's been almost two weeks since Lick was fired, and I'm afraid B.J. would have been hired already if Barta truly wanted him.

Five quick March Madness thoughts before I run out of breath:

1) The Big East is MAD overrated. Only one team remains in the Elite Eight, West Virginia, and some of the conference's heavyweights fell victim to some massive upsets early. Syracuse couldn't overcome the loss of big man Arinze Onuaku and lost to scrappy Butler, which is a forgivable sin, but Georgetown collapsed against a hot-shooting Ohio squad and St. Mary's edged out a discombobulated Villanova team that never found their mojo. Marquette fell to much-maligned Pac-10 tournament champ Washington and Louisville to California, while Old Dominion polished off Notre Dame by a bucket. The ballyhooed Big East was portrayed all season long as the deepest, toughest, and the scrappiest, but conferences are judged in the NCAA tournament, and the Big East tripped over their plodding feet. Once again, the lesson is to ignore the ESPN talking-heads.
2) Mid-majors winning is a healthy, excellent thing for the tournament. I realize money and viewers are big aspects of the March Madness product, but teams like Northern Iowa, Cornell, St. Mary's, and Butler all give the tournament much-needed parity. Isn't that why we watch, with the knowledge that anyone can win at any given time? That's why people fill out brackets, watch fervently on that first Thursday and Friday for upsets, and cry out when their championship team loses on the first weekend? It's the Cinderella stories that make the tournament. It would be substantially more depressing if Kansas and North Carolina met in the championship game each season. Every fan base has hope at the beginning of the season. And the tournament is what gives each team hope, unfounded or not.
3) My bracket is now, sadly, defunct. My loud, bodacious uncle looks likely to take the Fries family pool, a transgression all participants vow to prevent each season. I had Kansas overtaking West Virginia in the final game, with Syracuse joining them in the Final Four. Baylor, my fourth team, still has a shot. Elite Eight teams like Georgetown, Ohio State, and Texas A&M are all out. And with UNI bowing to Michigan State last night, the team that held my heart is no longer battling for the crown. Long live Ali Stroke-a-manesh!
4) Elite Eight picks? I have Michigan State dispatching out-of-control Tennessee by controlling the glass and pounding the ball inside with a controlled, efficient half-court offense. Without Kalin Lucas, their ride will eventually run out, but not yet. Kansas State is too athletic for Butler, and Frank Martin might eat someone's face off if they lose, so I don't want to see that. Baylor is too athletic for Duke, and experienced West Virginia will control the game defensively and beat young Kentucky.
5) Finally, let's all laugh at Steve Alford.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Well, Bowl Season Kind of Sucks...

Okay, so bowl season doesn't "suck," per se. But the rather underwhelming slate of meager rations dished out in the first week or so of holiday pigskin action has done nothing besides induce sleep and winter doldrums. I busily masticate my teeth against the bevy of Christmas treats that I so happily shove down my throat without fear of being bloated or the future impact on my heart instead of salivating over the mid-major talent show on my television screen. What is a football fan to do?

However, there is nothing quite like coming home to a mother eager to spoil you after a long semester of blase dorm food, though. My stomach is still adjusting to real taste, apparently, but that's a digestive issue I'd rather not get into on a blog. Much too personal. Let's just say I have newfound sympathy for Grandpa Fries and his natural aversion to spicy foods. You spend enough time munching on food that doesn't shift beyond the colors white or yellow, and your stomach takes a beating when cilantro gets thrown into the mixture. Or somebody named "Donnie Bravo." On a lighter note, the wonderful Texas weather is quite the pleasant change from the incessant ice and snow storms plaguing the Midwest, so with weather, food, friends, and family, life is pretty good.

Except for the bowl games.

Not only are the games pitting no-name scrubs against their equally bland brethren, the games themselves are defying earlier projections and proving to be horribly unpredictable. These teams have no business playing in bowl games. I mean, who has really watched enough of Middle Tennessee State to know they are on a 7-game win streak and were likely to beat Southern Mississippi? Hell, I doubt I'm alone in saying that the dreadfully manipulative little green bars on ESPN's Pick 'Em game, signifying how the "nation" voted on each contest, influenced my decision more often than not with these early games.

I currently stand 3-3, which is a luxurious status when observed next to some of my less fortunate fellow competitors (cough Jared Kalmus cough), but still fairly distressing so early in the battle. But the score cannot measure my apathy, nor the fans' in most of these cases. Glorified high school stadiums filled with more empty bleachers then functioning hearts are the stars of the show, battling for attention alongside such obscure, laughable sponsors as Beef O'Brady's and an obnoxious battering of New Mexico tourism pimping. We get it, you live in a desert. Native American people used to live there. Can I gamble? That's all I need to know.

But the season got off on a twisted ankle with Fresno State's baffling performance against Wyoming and their proud band of toothless ranch-hands known as "Poke Nation" (I'm not even kidding). Despite the pitfalls of their kicker, who "wasn't recruited by anybody," Wyoming, bearers of the vaunted "poop and mustard" uniforms, ended up stifling the supposedly more talented Bulldogs 35-28 in double overtime. Fresno, fielding the best statistical running back in the country, had given some good teams close calls this year, including Boise State, and beat Illinois in the final game of the season with an incredibly flukey 2-point conversion attempt that was tipped at the line of scrimmage before falling into the hands of a confused o-lineman for the win. I had 32 confidence points on this game, so it was slightly crippling, but almost nobody picked Wyoming, a 6-6 Mountain West outfit (Mountain West > your conference), so the loss did not bludgeon my chances.

Next, I nabbed my first victory as Rutgers strutted into Orlando, Florida, home of their opponent UCF Golden Knights, and marched all over them 45-24 with an explosive offense and a chip on their shoulder that their sunshine enemies seemed to be lacking from the outset. Maybe it was the jovial poking fun at the perceived vast disparity in fan attendance from both schools, but Piscataway's finest showed up in full red glory and Rutgers stomped on Disney World's college football team. Unfortunately, I just thrashed and I sweated all afternoon, thinking that I picked UCF for home field reasons, before casually checking my computer that night and finding that, some how, I'd picked Rutgers. Must have followed the people's choice.

I didn't pick Middle Tennessee over Southern Miss, just because perpetual 1,000 yard rusher Damion Fletcher, Southern Miss' running back for the past 17 years, was likely to want to exit his college football career with a bang. But the Blue Raiders answered every score and every drive, and looked like the much better TEAM. BYU took a defeated Oregon State squad to the woodshed, which I somehow didn't pick, forgetting that the Beavers' hearts were absolutely torn out in the close loss to Oregon, playing for a Pac-10 title and a slot in the Rose Bowl. When you lose that much in such heartbreaking fashion, it's difficult to rebound and get motivated to play the Las Vegas Bowl against the Cougars and their hearty band of married Mormons

Finally, Utah polished up that sterling 3-0 Mountain West resume with a hard fought victory over a California team still lacking their best and most exciting player, tailback Jahvid Best, after a frightening concussion more than a month ago, when he was propelled a couple of feet into the air diving for a touchdown. That's too bad, cause he changes how Cal plays the game offensively. And SMU provided fans (fans?) with a long-deserved glimmer of light, winning (and playing in) their first bowl since before the NCAA gave them the "death penalty," in Hawaii no less. I figured June Jones would be comfortable in the ol' dump of Aloha Stadium, and have SMU perfecting the run-and-shoot offense. Plus, his freshman QB is a phenom, quite the stud. All this game basically imparts upon its viewers is that June Jones is a gifted coach with a knack for turning programs around, something that's more valuable in college than in the pros, and the WAC conference is probably the weakest in the country, evident by Nevada's treasure trove of 1,000 yard rushers and the fact that they almost knocked off Boise State. SMU ran roughshod in this one, exposing the West Coast as undisciplined, undersized, and, quite frankly, untalented.

I'm not impressed so far, but I hope good fortune awaits those who are patient.

So happy holidays, and let's hope I get back on track!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

From Little Cease' to Citrus Squeeze, I Got 'Em All...

Bowl season is either a source of unbridled frustration or holiday cheer for your team, but I think there's one thing we can all celebrate: we won't be seeing any of Notre Dame and the Fightin' Clausens in this year's pigskin pandemonium. Because Jesus has no mercy for the rich, or the grossly subpar. Though youthful hot shot Brian Kelly looks to bring his dreadfully overdone tough guy coaching tactics to turn South Bend's drear into Christmas cheer, the only sideline improvement we'll be seeing from the Golden Domers next year will be a coach with a semi-recognizable chin. But before I venture unnecessarily off-topic, it's time for the J-Freezy bowl pick special, with a few comments justifying my seemingly scatter-brained selections. This is no time to get into BCS talking-head jargon; merely an occasion to enjoy (or suffer through) the ever-inflating slate of bowl games, where every one is a winner (except the poor losers stuck in Detroit) and mediocrity is accepted, just like in real life. So get ready for a 6-6 bonanza and awkward introductions to previously unknown universities that begin with "East" or "Middle," because the eyes of a nation (or at least a trailer park in West Virginia) will be focused in on at least one of the upcoming 34 (good lord, that's too many) bowl games this holiday season. We'll start here with Mr. Irrelevant himself, the Little Caesar's Bowl in the hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape known as Detroit, Michigan, a setting so bleak and so barren that Cormac McCarthy would have difficulty crafting a nastier locale.

Little Caesar's Bowl: Marshall Thundering Herd (6-6) vs. Ohio Bobcats (9-4) -- The Big Ten's embarassing ass-cheek of a tie-in game thankfully had no qualifiers from their major conference brethren this season, but don't think for one second that the smaller programs take any semblance of joy in having to spend their winter break in Detroit: Marshall's head coach resigned from his post after the season, apparently choosing to return to beautiful West Virginia instead. Prestige fail, much? The seemingly despairing Thundering Herd will be pitted against the Frank Solich-lead Bobcats, who have quietly been one of the more successful mid-major outfits in the country since Nebraska's dirty laundry of a head coach took the main mantle. Ohio will likely never be a "BCS-buster," but nobody is complaining about consistent 9 win seasons at a place that is notoriously difficult to be successful at. This isn't Lincoln, folks. Ohio University gets to 10-wins against a middling Conference USA squad that's lucky to have been invited to a bowl game.

(I'll continue these in typically sporadic order, based on my confidence level on ESPN's pick 'em. In all fairness, this is finals week, and I was unfairly forced to churn out three stories for The Daily Iowan today, so blog time equals unwind time)

Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma State (9-3) vs. Mississippi Rebels (8-4) -- This contest should be dubbed the Battle of the Underachievers. Both squads entered the season with darkhorse championship aspirations, and both conclude the year in solid, if unspectacular, fashion at the historic Dallas stadium. Oklahoma State can place some of the blame on a painfully unfair suspension of their best player, the Michael Crabtree-esque wideout Dez Bryant, along with an untimely concussion to quarterback Zac Robinson towards the end of the year. Ole' Miss expected a Heisman-worthy season from much ballyhooed QB Jevan Snead, yet ended up receiving something much worse. Inconsistency will be the buzzword here as each team maniacally searches for that elusive performance where it all "comes together." Expect a healthy mustering of Dexter McCluster from the Rebels' end, but the Cowpokes have too many offensive weapons, and they will strike vengeance for the Big 12 after Texas Tech's Cotton Bowl spanking at the hands of Manning U last season.

Papajohns.com Bowl (these names just keep getting better and better): South Carolina Gamecocks (7-5) vs. Connecticut Huskies (7-5): The Huskies became America's team after the sudden and tragic death of cornerback Jasper Howard to a mid-season stabbing at a campus party, and then quickly became God's team as well following a thrilling "upset" over Notre Dame that essentially plunged the dagger firmly into Charlie Weis' deep-fried heart. UConn rode that surge of emotion to a successful late-season campaign that landed them in a bowl game against the Ol' Ball Coach and his perpetually inconsistent band of Southern misfits. Once again, the flimsy 'Cocks, not known for finishing hard, look to plunge deep into the belly of the opposition. Okay, enough of that. The "other" USC began the year in a blaze of success before gradually fading into mediocre obscurity, and one has to question how long Spurrier is going to hang around to watch this team reach its peak at 7 or 8 wins. Stephen Garcia just isn't developing like he's supposed to, and there's far too many "me-first" athletes on both sides of the ball, as evidenced by their sloppy performance against the Iowa Hawkeyes in last season's Outback Bowl. Nothing has changed here. South Carolina shows up lackluster and turnover prone, while UConn comes motivated with something big, and something profound, to play for. Never underestimate the impact of tragedy, and losing a teammate, on a team's mindset. Huskies win.

International Bowl: South Florida Bulls (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (7-5): The infamous "this game's in Canada, I thought this was supposed to be a vacation" bowl. Though the much-maligned country isn't nearly as bad as it may sound, it's still only a notch or two below the "Detroit Bowl" in it's popularity with coaches and players, not to mention the relatively cruddy matchups that it usually produces. South Florida showed flashes of greatness without their stud QB Matt Grothe, who was lost for much of the season with a blown ACL. Athletic backup B.J. Daniels looked like the real deal in a big win over Florida State, but that's before we found out Florida State sucked and was playing for a blow-up doll caricature of a head coach. As a reward for their second-half slide, the Jim Leavitt-led Bulls get the honor of playing Northern Illinois, a team that always seems to find itself creeping onto the bowl scene despite the lack of any recognizable figure or presence on their team. Dekalb's finest try to muster up their heaping helping of average to take down the athletic swamp creatures of South Florida, but Leavitt gets his team charged up and ready to play. Plus, the third-best team in Florida still beats the second-best team in Illinois (yea, you figure that one out).

Rose Bowl: Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2) vs. Oregon Ducks (10-2):
A little early in my list for the "Granddaddy Of 'Em All," eh? This tradition-laden contest and the root of all money-grubbing BCS evil pits the "borrring, we just won another Big Ten title" Buckeyes against the Oregon Ducks, who finally de-throned the Trojans for Pac-10 supremacy and proved they are more then just a fancy uniform configuration (or 300). Ohio State won their conference in typically unspectacular fashion, with stifling defense, a hydra-headed running game, and sweater-vest sporting coach with a gameplan so conservative, Glen Beck masturbates to highlight reels of Terrell Pryor handing off on 3rd and 8. Oregon, meanwhile, has the Polynesian Tim Tebow in fiesty skull-cracking QB Jeremiah Masoli, and their own elemental running back duo in the "thunder" of LeGarrette Blount (back from suspension for being a raging animal) and "lightning" of miniature speedster LaMichael James. As much as I'd love to see OSU win for the Big Ten's ever-dwindling national rep, Oregon has an athletic, explosive team, and, quite frankly, the Buckeyes almost lost to my Vandenberg-led Hawkeyes in Columbus. That's all the evidence I need. Ducks win, sadly.

Independence Bowl: Texas A&M Aggies (6-6) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (7-5): See what happens when you don't play defense, kids? You end up in Shreveport, Louisiana for Christmas. This actually figures to be a highly entertaining game, if only because a guaranteed shootout is ready and roaring to take place. Both teams finished disappointing campaigns with thrilling climaxes to the season, with the Aggies putting on a show and almost cooling the Texas Longhorns in College Station and the Bulldogs capping off the worst season of the Mark Richt era with an upset of bitter rival Georgia Tech. If Texas A&M could learn to play effectively on that "other side of the ball," then they would be markedly better than their 6-6 record indicates. With a stable of talented young running backs, the quietest superstar QB in the nation, and an athletic cast of wide receivers, this offense has the potential to be one of the best in the country. For now, Aggie fans are happy to be back bowling under Mike Sherman, but it's going to take a "Junction Boys" type of effort for rusty ol' Joe Kines to improve the defensive consistency and reward the long-suffering fightin' farmers with a slot in that Big 12 title game. Georgia has been spoiled with 10+ win seasons, and most fans probably expected the same even with the departures of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno to the NFL, both as lottery picks no less. With stud wide receiver AJ Green at his disposal, newcomer QB Joe Cox improved throughout the season, and the Bulldogs ended up fielding a scintillating quick-strike offense of their own. Look for this game to be one of the more entertaining contests on the docket. My heart says Aggies, but I've seen enough of the maroon marauders over my years in the deep South to know never to put your confidence in their abilities. Just when you think they've turned the corner, they let you down. Plus, Richt is proven. He's been in much bigger settings before, and will have his Dawgs ready to play. Not yet Aggies. Bulldogs win 45-42.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Tentative Fiesta

The melancholy winter months ahead are looming largely over the wayward flock of Hawkeye nation this December, but snow plows and -20 degree windchill are not the primary factors that make up the black cloud hanging ever-so menacingly in the Midwest sky; I'm talking about Iowa's utterly unjust behind-the-scenes battle with Penn State for at-large BCS supremacy. As many of you may already know, both Iowa and Penn State finished the 2009 college football regular season with a record of 10-2, tied for 2nd in the Big Ten conference. Iowa, however, owns the head-to-head matchup, beating Penn State in Happy Valley back on Sept. 26, 21-10, in one of the most thrilling Hawkeye victories of the past decade.

Ignoring common sense and the contrite values of on-field competition, the money-grubbing, attention-starved BCS head honchos are actually deliberating which of these two Big Ten schools to select for an at-large birth in their end of season fashion show that annually crowns the best team in the country. It's a system based entirely on historical prestige, name value, butts in seats, eyes glued to television screens, and the false premise of "tradition." It's never been a system that has inspired me to leap from my comfortable perch and riot, as the end of year bowl bonanza has always been "the way it is" since I started really paying attention to the sport at the beginning of the decade.

But Iowa's last BCS berth came in 2002, after an 8-0 conference run and Big Ten championship, so there was no controversy surrounding the prize that awaited the black and gold that season. This year, with uncertainty clouding the glorious goal at stake, I've been nervously chomping my finger nails and sweating buckets since Iowa's 12-0 defensive plastering of Minnesota on Nov. 21st, hoping and praying that my Hawks are one of the elite few chosen at the end of the year to receive the hefty monetary reward, flood of blue-chip recruits, television exposure, and last, but certainly not least, the fantastic competition that comes with a BCS bowl game. Maybe now that Jim Delaney, Big Ten commissioner and proponent of the BCS due to the stubborn, backwards-thinking greed of the Rose Bowl, might re-think his unabashed support for the system now that one of the teams from his own conference is attempting to crash the at-large party.

Both teams assuredly have their respective arguments. Iowa, of course, beat the Nittany Lions at their home stadium, and played on national TV almost every week this season. The Hawks has a notoriously large fanbase in Arizona, a sort of haven for the retired (folks undoubtedly worn down by a lifetime of winter) and the location of the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, the probable destination of the Big Ten at-large selection. Iowa fans always travel well and fill up the bowl stadiums (jumping Northwestern for an Outback bowl bid last year), and they've never been to the Fiesta, adding intrigue and new blood to the system. Penn State, on the other hand, is an undisputed national program, with fans scattered across the country and a wide-spanning history of undefeated tradition and national championships. Their coach, the venerated Joe Paterno, has been the head man for the Nittany Lions since the late '50s, and is perhaps the face of college football with his recognizably curmudgeon-ish disposition, ancient tenure, and famous horn rimmed glasses. Penn State has finished the 2009 season in scintillating fashion, thumping Michigan State in the season finale, while Iowa stumbled towards the climax in winning only one of its last three games after starting 9-0, due mainly to QB Ricky Stanzi's devastating ankle injury. But Stanzi, along with a host of other walking wounded, will return for the bowl game, wherever that may be.

In conclusion, it really all comes down to the fact that Iowa beat Penn State in a football game. Football games are played to win, and never should anything BUT winning decide the outcome or a team's success. Grouchy pragmatists may point to Kansas jumping Missouri for an Orange Bowl berth in 2007 as a sign of things to come for disillusioned Hawks. Missouri beat Kansas in the regular season, and the Tigers were Big 12 North champs. But two losses to Oklahoma, one in the regular season and the other in the Big 12 championship, left a corrosive stain on Mizzou's record, and 1-loss Kansas jumped the Tigers for a BCS berth. The Iowa-Penn State situation is different, however, because both teams have the same record, so that example is flawed. BCS, do the right thing, and put the Hawks in your bowl game, wherever that might be. The general consensus is that bowl game will be the Fiesta, against everybody's favorite blue and oranges barons of the trick play, the upset-minded Boise State Broncos, still riding the wave of momentum from their Fiesta bowl upset of Adrian Peterson's Oklahoma Sooners on an overtime Statue of Liberty play. Both of ESPN's resident bowl projection experts, Bruce Feldman and Mark Schlabach, have finally reached a consensus, placing Iowa in the Fiesta, but it's going to take an official announcement to assuage my raging fears. Other options include Miami's Orange Bowl, against the ACC champ (pulverizing Georgia Tech or up-and-down Clemson), or, if we do make the dreaded plunge into the ranks of "regular" New Year's Day bowls, the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Florida, site of perhaps the most memorable Hawkeye play of all time. The sweet taste of a 10-2 season, with the possibility of 11 wins, is still digesting, but it would go down the pipes a whole lot smoother with the sterling stamp of a BCS bowl game emblazoned on the resume. After a season such as this one, anything less just wouldn't do justice to all of the good fortune and craziness.

Next, I'll do a mini-season wrap up, with my own take on the best players, games, and moments of an incredible season.

Best Offensive Player: WR Marvin McNutt (RS-Sophomore) -- Whether due to inconsistency on the offensive line, injuries to their top 3 running backs, or Ricky Stanzi's patented pick-sixes, the 2009 Iowa Hawkeyes fielded an offense that was far from stable. They showed flashes of their potential, like the 28-point outburst in the 4th quarter of the Indiana game or consecutive long-ball touchdowns against Arkansas State, but achieving a steady rhythm was an elusive task for such an injury-plagued unit. Iowa fans never really knew what they were going to see on the field offensively any given Saturday, adding not only to the excitement of close, defensive-minded games, but the heart attack risk for overweight bearers of the black and gold. I'm giving this award to one of my new favorite players of the season, he of the endlessly manipulated last moniker, flypaper hands, and big play potential: former third-string QB and St. Louis native Marvin McNutt. Coming into the season, most fans saw McNutt's placement as number 1 on the depth chart as a fluke, a motivational ploy to get Derrell Johnson-Koulianous, the teams' established star at wideout, to put forth a bit more effort in practice. After all, the guy was a converted QB still learning the ins-and-outs of running routes, and could not have been ready for such a big role.

But McNutt quickly showed that he deserved a lasting spot in the starting lineup, becoming our most consistent threat for the first half of the season as DJK "got with the program," and then settling into the role of the Hawks' most incendiary deep threat. While DJK garnered more receptions and yards, McNutt still managed to put up 653 yards with a stunning 21.3 average yards per reception, nabbing 9 TDs to DJK's 2. His highlights included two touchdowns against Arkansas State, the 92-yard touchdown that ignited Kinnick Stadium against Indiana, his 2 stellar TD grabs against Ohio State at the Horseshoe, and finally, the iconic last-play touchdown catch to beat Michigan State in East Lansing and go 8-0 for the first time in program history. What's even more impressive about that play is that a fade route was originally called in the huddle, but McNutt, seeing that he could beat his man to the inside, persuaded Ken O'Keefe to change the call. The rest is history. McNutt's emergence is one of the best stories of the season, and the fact that he didn't make ANY of the All-Big Ten lists is incredibly stupid and inane. Honorable mention for this award could go to Stanzi, who ignored the haters and calmly won ball games with clutch savvy and nonchalant resiliency. Also, Adam Robinson was a fearsome sparkplug at running back until a stifling ankle injury ended his run at Michigan State, while offensive lineman Dace Richardson was a rock at right guard until yet ANOTHER ankle injury sidelined him for the season.

More awards to follow in the coming days...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Granddaddy of Them All

Imagine waking up from a dream, as vivid and realistic as dreams can be. Every aspect of the dream is going in your favor, and you are in utter shock. This kind of happiness does not occur in reality, and you are blissfully lost in the ignorant joys of the present, never thinking one action in advance of the next.

Then, the dream abruptly ends, your head bashes against the bed board, you realize class starts in 15 minutes, and all of the pleasures granted by that slumbering fantasy suddenly disappear, a night's worth of riches sapped away in one crushing counter-punch.

This is how Hawkeye Nation felt after last Saturday's 17-10 demoralization at the hands of the Northwestern Wildcats on a beautiful, 72-degree day inside the swollen red brick confines of Kinnick Stadium, stacked with sweltering hoards of black and gold faithful oozing into stadium aisles and desperately cheering for this destiny-fueled season to continue riding the train of disbelief, leaving fans' mouths agape week after week with stunning comebacks, stifling defense, and Stanzi's savvy in the clutch.

Throughout Iowa's dreadfully prehistoric 2nd half performance, when 3-and-outs became as common as Dominique Douglas arrest warrants, the fans still managed to keep their dream alive without ever batting an eyelid. They had been through this routine before. Trailing in their 9th game out of 10 on the season? No problem. This is the same Hawkeye outfit that needed to block two field goals in the final 7 seconds to beat Northern Iowa, recover an onside kick to wax Arkansas State off the board, return a punt block for a touchdown in the pouring rain to squelch Penn State in Happy Valley, score an improbable touchdown as time expired to beat Michigan State on the road for the first time since 1995, pile on 28 4th quarter points to bury Indiana, and -- I think you get the picture by now.

This team embodies resiliency, and nobody is a greater beacon for resiliency then QB Ricky Stanzi, whose Jekyll and Hyde performances have drawn both ire and quasi-worship from deranged Hawk fans all season long. Stanzi has thrown more pick-sixes this year then most QBs would care to remember, and nearly as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (15). Yet, when the 4th quarter begins, and the sky starts to dim, Stanzi straps his gloves on and goes to work. No game typifies that kind of nonchalant swagger and unprecedented poise more so then the Indiana contest on Halloween day. Stanzi played the most miserable 3 quarters of his life, tossing 4 picks in the 3rd quarter and 5 in all, repeatedly chucking the pigskin right into a ferocious gust of wind. Iowa fans, being the fickle farmers that they are, began calling for Stanzi's head, demanding that backup James Vandenberg be thrust in the game right this very moment.

Good thing Coach Kirk Ferentz kept his lid screwed on tight. Stanzi responded to the incessant chorus of jeers and boos with a scintillating 4th quarter, throwing for 177 yards and completing all of his passes, including two orgasmic touchdowns to fan favorites Marvin McNutt (the puns are endless) and DJK, he of the cursed Sports Illustrated cover that I will no longer mention again even though it's really cool and it's pinned up in my dorm room.

So, how does this all connect to Northwestern, and Iowa's impending date with "The" Ohio State university this weekend in a de facto Big Ten championship game for a berth in the Rose Bowl? Well, imagine that dream not only transitioning to reality, but dying right there on the Kinnick turf, something unholy and unforseen tainting the Saturday morning purity and silencing the rabid throng of Iowa supporters who had been generating deafening noise just minutes before. After an unabashedly boneheaded naked bootleg call by Ken O'Keefe with the ball on the 5, Stanzi was sacked by Northwestern's Corey Wooton, fumbling the ball and leading to NW's first TD of the day. But the image that followed was much more gruesome. Stanzi lying there in the endzone, an awkward, crumpled heap. His ankle was a twisted mess, a high sprain they'd call it, sidelining our hero for the rest of the regular season. Once the shock subsided, and the fans recovered from the sight of this season's most polarizing figure limping pathetically into the locker room, one question remained --and it was not "Where did Ashton Kutcher go?" Could James Vandenberg live up to his high school glory, and somehow get the Hawkeyes to 10-0?

The immediate answer to that question was a resounding no, as Vandenberg's first pass attempt was intercepted and the rest of them rarely successful, as the grossly underprepared RS-freshman bumbled his way through a nervous 9-27, 86 yard performance, only once venturing past the 50 yard line through almost three quarters of play. The loss could not be placed solely on Vandenberg's play, though most fans would confidently state that had Stanzi not been knocked out of the game, the Hawkeyes would have won. Vandenberg came into the NW game with 3 career passing attempts, and could not have known that he would be tossled headfirst into such a desperate situation, with "undefeated" and "national title" ringing in his youthful ears. Needless to say, the Iowa offense died with Stanzi's ankle that day, and the Wildcats' scrappy outfit of overachievers (hey, that's supposed to be us) made enough plays on both offense and defense to steal another heart-wrenching game from the Iowa Hawkeyes.

It took more then the standard 24-hours for Hawkeye fans to flush this disappointing turd of a game down the toilet, and the reasons mounted like Hawkeye bodies in the training room. It was devastating to lose Stanzi. It has been a season where the injuries have piled up in sickening numbers, with running backs, offensive linemen, and wide receivers dropping from the ranks with everything from torn tendons to confounding concussions, but Stanzi was the one player the Hawkeyes could not afford to lose, could not overcome. He's the rare talent that always gives your team a chance to win, despite his penchant for throwing the patented "Stanzi-ball" directly into the chest of the opposing team. Can we win another game without number 12? Number 2 on the list of disappointments was the fact that it was frickin' Northwestern, the pretentious, intellectual, purple-clad, 10,000 people per home game skid mark of the Big Ten conference. Now, realize I am being overly harsh for comedic purposes, as the Wildcats have brandished a respectable program since 1995 and severely own the Kirk Ferentz-lead Hawkeyes, but come on, really? Northwestern? Yes, Northwestern, the same Northwestern that has beaten Iowa 3 out of the last 4 trips to Kinnick and whose fanbase has taken to calling our glorious stadium "Ryan Field West." Oh really, is that why every time Iowa plays you guys we have like 10 times the fucking fans you do at your own stadium?

Sorry, but you can envision how this affects me. It's just hard to register that Jake Christensen is the last Iowa QB to beat the Wildcats (coincidence that he was in attendance? I think not). But most Hawkeye fans would acknowledge that were our admittedly narrow national championship dreams to die, it would have been much easier to swallow at Ohio State. But not Northwestern. Not Northwestern.

Lastly, the disappointment culminated in the sharp reality that what has been a historic dream season, reaching 8-0 and then 9-0 for the first time in the wide arc of our storied program, may end in something other then a Big Ten title or BCS berth. From McNutt's last second grab in East Lansing to Tyler Sash's laughable pinball interception return against Indiana, this has been a season that embraces the bizarre, glorifies the lucky, and most importantly, offers a tantalizing peak at destiny. Before the season, 9-0 seemed like quite the stretch with such a daunting road schedule, but as the leaves morphed to orange and the year grew older, fans began to imagine a world where the words "Iowa Hawkeyes-National Champions" didn't sound so far-fetched. With a brutal road trip to Ohio State looming, this was not the time to lose a home game to Northwestern.

Which segways into this weekend's pristine contest at The 'Shoe, one of America's storied venues and arguably the toughest place to play at in the Big Ten. 100,000 scarlet and grey clad Buckeye fans, like bloodthirsty spectators at a gladiator match, will be shouting in unison for their beloved defense to jettison our new baby-faced gunslinger to the brisk turf, pasted into another Buckeye Big Ten title montage along with the countless others that have come before. Young James Vandenberg will be getting his first start on the road in Columbus, and nobody will be giving him a shot. Though we are ranked one spot ahead of Ohio State at number 10 in the BCS, the talking heads and loudmouth ESPN pundits will be giving us less of a shot to win then John Wooden to beat Lance Armstrong in a bicycle race. The nation will be against us. But adversity is this Iowa team's best friend, and I don't see any reason why this special Hawkeye team has to stop embracing it. Matter of fact, I'm going to close this post with three reasons why Iowa will win right here.

Reason #1) Terrelle Pryor. The much-ballyhooed Buckeye signal caller may have emerged from high school with Vince Young-level hype and attention, but the talented sophomore's passing skills this season have left much to be desired. Though he's shown flashes of star potential, what with such a deadly mix of size and athleticism, don't confuse OSU wins with Pryor success. This Ohio State defense is what has made this team 8-2. Here are Pryor's 2009 passing statistics, courtesy of ESPN. You be the judge.

9/5 Navy W 31-27 14 21 174 66.7 38 1 1 142.46 6 30 5.0 11 1
9/12 USC L 18-15 11 25 177 44.0 56 0 1 95.47 10 36 3.6 17 0
9/19 @Toledo W 38-0 17 28 262 60.7 76 3 2 160.38 12 110 9.2 43 1
9/26 Illinois W 30-0 8 13 82 61.5 19 1 0 139.91 11 59 5.4 23 0
10/3 @Indiana W 33-14 17 28 166 60.7 23 3 1 138.73 16 63 3.9 18 1
10/10 Wisconsin W 31-13 5 13 87 38.5 32 1 1 104.68 10 35 3.5 27 0
10/17 @Purdue L 26-18 17 31 221 54.8 40 1 2 112.46 21 34 1.6 35 1
10/24 Minnesota W 38-7 13 25 239 52.0 62 2 1 150.70 15 104 6.9 19 1
10/31 New Mexico State W 45-0 11 23 135 47.8 43 1 0 111.48 9 83 9.2 27 1
11/7 @Penn State W 24-7 8 17 125 47.1 62 2 0 147.65 5 50 10.0 24 1

Reason #2) James Vandenberg. One's first reaction, a very understandable one at that, would be confusion and perhaps disgust. But I'm talking about Vandenberg the high school QB. I realize that Kirk Ferentz once proclaimed the everlasting truth that "what a kid does in high school amounts to what the kid did in high school," Vandenberg's crazy good statistics should be enough to get Hawkeye fans salivating over what he can do. Don't be fooled by the skittish young colt we all witnessed on Saturday. Vandenberg (the Mandenberg) holds 12 state of Iowa passing records, including career passing yards (7,709), career TD passes (93), and single-season passing yards from his senior year at Keokuk (3,729). The fact that he is capable of putting up these numbers shouldn't assuage Hawk fans' fears, but it gives us hope, and proves that the QB we saw last Saturday will not be the QB we see for the next 3 years here in Iowa City. Enough said.

Reason #3) The Hawkeye defense. This one is kind of a given folks, and it goes hand-in-hand with numero uno. Our conservative Cover-2 schemes are begging for opposing QB's to get overly comfortable with the short stuff and make mistakes. Pryor's nonchalant throwing, if you can even call it that, of the pigskin should lead to a few easy INTs for the boys in the secondary, most notably pickmeister Tyler Sash, who has 6 on the year. Look for Adrian Clayborn to disrupt the pocket and force Pryor to make plays with his legs, which he is capable of, but after a few staunch shots from our dreadlocked monster up front, I don't think he will be feeling too comfortable. Also watch out for Pat Angerer in the MLB spot. He's coming in, for lack of better word, juiced up. Playing for a Big Ten title, Angerer, the emotional leader of this defense, will have this unit's intensity exploding through the walls of Ohio Stadium. Look for him to make plays from sideline-to-sideline, shutting down "Boom" Herron and the OSU running attack while keeping a sterling eye on Pryor's every movement as well. The Hawks also need the defense to force a multitude of turnovers, something they've been relying on all season. Unfortunately, that aspect of Iowa's game has faded in recent weeks, but Vandenberg needs some good field position if Iowa is to put up enough points to win.

Final Score: Iowa-17 Ohio State-3.

So Hawkeye fans, don't stop believing in this magical season, because we've been living on a prayer since Day 1, and all we really want is for tonight to be a good night, right?

This one is for you, Hawkeye Nation. On Iowa, and Go Hawks!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Walking to Class...

"Hey, did you come here for that crazy preacher guy?"

"Whaa..?" I muttered, nearly unintelligibly, back to him. The day's barrage of classes had worn me down, to say the least.

"Yea, he said feminists are going to hell because they want more freedom then they deserve or something! This dude totally owns his wife! He said earlier that dirty dancing is a sin, so some girl started grinding up right next to him. So awesome!"

"I'll have to check it out," I stated unenthusiastically as I walked to class. Sure enough, right outside the building where I was about to take an Anthropology exam, the man was there. He wore a well-trimmed black beard, with a 1920s paper boy beret atop his head and dated attire that appeared as if the mothballs had only recently left its premises. I noticed his sign, a laundry list of sins as common on this campus as Saturday night public intoxication charges and 2 a.m. Pancheros runs. Bubbly girls practically bursting with mockery rushed up to the pillar he was standing upon merely to take pictures, sent off to curious friends in class, while testosterone fueled machos challenged his views with blunt profanities and base insults as creative and insightful as an episode of the "O'Reily Factor." The worst was when the man received a call from his supposedly subservient "missus" back home at God-knows-where, only to become swarmed with crude remarks about "your husband cheating on you" or "why don't you pay taxes you "f*****g idiot," or when he quietly whispered about his father's alcoholism, largely to an empty crowd who had finished participating in their demeaning another person for the day, made much easier when that person seems so artificial and distant from what we see as humanity. Granted, this man was spouting absurdities, not grounded in reality, condemning the immoral masses to hell whilst preaching a literal interpretation of the Bible and professing to be a virtual saint himself. To take that, for lack of better word, bull seriously would be a gross ignorance and silly fodder for playful harassment from your friends. But something about the whole scenario just left me feeling uneasy, uncomfortable, not right. No matter the man, to treat another person as something sub-human, worthy of being treated like a dog, just isn't right. Yes, some culpability is on his part for coming to one of the most liberal universities in the Midwest and preaching of hellfire and brimstone, but this curb side preacher is just a voice, a voice like many other voices, who can be ignored, but never stomped and spat upon. People were so venomous and mean-spirited in their comments, malicious in their stares, that I was exposed to a dark, unrelenting side of humanity that nobody should want to see. When a human being is free from consequence, from nosy parents, church obligations, overbearing professors, or what have you, one is capable of grave, blackened evils. When a human being is unrestrained, capable of reducing another human being to a lowly status where it feels appropiate to belittle and attack like a boyhood bully, then there is obviously something inherently wrong in all of us. I understand that nobody, including myself, respects the self-righteous, you're going to hell type of condemnation, and rightfully so, but I just don't see the benefit or satisfaction in lowering a person to that level in order to feel more comfortable about one's own immoral lives. This was mob mentality at it's finest, and even when justified, as it might have been today, it's a scary thing to witness. Who's with me??