Cedar Falls Rises Up for Northern Iowa's Unlikely Cast
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- On March 15, the Cedar River, which flows through town one mile north of the University of Northern Iowa's campus, overflowed its banks. The Cedar crested at 93.65 feet, or about six feet above the flood stage. As if this Rockwellian community needed a metaphor for what constitutes a high-water mark.
The banks runneth over and their cup runneth over here in Cedar Falls, where the local team's NCAA tournament run is anything but over. Northern Iowa, with its sub six-foot Iranian-American Sports Illustrated cover boy and its David-beats-Cole-iath feat last weekend, is the biggest story in sports this week. Indeed, the sporting public has not been so obsessed with anything in Iowa since Ray Kinsella began chalking foul lines in his back yard.
"Welcome to the best day in UNI athletics history," proclaimed Panther athletic director Troy Dannen Wednesday afternoon to a throng of a few hundred who showed up at the McLeod Center to see their Panthers off to St. Louis and a first-ever Sweet 16 date versus No. 5 seed Michigan State.
In truth, every day in Cedar Falls this week seems better than the one that preceded it. Saturday's upset of the No. 1 overall seed Jayhawks had sportscasters coast-to-coast reaching for their pronunciation guides ("Fa-ROAK-ma-nesh") all weekend. On Tuesday Ali Farokhmanesh, the guard who launched the shot that sank a million (or, more accurately, a multiple of that number) brackets, learned that he would be on the cover of SI.
"It was about 8:30 and I was sitting in an investments class when someone sent me a text," said Farokhmanesh. "It was kind of hard to pay attention after that."
At the rally Wednesday, Dannen announced that he and Panthers coach Ben Jacobson, 37, had agreed on a 10-year contract extension to keep Jacobson in Cedar Falls through 2020. It has been a fairy tale week for Jacobson, who graduated from North Dakota in 1994 as the school's career assists leader. His own 6-year-old son, Hunter, had originally picked Kansas to defeat UNI on his bracket sheet the Monday when the Cedar River crested.
"We sat there at the dinner table," Jacobson said. "I don't know if he figured out I wasn't going to let him leave the table until he changed it."
Hunter came around. As have so many who, upon seeing the Panthers play in person, realized that while UNI's conquest of Kansas was an upset, it was anything but a shocker. Jayhawks coach Bill Self said as much the day before the game when he warned the media, "Northern Iowa can beat anybody in this tournament."
Still, for a school whose previous claim to renown was alumnus Kurt Warner, the takedown of No. 1 Kansas is uncharted territory. It came 20 years-plus four days-after UNI's only previous win in the NCAAs, a 1990 upset of No. 3 seed Missouri. It marked the first time the Panthers had ever beaten the nation's No. 1 ranked team. Heck, the first time they'd ever played the nation's top-ranked team. Even the Farokhmanesh family has a more illustrious track record.
Eleven years earlier, Farokhmanesh's mom, Cindy Fredrick, was the head volleyball coach at Washington State when the Cougars upset top-ranked Stanford. "[Ali's] standing right there beside me holding my hand with both of his hands," Fredrick told the Cedar Falls Courier this week.
Who better to personify the unlikely coronation of UNI after the tournament's first weekend than Farokhmanesh? He stands less than six-feet tall. His father, Mashallah Farokhmanesh, was a member of the Iranian Olympic volleyball team in 1980, though he used to tell his only son, when the boy would point to his father's photo, that it was his brother (Ali's uncle) who'd played on the team. And, in a country flooded with AAU tournaments and summer camps, overflowing with recruiters and talent wranglers, Farokhmanesh received not one scholarship offer upon graduating from Iowa City West High School.
"I just remember coming out of high school and not knowing if I was even going to play anymore," Farokhmanesh said.
This week the marquee outside Pepper's Lounge, which doubles as the site of Jacobson's weekly Monday press conference, reads "SUPERMAN WEARS ALI FAROKHMANESH PAJAMAS." Other than that, however, the scene around Cedar Falls in this, the first week back from spring break, has been subdued.
The bars on College Hill, the popular drag that abuts campus, places such as Beck's and Mojo's, have been quiet. The town's main street, Main Street, which has the look and feel of a downtown now only seen on back lots in Universal City or Burbank, was unchanged. The center land had not been painted purple, no cars overturned. At Maid Rite, the 84 year-old greasy spoon whose specialty is its eponymous "loose meat sandwich," the regulars took their seats at the counter without any, excuse the pun, hoopla.
It's almost as if between last Saturday's once-in-a-lifetime moment and whatever the Panthers' weekend in St. Louis holds, between those two crests, there needed to be an ebb. "Our flight landed early Sunday morning [2 a.m.]," recalled Farokhmanesh, who shares an off-campus home with teammates and siblings Adam and Jake Koch. "We didn't do anything crazy. Just sat in the basement and watched TV."
Farokhmanesh is just one of the characters providing a brilliant panorama for fans in Cedar Falls and parts beyond at which to gaze fondly. There is also, for example -- and speaking of "loose meat" -- burly, mutton-chopped Lucas O'Rear, whose name seems torn straight from a Roddy Doyle novel. The 6-foot-6 O'Rear resembles a cross between a Civil War reenactment hobbyist and a beer-league softball player. He actually arrived at UNI on a baseball scholarship, but the program was discontinued after last season. Last summer he did a stint as a reliever with the semi-pro Rochester (Minn.) Honkers.
Lucas O'Rear? Rochester Honkers? Would even Ron Shelton scoff at this script?
There's Adam Koch, a 6-foot-8 senior, and Jake Koch, a 6-foot-9 freshman, sons of a Wisconsin dentist. The former is the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. "No, we almost never played one-on-one growing up," said the latter, Jake, on Tuesday. "I couldn't beat him and I'd get too pissed."
Then there's seven-footer Jordan Eglseder, who left behind a promising bowling career for basketball. Eglseder rolled a 289 in junior high, but that hardly compares to the pair of first-half treys he buried against Kansas -- doubling his season output through 33 previous games -- last Saturday.
"Absolutely, there are a lot of things we could [have done] differently," a beleaguered-sounding Self said Monday in reference to Eglseder's rare display. "Maybe we should have switched ball screens and not let the big boy shoot the threes early in the game when he has made one all year long."
The Panthers have a talent for that. For either getting under your skin or finding a place in your heart. Meanwhile, here in Cedar Falls, where a local pub or two will be serving purple beer during Friday night's Sweet Sixteen contest with Michigan State, the locals wonder whether this weekend will bring a new high-water mark.
"Remember how this moment feels," UNI's athletic director Dennan told the send-off party outside McLeod Center on Wednesday afternoon. "The next time it comes around, it won't feel as special."
Dennan may be right. But the tide is high in Cedar Falls. Right now, this time is all that matters.