The Winter of Iowa's Discontent
"No matter what you dream or feel or say, it ends in dust and disarray."
Those words are from "Fire Inside," one of approximately 14,000 songs Bob Seger has written about the unbearable pain of existence. He wasn't writing about Iowa football in 2010 but he might as well have been.
A season that began with a preseason top-10 ranking is indeed ending in dust and disarray. The Hawkeyes lost four of their last six games to finish 7-5 overall. If only the misery had ended when the regular season did.
Just since the first of December, Iowa has seen Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, its all-time leading receiver, dismissed from the team after his arrest on drug charges. Two of the team's top three running backs, Jewel Hampton and Brandon Wegher, have decided to transfer while the third, Adam Robinson, will be suspended for the upcoming Insight Bowl against No. 14 Missouri.
It seems like just yesterday coach Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes had turned the corner from the multiple on- and off-field issues which marred the 2005-2007 period. A slew of arrests and other bad publicity, mediocre on-field performance and Ferentz's 500-pound gorilla of a salary combined to have many questioning whether Iowa was heading in the right direction. Ferentz started the 2008 season on many a hot-seat list.
On a snowy night in November, 2008, Daniel Murray kicked his coach off that list. Murray's wobbly field goal gave Iowa a victory over then-No. 3 Penn State. From that point, the Hawkeyes played like the nearly unstoppable 2002-2004 teams. A team that many thought lacked mental toughness suddenly wasn't afraid of anybody.
A heartbreaking one-point loss to Wisconsin this year couldn't stop the Hawkeyes, who went out the next week and dealt Michigan State its only loss of the season, 37-6. The following week Iowa was a Damarlo Belcher pass drop away from losing to Indiana, a team that won only one conference game this season.
The Hawkeyes nearly exorcised their greatest recent demon, Northwestern, only to see the Wildcats rally for a Pyrrhic victory. They then hung tough with the surging Ohio State Buckeyes but lost. Finally Iowa gift-wrapped a victory for Minnesota, a team that had fired its coach more than a month earlier . Three and a half weeks later, everybody's wondering when Iowa hired Cheech and Chong to be in charge of football operations.
What happened? More importantly, how does Iowa make it stop happening?
The off-the-field stuff is what it is. Johnson-Koulianos tested positive for cocaine and marijuana, police say. There are about 12,000 college-aged males playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision. What are the odds that exactly one of them uses those two drugs? His charge of "keeping a drug house" is Iowa legalese for being aware that a roommate was selling drugs and failing to inform the police of this fact. No one has alleged that Johnson-Koulianos sold drugs.
Iowa admitted to some flaws in its drug testing program. It's good to know only one of the many thousands of drug testing programs out there has flaws in it, isn't it? You'll note the distinct lack of sanctimony coming from other coaches about Iowa's off-the-field problems. They don't know what every player is doing at any given moment either.
The on-the-field stuff is much trickier to deal with. By any objective measure, Ferentz is at least as successful as his predecessor, Hayden Fry. Granted, Ferentz hasn't taken Iowa to a Rose Bowl. Fry took Iowa to three, losing them all. In Fry's 20 seasons at Iowa, only two of his teams (1985 and 1991) finished with fewer than three losses. Ferentz has accomplished that three times in 12 seasons, despite playing one more game per season than Fry usually did. Thirty percent of Fry's teams (six out of 20) finished with at least nine wins. Forty-two percent of Ferentz's teams (five out of 12) have.
Yet the perception persists that Ferentz isn't as good a coach as Fry. Some of that is Ferentz's own fault. He's a rather reserved and opaque person. Some people were surprised that the press conference to announce Hampton's transfer and Robinson's suspension was rather short on specifics. No one who follows Iowa football could have possibly been expecting anything else.
Some of that perception is nobody's fault. There aren't 10 coaches in the game, past or present, as colorful as Hayden Fry.
Fry's teams were known for their occasional complete mental breakdowns as well. He largely got a pass for that because Iowans loved the guy so much.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi originated a theory of optimal human performance that he called "flow." Flow is when a person or group is completely absorbed in a task and performs that task excellently. Csikszentmihalyi says "flow" occurs when people are challenged exactly to the limit of their abilities. It explains why a team can paste Michigan State one week, then almost lose to Indiana the next. It's why "any given Saturday" became a cliché. We seldom give our utmost attention to tasks we don't regard as a challenge. The overdog always gets everybody's best shot.
When Daniel Murray's field goal beat Penn State, Iowa's perception of its competence went up. There were a few bumps along the way, but the Hawkeyes always answered the bell until the Indiana game this season. Flow is a fragile thing. Nearly losing that game disrupted Iowa's flow.
The good news for Iowa is that now no one expects it to beat Missouri. That's the challenge it needs, because it's still a competent team. Ferentz and his staff now need to find a way to challenge their team every week so the flow comes back to stay.