By Ben Bruns, CycloneFanatic.com Contributor & Former Cyclone All-American
As it likely was for many of you, Saturday’s game was a rollercoaster of emotion of me. From the strong start and control ISU had in the first half to the pick six and Nebraska’s two-score lead, to the fourth quarter and overtime, that game had it all.
But this game was especially unique for me: As a coach, I had been through the exact same game just five days earlier. Last Monday night, my West Des Moines Valley Tigers squared off against our No. 1-ranked, cross-town rival, the Dowling Catholic Maroons. After dominating the game for four quarters, we somehow ended up in overtime. Somehow we walked off the field watching the other guys celebrate. Somehow we lost the game. The Big 12 North title was on the line Saturday in Ames, just like the state title was on the line Monday night on Williams Field. Both times, my team came up short. It was a brutal week.
Many of you have competed in athletics, so you know many of the emotions I’ve had over the last week. And many of you may have played football, so you know that the lessons of football really are the lessons of life. The intangibles are the things that make a football team go. Yes, you have to have the talent to compete – and the higher you go in the game, the more important talent is. But when you’re standing at the postseason banquet after you’ve hung up the pads too soon, like I was last night, what really matters is how you feel about each other. As coaches talking about our players to their peers and families, we realize that their relative skill levels don’t matter nearly as much as what they did with those skills.
Two teams walk off the field after a battle like the one you saw Saturday. The walk is that much harder for the several guys who will bear the burden of feeling like they were responsible for losing the game. That burden is one they’ll carry with them the rest of their days. I know the feeling well: I still don’t like going into Veterans Auditorium, where I was defeated in state wrestling 15 long years ago.
The emotions are real. The pain is real. You want it to just go away. Players and coaches want to have a play back, or to get another chance – but that chance will never come. Every man who played in these games and every coach who coached in them has thought for a minute, or more, about what he would have done differently given the outcome last week. Paul Rhoads and Gary Swenson speak routinely about improving and playing to your fullest potential. You don’t get where either want to go – winning championships –without looking back and making changes, learning, and then moving on. They expect their players and coaches to do the same.
Saturday, like Monday, our team had all the chances to win the game. We were in the enviable position of control. If any one of five things happens differently, we win. If two of those five things happen, we win going away. If three come together, we send our opponent staggering off the field. In neither game did it come down to one play, one call or one break.
People have analyzed and voiced their personal opinions about “the call.” For what it is worth, I loved it. The play was there, it had worked when practiced and Nebraska was going to get to play defense second in the subsequent OT. The game Saturday ended with a moment in time – one throw – but it could have ended dozens of different ways, almost all with different outcomes, if we would have seized the moment earlier in the contest.
As a fan and analyst of my ISU team and a coach responsible for the performance and character development of guys I truly care about at Valley, I’ll tell you this: I respect the effort of the men who fought those battles. I respect the effort of our opponents, but I thought in both cases that the underdogs played a better game. The outcome wasn’t what any of our team members or supporters wanted; nothing can change that. But likewise, nothing can change how proud I am of how far the kids have come to this point and how far they will go. For the Tigers, the season is done – the pads are put away. Last night at the banquet, the measure of our success was not on the scoreboard: It was in handshakes, man-hugs and thank yous. As coaches, you grow to respect your players by teaching, pushing, challenging and supporting. As players, you grow to respect your coaches by learning the game, learning to push yourself, and understanding that your coach truly cares about you. When both groups don’t want to let go because of what you have meant to each other, you have both succeeded.
Football is a hard game. It tests everything in you: your will, self control, ability to perform under stress and most importantly, your ability to trust in others. Going to school and playing at a high level is an all-consuming effort for those who want to maximize their God-given abilities. Imagine being Rashawn Parker, having just given everything you had on the field against the No. 9 team in the country, after multiple ACL reconstructions in your career and then having one of your own fans spit on your effort by running you down. Self control? I should say so. Yet five days from now, he and his teammates will have to get back up and play a team that is going through a whole different set of emotions.
The Colorado players reportedly gathered yesterday in the hours before news spread about the firing of head coach Dan Hawkins. In my life, I’ve been in two players-only meetings. Nothing compares to guys having to look each other in the eye and admit to letting each other down or even about being let down by your coaches. I venture to guess those players never had the successful relationship between players and coaches I mentioned above. The Buffs have a lot of distraction this week and that can do one of two things: make them come together to play their best game or splinter them apart when things get tough.
I guarantee things will get tough on Saturday. It’s one of the absolutes of football. Both the Cyclones and the Buffaloes will have to face themselves in Boulder. ISU spent a lot of emotional capital against the Huskers. But I happen to like the character, effort, and execution of the guys who will be wearing white on Saturday. I think it’s stronger than that of the guys who’ll be in black. I like the way the Iowa State coaches care for their players, with a truly genuine desire for them to be successful players and people.
And when things get tough Saturday, my money is on the Cyclones.