Clichés are a funny thing. It seems that this week they fly around quicker than a Stephen Strasburg fastball. Throw out the records when these two get together. Anything can happen in a rivalry game. And of course the inevitable, so and so plays like this is their Super Bowl.
Let’s start there. I would like to be the founding member to get the phrase "plays like this is their Super Bowl" stricken from every day conversation. It is an incredibly lazy and pointless statement. College football teams get to play twelve games during the regular season. This isn’t baseball season where there are 162 games and teams can afford to rest and not play their starters for a game or two. If you don’t play with a passion, that is a you problem. That "Super-Bowl" statement is used as some cockamamie back-handed compliment and is very loathsome.
I would venture a guess that in the history of this series, motivation never won a single game. Kyle McCann didn’t wake up in 2001 and say, "You know what, I’m not going to give my best effort today because Seneca Wallace probably wants to win this one more than I do." Even when Gene Chizik beat Iowa in 2007 (arguably the most surprising win in the series over the last decade), those teams were pretty evenly matched. A wave of passion didn’t sweep the Cyclones to the win. Iowa was pretty mediocre in ’07 and lost at home to Western Michigan and got drilled at Purdue by 25. (Note: Kirk Ferentz joins Dan Hawkins and Ron Prince as the only BCS head coaches Chizik beat while at Iowa State.)
Perception favors the Hawkeyes historically. They have the better tradition, bigger stadium and have produced a much larger volume of NFL players. Any time these two get together, perception is always on the side of the TigerHawk logo. Once again, the Hawkeyes are considered the better team at the betting windows. For the 11th straight year, Vegas thinks Iowa should win.
If Vegas had their way, Iowa would be 11-2 against Iowa State during the Kirk Ferentz era. Instead, Ferentz is 6-7. Only Ohio State has more wins against Ferentz (8) than Iowa State’s seven.
Perception becoming reality met its death in this series in September of 1998. After losing 15 straight times, nobody gave the Cyclones a chance against Iowa. They came into the game in 1998 as 28 point underdogs – bigger underdogs than Iowa State’s recent stunners against Oklahoma State, Texas or Nebraska.
Des Moines Register Columnist Nancy Clark actually wrote an article that week titled, "15 Reasons why Iowa State won’t beat Iowa and Never Will." It was the ultimate troll job but at that point, the article seemed completely logical.
I was 14 years old at the time and had never consciously seen the Cyclones get within three touchdowns of Iowa. The year prior, Tim Dwight ran around the Cyclone defense like he was on the rookie level of Tecmo Super Bowl en route to a 63-20 beat down.
Cheering for Iowa State in the series was like cheering for the Washington Generals against the Globetrotters. As each year passed and the win tally grew, it felt more and more like Iowa was the Major League team playing a "friendly" against their minor league counterpart. The circus came to Ames every other year and at the very least it was fun to see Jack Trice Stadium full.
The 27-9 Cyclone victory in 1998 changed everything. The Cy-Hawk game finally became more than just an exhibition. That day was probably the best moment of my life up to that point, narrowly edging out the first time I defeated Mike Tyson’s Punch Out or my first slow dance to R Kelly’s "I believe I can Fly" in sixth grade. Since then, Iowa State has the edge with eight wins to Iowa’s six. Nine of those games have been decided by 10 points or less, including the dramatic 44-41 Steele Jantz special from last year.
Current college freshmen were four years old when Iowa State turned the series around. They have known nothing but competitive games. The dominant Iowa streak is as ancient as AOL instant messenger.
This year’s game is the most even on paper in the last decade. Neither school’s fan-base should be overly confident. Any smack talk should be guarded with a thin layer of concern. Iowa is great at home in September: The Hawks have lost only one non-conference game at home since the loss to Iowa State in 2002. But Iowa State was definitely the more sound football team in week one. It is setting up for a spectacular Saturday at Kinnick. Somebody is going to earn a big win.
A growing sentiment from vocal members in both fan-bases suggests this game does more harm than good. That is nonsense. Certainly the goals for both teams are larger than a single non-conference meeting in September, but that doesn’t mean we should disregard what makes the Cy-Hawk week unique.
This week is more than just a football game, it’s personal. Work-places are split in half, families divided and best friends morph into enemies. A little extra juice is on the line.
Like many Iowans, I come from a family that is intersected by the Cy-Hawk series. My dad is an Iowa State grad and my mom an Iowa grad. My mom grew up about a Rory McIlroy two-iron from Kinnick Stadium. Her father was a professor in the University of Iowa’s Political Science department for over 40 years. Several times a year, my brothers and I would head east from Des Moines over to the belly of the beast. Grandpa Ross lived right off Melrose Avenue close enough that if you listened intently on Saturday game days you could hear the Iowa marching band in preparation and the vendor that bellowed, "Big ass turkey legs!"
My Grandpa was a very stately person. He could usually be found in his study room with CNN or golf on the TV screen, a book in hand, a worn-out newspaper on the stand next to him and a cherry flavored Sherlock Holmes-style cigar pipe not far away. If he wore anything other than a sport-coat or a sweater it was a surprise. He was once offered the position to be the President at Texas Tech, but turned it down because he wanted to raise my mom and her sister in Iowa. He was a very thoughtful, genuine man and chose his words very carefully.
Small talk was something he probably saw as an annoying interruption to attaining knowledge. Because of that, as a young ‘fella, I never knew what to talk to him about. But I grew to learn that he loved his Iowa Hawkeyes. He held Iowa season tickets on the 50-yard line dating back to the Forest Evashevski days in the ’50’s. While at family gatherings, others asked him about the latest political hot topic or election, but our conversations were almost always about what type of team Iowa had that year. And if Dan McCarney was finally going to turn the Cyclones around, "He’s an Iowa City boy after all and went to school with your mother."
If nothing else, we always had the shared interest of football and the Cy-Hawk "rivalry." Ten years ago, when I opted to attend school at Iowa State instead of Iowa, he never voiced an opinion. I wish I would have asked him what he really thought.
Grandpa Ross passed away suddenly two years ago at the age of 88. I don’t make it over to Iowa City much at all anymore. But this weekend, I will be making that familiar two hour drive east. When I walk into Kinnick like I did so many times a youngster, I will be thinking about my Grandpa. I will be in my Cyclone polo and I’m sure he will be watching in his black and gold sport-coat in the sky. That’s the way it should be.