There’s a cliché out there about history repeating itself. It isn’t something I subscribe to personally but I have always been fascinated by the interconnected aspects of life and sports. It seems like both can be a tangled up wad of yarn but when you try and unknot the tangle you find that some pieces are connected in ways you never knew. Some of those ways may be of substance and others may be just interesting and useless; but fascinating none the less.
It was an October day that no one saw coming. Iowa State went blow for blow with a blue blood of college football. A game that turned into a shootout with both teams scoring into the forties. The Cyclones scored two fourth quarter touchdowns to keep pace and tie up the game with the time waning before giving Texas one last chance.
The Longhorns drove and through big plays eventually got inside the five yard line before connecting on a game winning field goal at the south end of the stadium. It was another close loss for Iowa State that seemed to be knocking on the door but falling just short as of late. Just a few weeks prior, the Cyclones led a top flight Kansas State team late into the second half before being stymied and stuck at 28 on the scoreboard, only to be surpassed by the Wildcats.
Three of the previous six losses for Iowa State were by one score or less. But the program seemed on an uptick. Young talent littered throughout the offense and they were led by their junior quarterback that was starting to assert himself and prove his accuracy and make plays with his feet as well.
The Cyclone coach was still working on pouring the footings for the foundation he was laying in one of the toughest rebuilding jobs in college football. But fans were beginning to question the true progress that was being made and if there really was a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe this program would be better suited to find a hot new young coach instead of the home grown Iowa boy.
The above isn’t about the 2014 Cyclones, Sam Richardson, or Paul Rhoads; it was the 1999 Cyclones, Sage Rosenfels – who was coincidentally providing the color commentary on Saturday night – and Dan McCarney.
To this day, the 1999 game with Texas is one of the most purely entertaining games I can remember from Iowa State football even though they ultimately lost to the 12th ranked Longhorns. I still remember riding in the car and listening to Pete’s call and just hoping that somehow the Texas kicker would shank the 18 yard field goal and we’d head to overtime. The thoughts were similar on Saturday night as I watched with dismay as Texas so quickly drove down the field with a couple of huge plays and in to “chip shot” range.
The trajectories of the programs prior aren’t really all that similar by the big picture view. Dan McCarney struggled for a long time to find traction and perhaps only saved his job and won support with snapping the 15 game losing streak to Iowa in 1998. Rhoads, on the other hand, came in with a bang and notched wins that we hadn’t seen in years and generations, or had never seen from Iowa State football at all. Though, in the past two years the program has appeared to hit a ceiling and tumble, and struggle to find wins. Often times, they have just narrowly missed on adding victories.
Go back 16 losses in the record books from today and you’ll reach the inaugural Thanksgiving weekend game with West Virginia in 2012. Eight of those 16 losses were by one score or less and seven of them came at the hands of a ranked opponent.
Interestingly, Paul Rhoads was on staff at Iowa State for that 1999 team that ultimately went 4-7 and lost four of those games by less than one score and another by 12 points. Rhoads has said many times since returning to Ames – and it was the predominant feeling at the time – that the Cyclones were very close to turning the corner as a program. That’s why his decision to leave for Pitt to get a promotion to defensive coordinator was so difficult. In another twist of fate Pitt would be ISU’s bowl opponent the following year as the Cyclones broke through to go 8-3 in the regular season.
None of that really means much. It’s an interesting footnote to a story of a faltering football team since the halfway point of 2012. It certainly doesn’t make the loss in Austin on Saturday hurt any less and it definitely doesn’t mean that good fortune is just around the corner. That can never be assuredly stated.
Despite the Longhorns being 2-4 and struggling with their new head man, their improvement has also been real, most notably with Tyrone Swoopes. He blistered Iowa State but he hurt Oklahoma the week prior as well. The improvement from Texas and Swoopes is rivaled by that of Iowa State and Richardson who started off with a bad loss, but have since improved almost as linearly as one could hope.
But the improvement isn’t as fast as we’d hoped and we’ve watched with more disappointment than not for the past two years, especially in front of our own eyes at home games. The losses are mounting and the improvements on the field seem less tangible because of that. Or at least, less palatable as the improvement talk is always a chaser to the warm swill in the bottom of our beer of defeat.
All of that is true, but as I’ve said before that fact doesn’t discount that the team doesn’t seem far off in many cases, especially in this game of inches. Look at that last completion for Texas and how nearly he was out of bounds. Look at how close ISU was to converting on first downs to extend drives and put away the game against Kansas State. Ditto that for TCU, Texas Tech, and Texas in 2013.
A program like Iowa State isn’t going to get better by continual discontent and replacement of the head coach. Continuity is a big deal and this team isn’t that far off from tangible success, in my opinion. Then, consider that the roster and coaching staff appears to be set for the future.
The scenario and circumstance of the program isn’t all that different than it was 15 years ago in the very short term picture. The Cyclones made the jump to success in 2000 after the program had apparently been built up in 1999. The path to a similar point in 2014 has been mirrored with close losses and a nearly duplicate loss to Texas, but will the payoff come this year or next?
We’ll have to wait and see if those strings of yarn are connected.