Miami, Fla. – For me, the collegiate football season began Aug. 24 in Kansas City and ended Jan. 2 in Miami.
What a trip it was down amateur football's 17-week marathon.
Iowa State thought it should have won, but didn't, in the Eddie Robinson Classic at Kansas City.
Florida State won instead, 38-31.
Iowa thought it would win, but didn't, in the Orange Bowl at Miami.
Southern California won instead, 38-17.
Although Iowa State had both a disappointing start and finish (the Cyclones were drilled by Boise State, 34-16, in the Humanitarian Bowl) to its 2002 season, and Iowa had a less-than-enchanting windup in Miami's Pro Player Stadium, we shouldn't be overcome with negative thinking.
Had Iowa's Kirk Ferentz been told in July that that his team would finish 11-2 after playing in a BCS game that attracted about 47,000 Hawkeye fans among a sellout crowd of 75,971, he'd have taken it, no questions asked.
Had Iowa State's Dan McCarney been told in July that his team would beat Iowa and Nebraska in the same season and go to a third consecutive bowl, he'd have taken it, no questions asked.
So, with the national championship finally decided, with every all-America team chosen and with Lee Corso quiet for another few months, here are my thoughts on some of the things that took place during a long season that was made very entertaining by the Hawkeyes and Cyclones:
--Iowa has been fielding collegiate football teams since 1889, and has a record of 520-480-39. Where does the 2002 team rank historically?
Had the Hawkeyes beaten USC, they would have closed the season 12-1 and been my choice as the school's best ever. But the lopsided loss in the Orange Bowl prevented it from happening.
Three teams coached by Forest Evashevski were better than this one turned out to be. Evashevski's 1956 and 1958 teams won Big Ten championships and had convincing Rose Bowl victories.
The 1958 team, my choice as the best in school history, led the nation in total offense and was given the No. 1 national ranking by the Football Writers Association. It was voted No. 2 behind Louisiana State in the final Associated Press poll.
Evashevski's 1960 squad shared the Big Ten title with Minnesota, and finished No. 2 in the United Press International poll and No. 3 in the Associated Press poll.
Hayden Fry, Iowa's coach from 1979-1998, took three teams to the Rose Bowl, but lost all of the games. Consequently, it's impossible for me to rank any of them above the 2002 squad.
That includes the 1985 team, which spent five weeks ranked No. 1 nationally. The Hawkeyes finished with a 10-2 record after being blitzed by UCLA, 45-28, in the Rose Bowl. They were ninth in the final UPI poll, 10th in the final AP poll.
As the final seconds ticked off the huge scoreboard clock in Pro Player Stadium at the Orange Bowl, a couple of guys who have witnessed a lot of Hawkeye football games over the years—some good, some not so good—agreed on something.
"Well, we've seen this before," said Bob Brooks, the longtime Cedar Rapids broadcaster.
Brooks, who has been on hand for many more Hawkeye games than I've seen, was obviously referring to Iowa heartache against Pac-10 teams in other big bowl games—the 28-0 blowout Washington administered in the 1982 Rose Bowl game, the 45-28 UCLA victory over the 1985 Hawkeyes and the 46-34 loss to Washington in the Rose Bowl that concluded the 1990 season.
We used to say that collegiate football's modern era began in 1939, but that seems to be getting less modern all the time.
Iowa's 1939 Ironmen, coached by Eddie Anderson, were good and had a sensational player in Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick, but couldn't match Evashevski's powerful teams. The Ironmen (6-1-1) lost to Michigan, 27-7, were tied by Northwestern, 7-7, and didn't play in a bowl.
Howard Jones' 1921 and 1922 teams were both unbeaten, but played only seven games in each season. Those squads played Knox College in their season openers, and it would be unfair to compare the strength of teams in that era to those of today. Football then and football now can't be compared.
Leave it at this: The 1921 team beat Notre Dame, 10-7, and finished 5-0 in the Big Ten. The 1922 team beat Yale, 6-0, and at that time I understand Yale played good football. The '22 Hawkeyes also went 5-0 in the Big Ten.
So both of those teams must have been pretty darn good.
--Best game I saw all season:
Iowa State 36, Iowa 31 on Sept. 14.
After the Hawkeyes stormed to a 24-7 halftime lead in a game electric with excitement at Kinnick Stadium, the Cyclones went on a 23-0 rampage in the third quarter to win for the fifth consecutive time in the series. When it was over, Iowa State quarterback Seneca Wallace looked to be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and Iowa's Brad Banks looked like just another guy who coughed up the ball twice in the same quarter.
Little did any of us know that, later in the season, Wallace would fade from the Heisman scene and Banks would finish second to USC's Carson Palmer.
--Second-best game I saw all season: Iowa State 36, Nebraska 14 on Sept. 28. Hey, anytime the Cyclones can beat Nebraska in football, it's big. Those things happen only once every 10 years, so now I can't wait until 2012.
--Third-best game I saw all season: Iowa 34, Michigan 9 on Oct. 26. The Hawkeyes took over the Big House in a big way. It's always good to beat the Wolverines in any game. A guy I know calls Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr the most overrated coach in major-college football. He certainly was on that beautiful afternoon in Ann Arbor.
--Worst game I saw all season: Connecticut 37, Iowa State 20 on Nov. 23. I made it through only the first half. That was enough. I'm pretty sure it was enough for Dan McCarney, too.
--Second-worst game I saw all season: Southern California 38, Iowa 17 on Jan. 2. I couldn't leave at halftime of that one. The media bus didn't go back to the hotel until the game was over.
--Was the six-week layoff the reason Iowa played so poorly in the Orange Bowl?
Not at all.
USC plainly was a better team than the Hawkeyes. It would have been a better team a month ago, too.
The Hawkeyes obviously didn't have the snap, crackle and pop on Jan. 2 that they had in mauling Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota late in the regular season, but don't blame the down time in November and December for the shortcomings against USC.
Still, Eric Steinbach, Iowa's standout offensive guard, wondered.
"We don't like to make any excuses, but that (long layoff) could have been the deal because we had all those penalties and we were playing like it was the first game of the season rather than the last," Steinbach said.
--The right guy won the Heisman.
No doubt about it.
Although Iowa middle linebacker Fred Barr and other Hawkeyes thought Banks was shortchanged by finishing second to USC's Carson Palmer in the Heisman balloting, Palmer proved he's the real deal in the Orange Bowl.
Barr's thinking was even starting to swing that way after the game.
"Palmer is a good quarterback—I can't take anything away from him," said Barr, who had said before the game that Banks was better and that USC couldn't match Iowa in physical toughness. "His receivers made great plays." Palmer completed 21 of 31 passes for 303 yards and a touchdown while becoming the game's most valuable player. A lot of collegiate players would like to have his future. He's destined to make big money in the NFL.
Banks, meanwhile, had a frustrating Orange Bowl. He completed only 15 of 36 passes for 204 yards and threw his first interception since Oct. 19, and only his fifth of the season.
--How good was Southern California? Outstanding.
Its strength shouldn't have surprised any of Iowa's coaches or players after watching USC crush Notre Dame, 44-13, in the game that won the Heisman for Palmer.
USC was not only the quickest team Iowa played all season, but much more physical than Barr and some of Iowa's other players gave it credit for.
Late in the Orange Bowl game, when it was obvious USC was going to win, a chant, "Overrated! Overrated!" came from the crowd.
People in the press box assumed it was USC fans saying that about Iowa. However, one wag suggested that maybe it was a few of the Hawkeye faithful who were chanting that about their own team.
Well, don't forget, it was late. It was warm. It was humid. A lot of those fans hadn't limited their liquid intake to Diet Pepsi.
--Speaking of Iowa's fans, let me say more about them.
A few people—generally those rooting for other schools—wonder how a Big Ten team that went 11-2 overall and 6-1 at Kinnick Stadium could have sold out only the Iowa State and Wisconsin games.
It's obvious that the automatic sellout is over in Iowa City.
But the whopping number of Iowa fans that made the trip to Miami opened eyes all over the nation.
Iowa football, obviously, is still a hot ticket in an age when there's a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar. --After Ferentz's teams went 1-10 and 3-9 in his first two seasons, he has taken the Hawkeyes to two consecutive bowl games. Can he keep it up?
Yes, said Steinbach.
"Coach Ferentz and his staff are doing a tremendous job," Steinbach said. "Even though we lost (to USC), but as a team they're going to have a bright future. They're going to be in bowl games from here on out for a long time."
--New Miami-to-D.M. Air Route
Guess what guy came back home from the Orange Bowl this way: He took a six-hour flight from Miami to San Francisco, then caught an 11:30 p.m. red-eye from San Francisco that landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport at 5 a.m., then went on an 8:15 a.m. Chicago-to-Des Moines flight that landed at 9:25 a.m.
Hint: He's writing a book about football at the University of Iowa.
--Catching up with some of my recent e-mail:
From a Minnesota reader at halftime of the Iowa-USC game:
"Let me see if I've got this right. You've got the best offensive line in the country, you're on the one-yard line with 10 seconds to go and you've got one time out. So you throw the ball! Go figure. You must go with what got you there—you run the ball, Elmo!
"Lucky for the Hawks the Trojans are playing rusty, too.
"By the way, tell the ACC refs to keep the yellow hankies in their pockets and let the teams play the game. 47,000 Iowans and assorted others did not come to the game or tune in to watch you throw your damn hankies!"
--From the same Minnesota reader after the game:
"Let's make it official. Carson Palmer, quarterback of the football team from the University of Southern California, has won the Heisman Trophy awarded to the nation's best college football player, and he proved it Thursday.
"It was all Palmer in the 2003 version of the Orange Bowl, held, interestingly enough, at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Florida, and not in the Orange Bowl.
"It's official—Iowa and its 47,000 fans who attended the game, say so now. Brad Banks, the runnerup for the Heisman Trophy and a Florida high school player, was a no-show. Another no-show was the vaunted Iowa offensive line. Some say it was the Miami heat and humidity and some the long layoff between the last Iowa game and this one. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz did the offensive line no favors, however, when he allowed a pass play to be called at the end of the first half with the score, 10-10, Iowa on the one-yard line and a time out to use.
"When you've got the best offensive line in the country, run behind them, some good coaches say. Kirk Ferentz and Iowa selected something different. After two offensive illegal procedure penalties, a field goal attempt was blocked and it was all downhill, as those same good coaches say, from there."
[Editor's note: I don't know if that guy had money on the game or not].
--From a reader in eastern Iowa:
"Mike Hlas has a very funny piece in today's Gazette about O.J. Simpson visiting the USC practice field. Meanwhile, the Register's star columnist has a piece about Dallas Clark which could have been written in Des Moines. I don't know what they are paying that guy, but it is way, way too much."
[Editor's note: I can't add much to that. Fortunately, I don't have to be concerned with what the local paper pays the sports columnist. I do know, though, that Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette has been writing good columns for a number of years—whether they're about O.J. Simpson or Simpson College].
--From a central Iowa reader:
"I like it when you write about newspapers. My question is this: When did Ken Fuson become a sportswriter?"
[Editor's note: Fuson is one of the most talented writers at the local paper. I visited with him the day before the Orange Bowl and in the press box at the game. He is not a sportswriter, even though he'd be a very good one if he chose to be. He is primarily a feature writer for the paper, and does human-interest stories as well as anyone in the business. He was assigned to the Orange Bowl to write stories for the news pages].
Newspaper salaries were mentioned earlier in this column. That leads me into mentioning the conversation I had with Bill Dwyre at the Orange Bowl. Dwyre is one of the many former sports copy editors at the local paper who left in search of greener pastures. He is a very sharp guy who has been sports editor of the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years. He told me that Mike Downey, a former Times sports columnist and newsside columnist, has just been hired to write sports columns for the Chicago Tribune. "Will he be the No. 1 columnist there?" I asked. "He better be with the salary they're paying him," Dwyre said. I guess the Tribune is giving Downey more than $300,000 a year to write columns. I think it's time for Rob Borsellino to ask for a raise.
Vol. 3, No. 1
Jan. 7, 2003