A relatively new coach with passion. A fan-friendly offense. A couple of blue-chip recruits. Some recent post-season success.
Is Iowa turning into a basketball school?
That may be sacrilege to say in the heart of Big 10 football country, but a tale of the tape of Iowa’s football and basketball programs seems to indicate that the Hawkeyes are a lot closer to Indiana in basketball then they are to Ohio State in football.
Many factors can be looked at when comparing programs, but for the sake of argument let’s rate four of the biggest ones: coaching, players, performance and fans.
Basketball coach Fran McCaffery is in his fourth season at Iowa with a 57-50 record (.532 winning percentage). He has been called fiery, demanding, forthright and aggressive. His game demeanor is purposeful, calculating, risky and flexible to the situation at hand. He doesn’t always pull the right strings on the court, but it’s apparent that his head is always in the game. Off the court, he appears driven to turn his team into a consistent winner. And has a track record of turning around programs, with winning records at all three of his previous teams (Siena, UNC-Greensboro, Lehigh).
Football coach Kirk Ferentz is wrapping up his 15th season with an overall record of 106-78 (.576). He has been called conservative, passive, aloof and evasive. His game coaching can be head-scratching at times, especially when it comes to clock management and special teams. Off the field he talks a lot about getting better and correcting mistakes, but then his teams seem to move in the opposite direction. Unlike McCaffery, Ferentz appears to delegate almost total control to his assistants and seems almost a spectator on game day.
The Hawkeye basketball team contains a good mix of veterans, youth, athleticism, size and potential. Devyn Marble is a candidate for Big 10 player of the year, and newcomers Jarred Uthoff and Peter Jok have created a buzz around the team. In the decade prior to McCaffery’s arrival, the program failed to produce any noteworthy NBA players. McCaffery still has a bunch of role players, but as the roster continues to turn over the talent level should improve.
One plus for Ferentz is his ability to produce NFL-quality players, particularly lineman. This year is no exception, with tackle Brandon Scherff almost a cant-miss prospect. But a lack of speed at the skill positions has always been the bane of Ferentz. Rarely does the program sign the four- or five-star recruits that end up at Ohio State, Michigan or Wisconsin. But Ferentz has a reputation for getting the most out his talent. When he does, he can win games, but when it doesn’t it shows up in the loss column.
It’s easy too look at last season’s runner-up finish in the NIT and say the basketball team is poised for even more success this season. That’s because the team has gotten better in each of McCaffery’s first three seasons. Iowa did well in conference play last season at 9-9 with several close losses to the Big 10’s best teams. McCaffery has a deep team of players with defined roles who play together. Forwards Aaron White and Uthoff could wind up as the best pair in the conference. Adam Woodbury, Gabe Olaseni and Melsahn Basabe form a formidable barrier around the basket and are improved on offense. Barring a total collapse, the team should be ranked nationally for most of the season. Beating Michigan, Michigan State, OhioState and Wisconsin would cement Iowa’s image as an emerging power.
Last season was a disaster for the football team, losing its last six games to finish 4-8. This season started out more of the same, with a last-minute loss at home to Northern Illinois. Since then, the Hawks have rebounded to some extent and became bowl-eligible with a 38-14 victory over Purdue. Quarterback Jake Rudock is one of several young players who have shown promise. The team plays hard and never appears to quit. But the same problems continue to plague Ferentz’s team year after year. Mental mistakes on special teams and in the secondary have contributed to some tough losses. Key turnovers still rear their ugly head. A vanilla offense and lack of big plays or playmakers gives the team almost no margin for error against good teams. Each year you can pencil in losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State almost without fail. None of those are signs of a program on the rise.
It’s hard to argue against the enthusiasm that fans have for Iowa football. Football in the fall has always been more of an activity than a game. More fans show up just to socialize outside Kinnick Stadium than actually attend the game. Several thousand seats remain empty against even the best opponents, despite thousands of fans surrounding the stadium. New scoreboards and other amenities designed to increase fan experience have been added or are planned. But the age of cable television and the internet has shifted fan interest to outside the stadium walls. A new generation of tech-savvy fans who crave instant information are using cable, smartphones and tablets to follow the team. The few websites that exist don’t give the Hawkeyes much of a national presence. Most of the the Iowa-based websites appear to be parochial and dependent on the athletic department for their content, voice and direction. The football program has shown little or no propensity to adjust to advancing technology.
By contrast, the basketball team seems headed toward a future of more exposure, notoriety, interest and success. Filling Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the dead of winter is no small feat, but a buzz around the team should keep the seats full. Sports fans thrive on hope and optimism, and right now there’s no doubt Iowa fans have high hopes for the basketball team this season. Networks have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, putting more Iowa games on their schedules. And national media outlets are feeding the fan frenzy by putting the Hawkeyes on their radars. As long as the team continues to win and improve, the hype should only continue to grow.
Very few major colleges around the country can be considered basketball schools. Duke, Kansas, Indiana and Kentucky all have a tradition of excellence that dates back decades. But success on the floor is only part of the reason. Good coaching, good players and an administration that understands how to embrace the fans and media as partners instead of tools also is necessary for success. As it stands right now, the football program has remained relatively static under Ferentz for the past 15 years and has shown very few signs of evolving. The jury is still out on McCaffery, but this season could be a turning point if he meets or exceeds expectations. And if that happens, there’s really only one conclusion that can be drawn: