The Ames Problem

By Patrick Vint on September 6, 2017 at 3:53 pm
The Ames Sandwich
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

It's Iowa State Week, which means it's time for another annual "Why the hell are we playing Iowa State every year?" post.  So: Why the hell are we playing Iowa State every year?

Rather than a recitation of the issues with keeping the game (lack of national respect for ISU football, scheduling monotony, inability to schedule interesting non-conference matchups) and reasons why it probably won't go away soon (contracts, the Iowa legislature/Board of Regents), let's look at how other states handle in-state rivalry games, to see if this is an Iowa problem or simply the way these situations are handled.

States that have zero or one Division FBS football schools: 18
(Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Alaska, Hawaii)

Obviously this isn't a problem when you're Nebraska.

States where the major in-state rivalry is in the same conference: 13
(Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan, Illinois)

Similarly, there isn't an issue where the rivalry is among conference opponents.  Either the conference schedules you to play or they don't.  Not much you can do about that.

States where there really isn't an "in-state rivalry": 6

Arkansas: The Razorbacks have never played Arkansas State in football, and Bret Bielema has said they never will.

Louisiana: Might as well be on the list of one-school states, given the gulf between the state's flagship institution, LSU, and the quartet of Group of Five schools around it (UL-L, UL-M, La. Tech and Tulane).

Ohio: See Louisiana, with the only exception possibly being Cincinnati.  But they've only played 14 times ever, and OSU has won every meeting since the 19th Century.

Massachusetts: Boston College and UMass play occasionally -- 22 times since 1966, including an annual game between 1966 and 1982 -- but even the series' Wikipedia page can't muster more than discussion of "a moderate amount of local media coverage and hype" for recent games.

New York: Buffalo and Army have played five times.  It's hard to become a rival of a service academy.  They sort of have their own rivals already.

Maryland: Same goes for Maryland-Navy, which have played 21 times but just twice since 1965.

Weird situations: 6

Indiana: The Hoosiers and Purdue are in the same conference and are guaranteed a game through the Big Ten (the only guaranteed cross-divisional game in the conference).  Notre Dame is a lot like a service academy due to their national scheduling, and the Irish have only played Indiana once since 1958.  Notre Dame-Purdue was an annual rivalry game from 1946 up until 2014, when Notre Dame moved into its quasi-relationship with the ACC (five ACC opponents plus USC, the three service academies and Stanford pretty well have Notre Dame booked up) and cancelled upcoming Purdue games due to lack of room on the schedule.


Texas: Up until 2011, the four biggest football programs in Texas -- UT, aTm, Baylor and Texas Tech -- were in the same conference and played annually.  Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC following the 2011 season, due in no small part to issues with UT, and has not played any of its former conference-mates or the Aggies' replacement, TCU, since.  The four remaining major-conference members still play each other annually in Big 12 play, and neither the Big 12 nor the SEC has expanded to nine-game conference schedules.


Florida: Florida State and Miami have played annually going back to the Hurricanes' days as an independent and sole legitimate football member of the Big East.  They are now both part of the ACC, and play annually in league play.  Florida famously stopped playing the 'Canes in 1987, right around the time that Miami was destroying everyone put in front of them.  Since then, the two programs have met a half-dozen times, including a Zook-era four-game series swept by Miami.  Florida still plays FSU every year, rotating home field between Tallahassee and Gainesville every season, but the programs' national stature is essentially equal.


California: The four major-conference institutions in California not only play in the same division of the same conference, but have paired off into storied geographic rivalries.  At no point have any of those four teams entertained a "rivalry" with their mid-major counterparts at SDSU, SJSU or Fresno State in any meaningful way.


Utah: I didn't understand the three-way hatefest in Utah until I married a Utahan and learned that (1) Utah and Utah State aren't exactly chummy, but (2) they both despise BYU.  Further, they're all on different planes of existence, with Utah now in the Pac-12, Utah State in the Mountain West and BYU existing on its own quasi-Notre Dame plane.  

Utah ended the Holy War for two years when it joined the Pac-12 over BYU's objections, but renewed the rivalry on a home-and-home beginning last year through 2022.  It appears that the parties are agreeing to play frequently, if not annually, going forward.  Utah and Utah State's annual home-and-home rivalry became more sporadic in the 2010s, and no future games are scheduled.  BYU and Utah State play annually for the Old Wagon Wheel on a rough home-and-home basis.


Pennsylvania: Depending on who you talk to, Penn State and Pittsburgh are either two programs roughly equal in stature or comically disparate.  The two teams met annually from 1935 through 1992, two years after PSU gave up the dream of an eastern conference and joined the Big Ten, when Pitt became a football member of the Big East.  The series returned for four seasons from 1997-2000, but was again retired when PSU demanded a 2-for-1 or 3-for-2 on games in Happy Valley to continue.  The two programs finally met again last season, and will again for the next three seasons.

Of course, there's also Temple, which PSU has played 80 times in a wholly uncompetitive "rivalry".  Penn State stopped playing Temple to add Pitt, beginning last season.  Pitt played Temple annually from 1974 through 2004, but only once since (and only three times before).


Disparate programs: 2

West Virginia: WVU and Marshall have only played twelve times in the "Friends of Coal Bowl," with seven of those games coming between 2006 and 2012 when the West Virginia-centric Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart were coaching the Mountaineers.  The games were played on a two-to-one, with two games in Morgantown followed by a game in Huntington.  West Virginia cancelled the series after 2012, citing "Big East expansion" that didn't really happen.  Marshall has never won against West Virginia, calling the entire enterprise into question.


Colorado: The Colorado Buffaloes and CSU Rams have played annually in the "Rocky Mountain Showdown" at Mile High Stadium since 1998, with three games in Boulder during that twenty-game series for whatever reason.  The annual rivalry goes back to 1983, except for a few brief hiatuses during the 1980s and early 1990s when Colorado was too busy destroying fools to be bothered.  Colorado and Colorado Agricultural/A&M/State also played virtually every year from the turn of the century until 1958.

The Colorado rivalry is a fairly accurate facsimile of Iowa-ISU (except for ISU's Big 12 membership), but comparing the two is complicated by Mile High Stadium.  For one, Denver provides a neutral site agreeable to both sides that Iowa simply doesn't have.  It's not as if Iowa-ISU is going to be played in the UNI-Dome or Drake Stadium, after all.  But Mile High also represents something else: An NFL presence that might take a bit of importance off the game that isn't available in Iowa.  There's no singing "Kumbaya" over Broncos games on Sunday to bring everything back together.

Also, Colorado cancelled the series starting next year due to Pac-12 nine-game scheduling, saying "it was not in Colorado's best interest to extend the series."  The rivalry may return sporadically, to be played on the campuses of the respective schools.


The Closest Comparables: 4

New Mexico: UNM and New Mexico State don't actually play in the same conference; New Mexico is a member of the Mountain West, while NMSU is in the Sun Belt.  But they still play every year, on a home-and-home.  Neither program has done much in the last twenty years, and there isn't a significant difference in stature between the two as perceived by the outside world.


Georgia: The Georgia Bulldogs and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have kept their annual "Clean, Old Fashioned Hate"-fest going every year since 1925.  They kept it up even after Tech left the SEC in 1975 and joined the ACC in 1978.  They close every regular season against each other, and they play barn-burners more often than not.  

The difference between this and Cy-Hawk, of course, is that both Georgia and Georgia Tech have (1) won national championships, and (2) are nationally prominent -- or at least ranked -- on a fairly regular basis.  Each is a good non-conference opponent for the other, and figures to remain that way.


South Carolina: Clemson and USC close each season with a game rich in hate.  "The deep-seated bitterness began between the two schools long before Clemson received its charter and became a college," according to the Wiki entry on the rivalry, which needs a citation and sounds impossible until you read about the aptly-named Benjamin Tillman:

Benjamin Tillman emerged in the 1880s as a leader of the agrarian movement in South Carolina and demanded that the South Carolina College take agricultural education more seriously by expanding the agriculture department. In 1885, Tillman was convinced of the superiority of a separate agricultural college by Stephen D. Lee, then the President of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of the State of Mississippi, and subsequently Tillman would accept nothing less than a separate agriculture college in South Carolina. He offered the following reasons why he felt that it was necessary to have a separate agriculture college outside the confines of Columbia:

  • Mississippi A&M featured practical training without unnecessary studying of the liberal arts.
  • Mississippi A&M provided poor students work-scholarships so that they could attend the college.
  • There were too few students who studied agriculture at the college to justify an agriculture college there.
  • The College was a place "for the sons of lawyers and of the well-to-do" who sneered at the agriculture students as if they were hayseeds.
  • The students at the college lived a life of luxury as compared with the sweat and toil endured by students at Mississippi A&M.


The Conservatives, who held the reins of power in South Carolina from 1877 to 1890, replied to each point made by Tillman:

  • The most advanced agriculture educational research was being conducted at the University of California and at Cornell University, both of which combined agriculture colleges with liberal arts colleges. Additionally, a separate agriculture college would be more expensive and result in an inferior product.
  • The work scholarships attracted the lowest quality of students who only cared about obtaining a college degree, not about an education in agriculture or mechanical studies. Furthermore, there was little advantage of attending a college only to pitch manure and grub stumps.
  • The constant attacks by Tillman on the college caused many to doubt whether state support for the institution would continue. As a result, the enrollment numbers were not impressive, although the numbers of students taking agriculture and mechanical classes increased from 34 in 1887 to 83 in 1889.
  • Over half of the students at the college were the sons of farmers, though most did not study agriculture as Tillman wished. John McLaren McBryde, President of the College, correctly predicted that most students of an agriculture college would not go back to work the farm after graduation.
  • While some students at the college were the sons of the well-to-do, the majority were poor.

Sound familiar?

In any case, Clemson has won a couple of national championships, and South Carolina is occasionally pretty good (though traditionally a doormat), so there's not much downside to the game.  Furthermore, they've played 109 years in a row, so keep on keepin' on.


Kentucky: This is probably the best comparison to the Cy-Hawk Series.  Kentucky and Louisville went from 1924 to 1994 without playing each other, but have played a competitive annual home-and-home series since.  Kentucky is a perennial SEC doormat and commonly thought of as a basketball school, while Louisville has had recent football success.  And yet, they continue to play a home-and-home.

The big difference: First, neither Kentucky nor Louisville are in a conference demanding nine in-conference games per season.  Second, Louisville does not require, as a basic tenet of scheduling in every year, seven home football games.  This season, Louisville is playing six home games, traveling to Kentucky and playing Purdue at a neutral site.  Last season, Louisville played at Marshall and Houston in non-conference play, the second game being one of the most-hyped games of the season.  The Cardinals haven't played seven home games in a season since 2013, when they were still a member of Conference USA and actually needed the money.  An athletic department can be funded on six home games and a neutral-site, or even six games with a pair of non-conference home-and-homes to play.


Iowa: Which brings us back home, to the two fundamental issues with the Cy-Hawk Game from Iowa's perspective.  First, Iowa State is seen as a glorified mid-major to the outside world, which leads to the "no-win" complaints.  These complaints are valid.  Iowa State traditionally stinks at football; Ames truly is one of the worst major-conference programs in the history of the game, as confirmed by publications as disparate as Bleacher Report and Cigar Aficionado.  But Kentucky is one of those programs, as well (and, Spurrier years aside, so is South Carolina).  It didn't stop those in-state series from being played, and it probably shouldn't here.

The bigger issue is Iowa's demand that it have seven home games in every season.  There are reasons why this is a requirement beyond Gary Barta's insatiable hunger for your money.  Football weekends spur the Iowa City-Coralville economy like few other things can, filling hotel rooms and restaurants.  Providing an extra weekend to grab cash keeps the University in the good graces of the greater community.  It also provides a bit more revenue for use by non-revenue programs and the University as a whole.  

I'm not saying that Iowa has to go to six home games a year if it wants to solve the Iowa State problem.  However, the chokehold on the schedule caused by the seven-game requirement AND a home-and-home with Iowa State is unbreakable.  One would have to go in order for Iowa to get some interesting non-conference opposition.  And if it's between canceling Iowa State and giving up a couple million in ticket revenue to go play a serious opponent at a neutral site, the latter is far less politically difficult and far more fun.  Because as much as I hate Cy-Hawk week -- and I hate it more than just about any other week -- it's far closer to Louisville-Kentucky than Colorado-Colorado State.  It deserves to be played every year, on the terms it is played now, and Iowa's options for fixing its larger scheduling problem shouldn't include sacrificing it.


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