If you are a Des Moines resident, or even a central Iowan, you likely remember the hideous Holiday Inn near Grey’s Lake. It was the eyesore of all eyesores -- a stark reminder of the devastating 1993 flood. For years after the flood, the Holiday Inn sat there, a dilapidated relic of a hotel. Whenever I would drive on Fleur, I would shake my head and mutter, “What is taking Des Moines so long to tear down this hollowed out hotel? A hell of an introduction for visitors entering my city.”
You, reasonably so I might add, are likely wondering what a decrepit Holiday Inn has to do with Iowa football. It is a metaphor for Iowa’s losses to inferior and, all too often, woeful Iowa State teams and the indelible stain they leave on Iowa’s national reputation (see 2007 and 2014 -- or, rather, don’t). And like that ramshackle Holiday Inn, located on the only thoroughfare connecting the airport and downtown Des Moines, those Cyclone stumbles tainted outsiders’ perception of Iowa football.
Before launching into my latest Iowa State screed, let me acknowledge that the Cyclones have ascended into respectability under Matt Campbell. Their performance last Saturday night suggested a program on the rise, one that can be more than a Hawkeye foil. But a winning season -- or three -- does not entirely potpourri the century long stench pervading Iowa State football.
A brief, inglorious summary: Iowa State has won two conference championships in the, um, Missouri Valley conference (defeating such stalwarts as Simpson, Grinnell, Morningside, and Coe). The Clones have exactly four bowl wins, with the first coming in 2000. And during its not so illustrious 125-year history, Iowa State has never produced a national college football award winner. Iowa State -- for the better part of a century -- has been a college football HAZMAT zone (with the exception of the tenures of Earle Bruce and, so far, Matt Campbell).
So, sure, Campbell may buck history and sprinkle Synder-esque pixie dust on Ames, transforming ISU into a conference power that challenges the Big 12’s traditional OU/Texas hegemony. And Iowa State, once a national laughingstock, may become synonymous with Big 12 title contention, prestigious bowl berths, and four/five star recruits.
In other news, VEISHEA is returning this year and Fred Hoiberg is high stepping to "Here’s Johnny" on the Hilton sideline.
Color me skeptical, but the far more likely outcome is probably this: Campbell, recognizing ISU’s inherent limitations, jumps ship to [insert name of a more prestigious NCAA program]. And after a brief, Campbell-led tryst with respectability, Iowa State returns to its inevitable 3-9 destiny. Sorry, Clone fans, them's the breaks (we’ll find you another up and coming coach -- how does a Mr. Lane Kiffin sound?)
As a Hawkeye homer, ISU’s relevance (or lack thereof) is more than a water cooler discussion, or a continual source of mockery. As the marquee non conference game on Iowa’s schedule, the Hawkeyes need the Cyclones to be competitive. Or, you know, actually good. Lest we forget, strength of schedule is (allegedly) a critical metric for a team’s playoff aspirations, and even for selection into a prestigious New Year’s Day bowl game. According to this ESPN article, strength of schedule is “one of the tiebreakers the committee must consider when ranking comparable teams...”
And this is when my Cy-Hawk perspective takes a decidedly Hawkeye slant. In a vacuum, I like the Cy-Hawk game. Most years, the game is competitive and the annual battle provides a regional and, at least this year, a national showcase for the state’s football programs. And, thankfully, it appears that the Clones under Campbell are trending up. From Saturday’s performance, the Cyclones, with a pinpoint QB and swarming defense, should be respectable in the Big 12. And as long as Campbell is the Ames headman, the Clones should (emphasis on should) be decent.
But here’s the concern: If you are a Hawkeye fan -- and you realize that strength of schedule is an increasingly important metric (not to mention that you are already competing in the weaker Big Ten West), would the Cyclones be your one and only marquee opponent? Do you really trust the Clones to be anything more than a six or seven win team, if that? And even if the Clones eke out bowl eligibility (Drake's on line one), do you think Iowa State will move the needle when Condi, Alvarez, and the other college football chieftains are comparing Iowa’s resume to another Playoff contender?
Let me answer those questions: No, hell no, and Iowa State’s tortured history speaks for itself.
So if you are the Iowa athletic department, what do you do? My recommendation (and dispensing with those minor trivialities like public pressure, loud-mouthed state house representatives, and Pollard’s bitching): include contract language mandating Iowa State’s competitiveness --if the Cyclones want to continue playing the Hawkeyes on an annual basis. With the importance of strength of schedule, and Barta’s insistence that Iowa tangle with Iowa State, why not mandate -- you know, in one of those big, fancy legal documents -- that Iowa State has to, say, average five wins per season, place 7th (or higher) in the Big 12, and rank in the top 65 in a predetermined national metric? These metrics are meant to ensure basic competency; I am not expecting Iowa State to turn into Bama -- but Iowa State should be more competent than, say, UAB. If Iowa State fails to meet these basic qualifications, Iowa has the option to find another, more marquee opponent, one that provides the necessary scheduling boost. And assuming Campbell continues his string of eight win seasons, this little contractual provision become a laughable footnote in the glorious history of Iowa-Iowa State football antagonism (right next to those “Beat Iowa” jerseys).
Look, I know there is a better chance that Barta pays Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum out of his own bank account than anything like this actually happening. Iowa and Iowa State are wedded to each other in football, at least until Barta and Pollard are parted by death, retirement, or, more likely, Barta’s incompetence. That said, college football is a business -- and you have twelve games (and, really, three games where you aren’t subjected to the whims of Delanybot 9000) to position yourself for the lucrative Playoff and/or New Year’s Day bowls. And if you are Iowa, with designs of national relevance, don’t you owe it to yourself -- not to mention your fans -- to provide the most competitive scheduling template possible? And, truthfully, didn’t Iowa do the same thing when discarding long-standing hoops rivals Drake and Northern Iowa? The basic explanation (behind Barta’s word salad of X number of home games, 22 conference games etc.): Drake and Northern Iowa drag down Iowa’s non-conference schedule, damaging our NCAA tourney hopes. The same principle applies here: When Iowa State is lousy, Iowa’s national reputation suffers. But now in the Playoff era, when strength of schedule matters more than ever, Iowa State --as a potential 3-9 anchor -- handcuffs Iowa’s Playoff/New Year’s Six bowl aspirations.
This is mostly a moot point -- right now. Iowa State is legitimately solid (with the exception of the punt return team...). But when looking at the carcass of Iowa State football history, Iowa State football success is Bitcoin -- or, maybe, even Enron -- levels of volatile. In this vein, do you really trust Iowa State to continue its recent eight-win trajectory and become a consistent Big 12 player? If so, I know this great waterfront hotel right next to Grey’s Lake.