Sam Mack was my first defining memory of Iowa State University (I am not saying this to troll Iowa State; this is when my eight year old self was first introduced to the wonders of college sports). And while Sam Mack (and Levin White) were robbing Burger King, Iowa State’s performance on the football field was arguably just as criminal.
Iowa State, for the better part of my childhood, was the opening of a college football monologue. There was Jim Walden’s short-lived attempt to recreate the triple option; there was Bret Bielema trash talking the Iowa State headman; there was Iowa State losing to an FCS school waaayyy before it became semi-acceptable to lose to a North Dakota State or Appalachian State.
Iowa, of course, played name the score against the ‘Clones. It was an unlimited buffet of beatdowns: 57-3, 43-7, 48-9, 37-9, 38-13, 63-20. And during these formative years (when I first became a Kinnick kid), I didn’t view Iowa State as “little brother.” Rather, I viewed Iowa State as a street orphan destined for a lifetime of black and gold brutality. Iowa State was the Mighty Ducks--without the feel-good ending.
As a self-entitled Iowa fan weaned on Holiday Bowls (with the occasional Rose Bowl trip for good measure), I wondered what could prompt someone to become an Iowa State fan. It was like rooting for the Washington Generals--only with a really hideous color scheme. I always admired Iowa State fans’ loyalty--in the same way that you admire an overweight kid insisting he can run a four-minute mile.
Iowa State, of course, enjoyed some upward mobility during the Mac years. The ‘Clones graduated into the Big 12’s middle class and semi-flirted with national respectability. There was a bowl victory against Pitt and the near takedown of Florida State in Kansas City. But as a Des Moines kid--one who spent the better part of his formative years smirking at Iowa State’s football irrelevance, it was hard to take Iowa State football seriously (c’mon now, the Clones weren’t really going to take down the all powerful ‘Noles). And, to some extent, it still is.
Look, Iowa State is getting GameDay this weekend. Matt Campbell has steadied the program after Paul Rhoads’s steady descent into oblivion. Ames is going to be crazy--or at least as crazy as Iowa City on a Tuesday night.
Here’s the thing though: Gameday has been to James Madison, Western Michigan, and Army before finally making it to Ames. It has been to Oregon State. It even found its way to a KU game. Not trying to unplug "Sweet Caroline" for the ‘Clone fans out there but Iowa State is one of 11 P5 schools without a GameDay visit. Among the not-so Power Five: Rutgers (judging by last week’s ineptitude, it could be a while, fellas), Minnesota, and Illinois.
Yes, Iowa State escapes this inglorious list--and finally gets to host college football’s biggest tailgate. But it took over 25 years for the sad sack Clones to nab a GameDay invite--and, truthfully, the ranked Hawkeyes are the bigger feature on the weekend marquee.
Iowa State fans will counter that Matt Campbell has the program on the up and up. And Campbell, so far, has buoyed Clone spirits with stunning victories over ranked OU and TCU teams (we will conveniently ignore the CIML scrimmage against Drake). Regardless, Campbell has Iowa State flirting with McCarney-level respectability, hovering right outside the national rankings. And, look, Campbell deserves tons of credit for positioning Iowa State for a mid-level bowl game. Iowa State has some legitimacy now; Campbell has moved the Clones past the days of Gene Chizik commemorative coins, taunting Jamie Pollard billboards, and (we hope) scheduling the Drakes.
But even with these recent Clone strides, it is still hard for me--as a Hawkeye homer--to take ISU completely seriously. I can’t help it; it is two Cyclones players charged with burglarizing their own assistant coach’s home, it is Walden referring to Iowa State as a “coaching graveyard,” it is the 1999 jerseys that look like a Marshalls knockoff. So pardon me if I can’t fully embrace “hate week” against our nominal rivals. I am still chuckling--with a mixture of smirking incredulity and dismay--at Iowa State’s tortured past.