Clearing The Bar

By Patrick Vint on November 24, 2020 at 11:00 pm
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa is about to embark on the eleventh year of Fran McCaffery basketball.  Last year, he passed Lute Olson as the third-longest-serving head coach in program history; only Dr. Tom Davis (13 seasons) and Rollie Williams (14 seasons over two tenures) remain ahead of him, and with a happy athletic director, a long-term contract in place, and his son playing as a redshirt freshman in the program, it looks likely that he'll surpass them both.

You can't take much from the 1986-87 team who started the season No. 10, rose to No. 1, and made it to a regional final in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out to an emergent dynasty out of Vegas.  No shame in that.  But every other time Iowa has been here since that regional final, it's come up short.  There have been pleasant surprises, as well, but none of the quality to win a conference championship or make a deep NCAA Tournament run.  Iowa hasn't been past the Sweet 16 since the 1987 tourney.  It hasn't been to the second weekend since 1998.

Hoops isn't the only program to have suffered from the weight of that obligation in the past.  It's a common thread across 40 years of Iowa athletics.  Take the Dan Gable Era out, where Iowa wrestling was less a national favorite and more of a Death Star, and every team facing the preseason expectations of this year's basketball squad has failed to meet them.  The 1985 football team was preseason No. 1 in some publications and reached No. 1 in the AP poll in October, but could not sustain to get Iowa its first Rose Bowl title in two decades.  The 2005 football team started the season around No. 10, and was out of contention by the end of September.  The 2006 squad didn't have quite those expectations, but also faltered.  The 2010 football team, full of upperclassmen who forewent pro paydays and came back for one more shot at a championship, flamed out once that championship was no longer in its grasp.  And then it happened again in 2016, derailed by the North Dakota State loss.

I turned 40 last month.  I was too young, and living too far away, to truly understand Hayden's 1985 Rose Bowl squad.  My indoctrination as an Iowa fan began when my grandparents would give me candy for naming all the players on the 1986-87 basketball team.  In other words, my first memory of being an Iowa fan is the high point for the entire basketball program in my lifetime. 

I've never witnessed a Big Ten regular season basketball title.  I was a junior at Iowa for the 2001-02 team, when students camped out for tickets for what would be the slumpbuster.  SPOILER ALERT: It was not the slumpbuster.  I was in law school in 2005 and 2006, when the football program failed to meet lofty expectations.  I still had season tickets in 2010.  My life is half-over, with the overwhelming majority of it dedicated to these two programs, and every squad in the situation the 2020-21 Hawkeye basketball team finds itself, has disappointed.

Of course, there's the pure euphoria of a Cinderella run, of the 2002 football season, or the 2005-06 basketball campaign, or the 2015 undefeated football streak, or 2009, or 1997-98.  Those are jubilation.  Those are pure madness.  Those are modest expectations exploded with 500 tons of TNT.  But that has been the life of an Iowa football and basketball fan over the last 35 years: Either thrilling, brilliant glee or crushing anticlimax, broken up only by the indifferent ennui of modest expectations met. 

What's missing has been satisfaction, the feeling of setting a high bar and watching as your heroes clear it.  Iowa has never been Alabama football or Duke basketball, where the wins are less joy and more contentment, where championships are simply expected and the disappointment of the failure is not counteracted by the joy of the surprise.  I'm not sure I'd ever want to be one of those fans permanently, to give up the occasional euphoria for the consistent contentment.  But for once -- just once -- I'd like to see what it feels like.

This team, this program, this coach, who many (including me) were willing to write off a year ago after a bad loss to DePaul, stands poised to provide Iowa fans with something not felt in 35 years.  The weight of those expectations has crushed similarly-situated teams across two generations.  It's time to see if Garza, and Wieskamp, and Bohannon, and a dozen others at their sides have the shoulders broad enough to keep up those expectations, the legs strong enough to clear an absurdly high bar.  And I can't wait to watch them try.

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