University of Iowa football fans turned out for Rose Bowl festivities.
LOS ANGELES — The sterling silver Rose Bowl trophy rested Wednesday morning on a table just a few feet from the podium where Kirk Ferentz stood inside The L.A. Hotel Downtown.
Figuratively, the 60-year-old Iowa coach has never been closer to putting his prints on the shining 21-inch-tall prize that towers above most other college football tokens in terms of tradition and prestige — a prize that’s eluded the Hawkeyes for nearly six decades.
Iowa had three cracks at claiming the Leishman Trophy under Hayden Fry, but those opportunities washed away long before the postgame awards ceremony.
Washington blanked the Hawkeyes in 1982. UCLA buried Iowa under an avalanche of turnovers in 1986. Washington smothered the Hawkeyes again in 1991. Those losses denied Iowa the chance to find out what a Rose Bowl win would’ve done for Fry’s program.
For Ferentz, Friday’s clash with Stanford presents an opportunity to take an already-historic season to greater heights.
“A win would set us apart from any Iowa team that’s ever been and really raise the bar for the Iowa standard,” senior center Austin Blythe said. “And we’re really looking forward to having this opportunity.”
Times have changed in college football since Iowa’s last trip to Pasadena, Calif. The Rose Bowl is no longer exclusive to champions from the Big Ten and Pac-12, and invitation tiebreakers are no longer determined by which team has been on the waiting list the longest.
That’s how Iowa got here in 1982 after tying Ohio State for the Big Ten title. Fry’s upstart program, though, proved to be no match for Washington, which shut out the Hawkeyes 28-0.
Four years later, Iowa returned with a high-powered offense that unraveled after three first-quarter turnovers and lost 45-28 to the Bruins. Ferentz was an up-and-coming assistant coach then, and he watched from afar in 1991 when the Hawkeyes fell behind by 26 points in the first half against Washington before scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 46-34 loss.
Ferentz quipped Wednesday that his most recent Rose Bowl trip “seems like 50 years ago.” But memories from games of this ilk stay fresh longer than others and have an ability to help programs make a next-level climb.
Oregon followed up its 2010 appearance — the first for the school in 15 years — by reaching the national title game the following year and returning to Pasadena the year after that, where the Ducks seized their first Rose Bowl win since 1917.
Wisconsin went 31 years without a trip to Pasadena before topping UCLA in 1994. It was the start of a stretch in which the Badgers won three Rose Bowls in seven years.
The Bowl Championship Series brought in a new set of postseason rules, which enabled the Orange Bowl to scoop up Iowa before the Rose Bowl had a chance at the Hawkeyes for its 2003 game. It also allowed Big12 programs such as Oklahoma, Texas and TCU to make appearances before Ferentz could bring one of his teams.
“It’s really hard to get here,” Ferentz said. “And then to experience playing in the game, it’s going to be neat for our players.”
The Hawkeyes and Cardinal will have college football’s stage to themselves as the only game taking place during the New Year’s Day afternoon time slot.
“There’s no other setting like it, in my opinion,” said Chuck Long, who quarterbacked Iowa’s 1986 Rose Bowl team. “It validates where you are as a program. You know if you’re in this game, you can compete with anybody nationally. That’s what this game does. It puts and keeps Iowa on the map.
“This is a worldwide game next to the Super Bowl.”
In that sense, it’s a three-hour global showcase for Hawkeye football, a profile-raising game for a program that just moved into a sparkling $55 million training facility and another card for Iowa coaches to play when they hit the recruiting trail.
“The season has already been magical, but (a win) would (take) it to a historic plateau,” said Anthony Herron, who played on Ferentz’s first team at Iowa and now works for the Pac-12 Network. “This, I believe, would validate the entire season in a different way for folks who haven’t been watching Hawkeye football as closely throughout the 2015 season.”
The short-term benefits are palpable, as well, particularly to punctuate the season for a team that started with 12 straight victories before losing the Big Ten championship game in the final minute against Michigan State.
“It’s important for us to play well and win the game,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “The Rose Bowl is a big bowl game. Historically, it’s the biggest. I understand we live in a new world. But it’s still a big bowl game and to win the Rose Bowl would be a big deal for … all the things that are important to us — the state of Iowa, Hawkeye fans, and Iowa football.
“This would be a big moment, and hopefully it would propel us with some momentum into next year. But it would guarantee nothing.”
A Rose Bowl win would guarantee one thing, however: It gives the Hawkeyes a chance to put their prints on that sterling silver trophy for the first time since 1959.