Iowa football: Comparing Ferentz's 2002 Hawkeyes to Fry's in 1985

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Often in sports, it takes the passage of time to fully appreciate greatness.

In today’s world of hot takes and instant reactions, it’s easy to rush to judgment and say the latest is the greatest, or some such.

A substantial reminder was issued toward the state of Iowa on Monday by the College Football Hall of Fame: Those 2002 Hawkeyes? They were a special group — certainly considered the best of the Kirk Ferentz era and in the conversation with 1985 as the best Hawkeye team of the last 50 years.

Dallas Clark catches the go-ahead touchdown pass against Purdue in 2002 with 67 seconds left, a fourth-down catch that propelled Iowa to a 31-28 win. Earlier in that game, Clark raced for a 95-yard TD catch up the left sideline.

Two instrumental players from that 2002 squad, which was a national story for months and wound up 11-2 after an Orange Bowl loss to Southern California, were included on this year’s hall of fame ballot: the towering left tackle and eventual Outland Trophy winner Robert Gallery; and the play-making tight end who won that year’s John Mackey Award, Dallas Clark.

(Not mentioned: that year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up, Brad Banks.)

That 2002 squad was so good it barely needed coaching. Really.

That was something that Kirk Ferentz, who was in his fourth year as Iowa’s head coach, noted last week in our wide-ranging conversation as he prepared for year 20 at the Hawkeye helm.

As Iowa prepared for its regular-season finale at Minnesota, looking to complete an unbeaten Big Ten Conference campaign, the players were in a zone.

“I’m not sure the coaches needed to be involved with the team that week,” Ferentz said. “They were on their own program, and they were ready to win.”

He was right — the Hawkeyes rolled, 45-21, to complete an 11-1 regular season.

That Iowa team had 11 players named first-team all-Big Ten Conference: Banks, Clark, Gallery, Nate Kaeding, Fred Russell, Bob Sanders and Eric Steinbach among them.

Former Hawkeye offensive lineman Robert Gallery is shown prior to the 2012 game vs. Penn State, when he was honorary captain.

Clark and Gallery were part of the by-far highest-scoring offense of the Ferentz era: 37.2 points per game. Second place in Ferentz’s 19 years? The 2001 team, also with Clark and Gallery, at 32.6.

What about the 1985-2002 comparisons? Why not? It’s June, after all.

It's a fairly even battle.

Both teams were loaded with star power and stormed into national headlines.

Both teams had a Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback.

Both teams had a defining win against Michigan — the legendary 12-10 No. 1-vs.-No. 2 game in 1985, then the resounding 34-9 statement rout in the Big House in 2002.

Both teams were tagged with a regrettable regular-season loss: Chuck Long’s four-interception game at Ohio State ending a 7-0 season start in 1985, and the Hawkeyes letting a 24-7 halftime lead slip away in a home loss to Iowa State in week three of the 2002 season.

Both teams lost high-profile bowl games to a southern California opponent in blowout fashion — the 1986 Rose Bowl to UCLA, 45-28; and the 2003 Orange Bowl to USC, 38-17.

The 1985 team finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll, at 10-2; the 2002 team was No. 8, at 11-2.

The 1985 team averaged 36.7 points and 458.9 yards a game, compared with 2002’s 37.2 and 424.5.

The 1985 team, though, clearly had the stingier defense — allowing 13.9 points and 296.8 yards a game vs. 2002’s 19.7 and 355.3. (And, the '85 Hawkeyes had to face Ohio State; the '02 Hawkeyes did not.)

To me, that probably breaks the tie — 1985 remains the program standard-bearer (by a nose) in the Fry/Ferentz era.

Oh, and the most recent Hawkeyes to be inducted into college football’s Hall of Fame?

Three of them happen to be three catalysts of the legendary 1985 team: the quarterback (Long, inducted in 1999), the coach (Hayden Fry, in 2003) and the middle linebacker (Larry Station, in 2009).

Clark and Gallery (both first-round NFL Draft picks) now have the best shot of being next, and making that 2002 team even more iconic.

Being nominated for the Hall of Fame and making it are two different animals. Seventy-six Football Bowl Subdivision players were nominated Monday; 10 will get picked.

Among well-known names around here on this year’s ballot (winners will be announced Jan. 7, 2019): Ohio State running back Keith Byars, Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, SMU running back Eric Dickerson, Cal tight end Tony Gonzalez, Michigan offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson, Notre Dame receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Miami (Florida) linebacker Ray Lewis, USC quarterback Carson Palmer (who beat Iowa in that 2003 Orange Bowl), Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle-El and Texas quarterback Vince Young.

Just .02 percent of college players make the Hall of Fame. It’s an exclusive club.

But Monday was an offseason reminder of just how good the 2002 Hawkeyes were. Even though Fry's in 1985 were probably a little bit better.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with the Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Others on Monday’s Hall of Fame ballot with Iowa ties

These players are on the lower-division ballot:

Carl Boyd, Northern Iowa: A versatile running back who still ranks third on UNI’s all-time list in all-purpose yards (2,037) for the 1987 season.

Clyde “Buck” Starbeck, Northern Iowa: Starbeck coached the team from 1936 to 1942 and again from 1945 to 1957, when it was known as Iowa State Teachers College; he compiled a record of 95-58-10 in those seasons.

Mike Wiggins, Iowa Wesleyan: A three-time all-American punter who led NAIA Division II with a 44.01-yard average in 1986.

Larry Korver, Northwestern College: Korver coached the team from 1967 to 1994, leading the Red Raiders to two national championships and 14 playoff appearances.