Leistikow: The 6-month competition that shapes Iowa football's culture

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Aug. 31 opener against Miami of Ohio remains more than 10 weeks away, but a heated competition has been taking place since January for the 2019 Iowa Hawkeyes.

And now, the annual "Hawkeye Championship" inside the Hansen Football Performance Center is hitting its homestretch.

It’s Hawkeye vs. Hawkeye, with a decidedly intentional team element.

“When we’re competing against each other, it gets pretty intense,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa says, “but it’s a lot of fun.”

The competition formerly known as the Hawkeye Challenge has been an important staple in Iowa’s offseason program since it was instituted following an ugly 2007 season, both on and off the field.

Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle credits 2008 team captains Rob Bruggeman, Mitch King, Matt Kroul and Gavin McGrath for setting a new tone. And now, the Hawkeye Championship is going strong for the 12th consecutive offseason.

Understanding how it works — and, more importantly, why it works — provides a fascinating window into one of the pivotal ways the Hawkeyes develop their all-important team culture from one year to the next.

It all starts with a draft.

Points decide the Hawkeye Championship. The opportunities to earn those points are endless. Athletic performance, of course, is the biggie. During summer strength and conditioning workouts, there are daily competitions pitting individuals and teams.

Eight captains are selected by a team vote. Coaches pair each captain with a lieutenant of their choosing. On a cold January day, the remaining players are placed in the center of a room. 

Then the draft begins.

As each name is called, the number of players in the middle dwindles.

“It’s like a dodgeball match,” says senior linebacker Kristian Welch, a captain whose lieutenant is junior running back Mekhi Sargent. “'I want him. I want him.’”

Welch’s first pick (No. 2 overall) was Devonte Young. The receiver-turned-safety is a senior special-teamer; but taking the star players isn’t necessarily the goal here. The highest picks are often trustworthy guys who will work hard and set an example for younger players, too.

Conversely, it can be a humbling message to be one of the final players standing.

“That’s part of the deal,” Welch says.

After the eight rosters are set, the battle for precious points begins.

"Pretty much everything you do," Welch says, "is charted and calculated."

Academics count, too. But one of the best ways to help your team is by not screwing up.

Former Hawkeye Akrum Wadley once said he lost something like 450 points for throwing a house party early in his career.

The brilliance of the competition’s design is that it fosters accountability among peers. Shortfalls are widely distributed inside the football building; daily standings are posted for everyone to see.

It's one thing to fall short in the eyes of one coach; it's another to let down a dozen or more friends and teammates.

"We’ve got some guys that miss weight or are not doing the right things outside," Epenesa says matter-of-factly. "And they have to live with the fact that they let their team down.”

What does the winning team get?

The prize package varies by year.

There's pride, of course. And usually some extra football gear. But perhaps the most tangible windfall is a wristband that allows each winning team member to cut to the front of the food line during fall camp and the season. That carrot, for 300-pound men eager to replenish their bodies after practice, is quite the golden ticket.

Welch says the food wait can reach 30 minutes. (If you think that's a stretch, think about a buffet line that's 125-deep.)

"Sometimes that line’s long and you’ve got to wait," Epenesa says. “You’re hungry.”

The biggest payoff, though, is designed to be more wins, fewer losses. Iowa's record is 91-52 (a .636 winning percentage) since the start of the 2008 season.

The 2015 Hawkeyes were famously tight-knit in their culture on their way to a 12-0 regular season. (Defensive end Drew Ott was that year’s winning captain.)

“It’s mostly for bragging rights, but it's bigger than that,” quarterback Nate Stanley says. “It kind of fosters a team environment and makes sure we build those close connections that we always talk about."

Last year, Stanley and defensive end Anthony Nelson were the leaders of the winning Hawkeye Championship team. This year, his team (with lieutenant Michael Ojemudia) is mid-pack after digging an early hole.

Stanley, a third-year starting quarterback, says one of his draft approaches was to seek out players who might need more help than others. He says he’s seen tremendous growth, for example, in Matt Hankins. The cornerback from Texas battled through injuries and a disorderly-house citation last season but appears primed for a starring role as a junior.

“You want to foster more leaders on the team,” Stanley says. “(Hankins) has really grown into that position and has done a great job as far as helping out some of the younger guys on the team that he might be able to connect with better than I can.”

This year's title is down to the wire.

As of Tuesday, a team led by offensive lineman Levi Paulsen (called “The Diesels”) was in first place. The team led by Welch, seeking his first Hawkeye Championship, was in second. Epenesa’s team (which is led by Landan Paulsen and Chauncey Golston and also includes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs) was running third.

The winning team will be determined in July, at which point Iowa usually names its leadership group.

There's an individual champion, too. Epenesa says he was in first place recently until "all the Golden Hawks came out of nowhere.” Now he’s back to fifth place.

What's a Golden Hawk, you ask?

That's someone who achieves personal-record benchmarks set by Iowa’s coaches in each of seven disciplines.

"I didn’t PR in everything. So, I’m not a Golden Hawk,” Epenesa says. “I’m just a Hawk. Tristan PR’d in everything.”

Wirfs famously set Iowa’s hang-clean record in March, but he was beaming about his new personal best in the vertical jump: 34.6 inches.

(Not bad for 6-foot-5, 320 pounds.)

“Coach Doyle says it’s harder to do the older you get,” Wirfs says of reaching Golden Hawk status. “I was pretty excited.”

As you can tell by the Hawkeyes' quotes, these guys care about their performances. They care about being better than their teammates. And most of all, they care about making their teammates better.

There’s an obvious positive vibe coming from this 2019 Hawkeye team. Replacing high-character, culture-setting guys such as Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, Jake Gervase and T.J. Hockenson was one of the bigger question marks surrounding this group.

It sure feels like this roster is on the right track.

But there’s more work ahead.

“Not everybody has it figured out, and that’s OK,” Stanley says. “That’s the whole point of the Hawkeye Championship.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, middle, is pictured with offensive lineman Landan Paulsen during the final spring practice. Paulsen's team was running third in Doyle's Hawkeye Championship competition that continues into the summer.