Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz speaks after a 49-24 rout of USC in the Holiday Bowl, after which Iowa honored the late Hayden Fry. Hawk Central
SAN DIEGO — A month that’s included heartache and tears for Iowa athletics finished with a celebration.
One, big rendition of the “Hokey Pokey” fittingly topped it all off.
Offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs was tipped off by the Paulsen brothers that it was happening, as the final seconds ticked away in Iowa’s 49-24 Holiday Bowl rout of USC.
Then when he got to the locker room, Landan and Levi Paulsen got it going.
“You put your right foot in …”
A bunch of sweaty, 300-pound men shouting, singing and spinning around to a childhood song of togetherness that the late Hayden Fry had immortalized during his 20 seasons at Iowa.
Beautiful. Touching. Authentic.
“Everybody just joined in, and Coach (Kirk) Ferentz got emotional,” Wirfs said. “Really special moment.”
The all-black helmets Iowa wore were a reminder of the heartache still being felt in Hawkeye nation, with the recent passing of Fry, the 20-year coach who turned a losing football program into a consistent winner; and Bump Elliott, the longtime Iowa athletics director that hired him.
“When you think about both those men, what they stood for, what they taught was competing at a high level and doing it with great competitiveness but also with integrity,” said Ferentz, finally able to exhale from what’s been a tense season filled with tight football games and now this. “That's one of the reasons I'm so proud to be at Iowa. Hopefully, this is one they both enjoyed tonight.”
The sadness was compounded with the recent, senseless killing in Nashville of the younger brother of former quarterback C.J. Beathard, a program catalyst who many of these Hawkeyes played with in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
But on this night, it was finally time to smile.
Celebrations were everywhere on the grass field at SDCCU Stadium. Players scrambled to take photos with the Holiday Bowl trophy, a reminder that Iowa has won three of these in a row.
They wanted to savor this moment. Especially with each other.
Ferentz made it a point to praise the 19 seniors on this roster. But he also noted that most of these seniors weren’t starters.
They’re guys like Devonte Young, who made a key block on Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 98-yard kickoff-return touchdown that broke a 14-14 tie. They’re guys like Amani Jones, who suffered a knee injury in bowl preparation and couldn’t play in his final game. They’re the guys like the Paulsens, who were both benched this season — Mark Kallenberger got the nod at left guard over Landan on Friday night — but relentlessly demonstrated a positive spirit.
“Nobody was more into the game like Levi and Landan our sidelines,” Ferentz said. “Week in, week out, those guys are selfless. That's how they are.
“It's easier to be a starter. Easier to be the guy out there playing all the time. We have so many guys that contribute on special teams, whatever. They're just good team guys. They do it in the weight room, in meeting rooms, all those kinds of things. That's what it takes to have a good football team.”
And this was a good Iowa football team.
The fifth-year seniors — like the Paulsens or tight end Nate Wieting or cornerback Michael Ojemudia — just finished their careers with 47 wins. That’s the most in any five-year stretch in Iowa football history.
This win was a celebration of Fry, for sure.
What better way to commemorate the coach by showing that little ole Iowa can whip the big boys with some snazzy offense.
Iowa players celebrate with the Holiday Bowl trophy after a 49-24 win against USC. Hawk Central
“Just the legacy that Bump and Coach Fry left, I think it's only right that we honor them, play our best, play our hardest,” quarterback Nate Stanley said. “Kind of try to honor them through the way that we play.”
This was a celebration for Stanley, too.
He played a nearly perfect game. He completed 11 of his first 12 passes, the only incompletion being a drop by Nico Ragaini. Stanley made a series of NFL-like throws — a 24-yarder to Ragaini and 34-yarder to Smith-Marsette come to mind.
And there’s no way to quantify how many times he checked the Hawkeyes into a successful play.
► Holiday Bowl analysis: Hawkeye star A.J. Epenesa makes game-turning play
Nick Niemann, who scored a defensive touchdown to top off the rout, was happy to see how one of his best friends finished. Stanley walks away from his Iowa career with 8,302 passing yards (No. 2 in Iowa history), 68 touchdown passes (No. 2), 27 victories as a starting quarterback (tied for No. 2 with Ricky Stanzi), including a 3-0 bowl record.
It’s about time we all get off his back.
“When you see your close friends do well, the way he played it made me happy,” Niemann said. “… He’s been a leader for this program ever since I’ve gotten here. He went out with a bang."
And, maybe most of all, this was a celebration of a very good football season.
The 2019 Hawkeyes are 10-3, just the ninth 10-win season in school history. Fry didn’t have as many 12-game regular seasons as Ferentz, but even he only got to 10 three times — in 1985, 1987 and 1991.
In the Ferentz era, there’s 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2015 … and now 2019.
Oh yeah, and this group will become the first Ferentz team to go wire-to-wire — from preseason to final poll — as a ranked team in the AP Top 25. Iowa was 19th before this win and has a shot at a national top-15 final ranking.
Worth of sticking that right foot in … and shaking all about.
“This team is probably one of the closest teams that I've been on in my four years here,” Stanley said in his final interview as a Hawkeye player. “… When you can go out and win with your teammates, especially against USC, in a prime-time game in a place like this, it's extremely special.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.