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Peterson: Unique perspectives of Big Ten's non-conference football decision that engulfs Cy-Hawk

Randy Peterson
Des Moines Register

First went the Iowa State Fair. Thursday, coronavirus claimed another of our State of Iowa staples:

The 2020 Cy-Hawk football game.

“Talk about a one-two punch to the gut,” said Dan McCarney, who has one of the most unique perspectives of the rivalry game that’s been played annually since 1977. “Those are fabrics of the State of Iowa. Even non-football fans look toward that special Saturday every season, that special fall tradition of the Iowa-Iowa State football game. It’ll be a real void, not having it this year.”

McCarney, who coached 25 of those games either as the Cyclones’ head coach or a Hawkeye assistant, was one of three insiders weighing in on Friday, a day after the Big Ten Conference proclaimed that its 14 teams would play conference games only. See ya, for now, anyway, Cy vs. Hawk.

“It is certainly a sad time for our country and for college athletics,” said Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who also has a one-of-a-kind tie to what was announced Thursday.

From the coach to the commissioner and finally, to the longtime radio broadcaster, losing Cyclones vs. Hawkeyes for this fall means something different.

To Bob Bowlsby ...

Already, the Ivy League said no fall sports will be played. Voluntary football workouts have shut down temporarily at a number of schools, due to outbreaks of COVID-19, and then came Thursday’s announcement:

 No Big Ten non-conference games this fall. No Sept. 12 Cy-Hawk in Iowa City. No Sept. 5 Northern Iowa at Iowa.

“These games are highly anticipated and substantial economic drivers for the schools and the communities,” Bowlsby wrote in an email to The Register. “The games never disappoint; they are typically closer than anticipated, and lots of fun under any circumstances.”

Bob Bowlsby, left, outgoing University of Iowa athletic director, congratulates his replacement and longtime friend, Gary Barta, after a news conference Friday, June 23, 2006, in Iowa City, Iowa, where Barta was named Bowlsby's replacement.

Bowlsby knows more about our in-state rivalries than most. He’s a former Northern Iowa athletics director. He’s a former athletics director at Iowa. From financial to fun-loving, he understands the ramifications the Big Ten’s decision has on our state.

Northern Iowa, for example, stood to make $650,000 to play at Iowa. That’s big bucks for any athletics department, especially an FCS department that relies on big non-conference game revenues to help pay the bills. Already some financially-strapped schools have cut sports. More could follow, as everyone is bracing for a financial hit.

The Cy-Hawk game, which rotates annually between Ames and Iowa City, brings millions of dollars into communities. Hotels from miles around the stadiums are filled. As many fans party in parking lots, as ticket-owning people actually watch from inside. Independent street-side vendors will suffer financially. Restaurants will be empty. Bars, too. Radio advertisers. Television advertisers. Everyone suffers.

“Having been involved in many of the (Cy-Hawk and UNI-Iowa) games, I feel bad for the players and coaches who will not have the fun of the competition,” Bowlsby said. “I feel bad for all of the fans, both in-stadium and those consuming by radio or television."

**

To Dan McCarney ...

“I feel absolutely horrible for the seniors,” McCarney, an Iowa City native and former Hawkeye player, said. “Memories of careers are easy to forget after time, but I guarantee you that every senior knows what happened the last time he played in the Cy-Hawk game. I feel like I missed a lot never having played in the game. A lot.”

McCarney’s unique view of this game was from the sidelines – as an Iowa assistant coach between 1977-1989, and as Iowa State’s head coach while leading the Cyclones to five bowl games between 1995 and 2005. His playing days included the rivalry’s interruption. His head coaching days included leading the Cyclones to one of the biggest upsets in school history.

Iowa State lost 15 games against Iowa in a row when McCarney took his four-touchdown underdog squad to Iowa City in 1998. He’d not beaten the school for whom he played and coached. Hayden Fry, on the other sidelines, hadn’t lost against the Cyclones anywhere since 1982.

That 27-9 Iowa State win was something for the ages, indeed.

“I’ll never forget the look on the seniors’ faces,” McCarney said. “They’d finally beaten Iowa.”

And to you who say Iowa didn’t take the game as seriously as Iowa State? Bunk.

“Hayden, God bless him, was all about the Iowa-Iowa State game,” McCarney recalled. “In staff meetings during that week, he’s always say something about players not looking focused in practice, the position coaches not coaching them well enough, and motivational things like that. He’d never mention names. We nudged each other under the table, wondering which coach he was talking about? Was it me, was it Kirk (Ferentz), (Bill) Snyder, Barry (Alvarez), Donnie Patterson? We never knew which one he was actually talking about, which made us make sure we worked harder the next day.”

**

To Gary Dolphin ...

So Dolph, what do you now have planned for Sept. 12?

“Wanna play golf?” he asked Friday. “I’m in my 49th year of broadcasting, and I’ve never had a stretch of three weeks in a row off during a football season.”

None of us who for decades have set our fall schedules around college football in the fall have.

“There’s just so many unknowns,” said Dolphin, who just happened to be golfing in Iowa City during our conversation. “Look at the lost revenue, not only from the schools’ standpoint, but also the hotels and restaurants and the advertising. Devastating.”

**

And finally ...

Our college football fall wasn’t going to feel the same, anyway, but no Cy-Hawk?

It was a prudent decision. It was expected that some conferences would skip the non-conference portions of schedules. Other conferences may even follow, including the Big 12.

That doesn’t lessen the blow for Iowans who have planned weddings and funerals around the Iowa State-Iowa football games.

As Dolphin said:

“It’s a punch to the belly-button.”

Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson has been writing for the Des Moines Register for parts of six decades. Reach him at rpeterson@dmreg.com, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete. No one covers the Cyclones like the Register. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.