Hawkeye heaven: Never 'been a better time' for fans
Iowa City, Ia. — There was the Rose Bowl appearance to dissect. Top 10 rankings in football and basketball to savor. A pair of upsets against a basketball blue blood to relive. And a historically one-sided wrestling win to chuckle over.
And that's just in the past few weeks.
For the clientele inside Bill "Red" Larson's downtown Iowa City barbershop, there's been plenty of Hawkeye milestones to discuss over the buzz of hair clippers upstairs on East Washington Street.
Former Hawkeye coaches Ray Nagel, Ralph Miller, Lute Olson and Dan Gable have all sat down in his barber chair over the decades, said Larson, who has been cutting hair since 1964. But there have been few periods in Hawkeye history quite like this one.
"A lot of people have been saying they haven't been to a basketball game in a long time, but now they're going to get tickets," said Larson, the owner of Red's World Barbershop. "There has been a lot excitement, and the whole city has been blossoming from it."
The Hawkeye football team just capped a historic season at the Rose Bowl, Big Ten West title and a No. 9 finish in the AP poll. The men's basketball team stormed to an unbeaten start in Big Ten play and is ranked ninth in the polls, its highest perch in 14 years. The Hawkeye women's basketball team is in hot pursuit of its ninth-straight NCAA Tournament berth. And the UI wrestlers are a perfect 10-0 and national title contenders, and recently set a new school record for most points in a Big Ten dual meet. In November, the wrestling program also set a record for attendance with the "Grapple of the Gridiron" at Kinnick Stadium.
For lifelong Hawkeye supporters like Tom Cilek, 69, an Iowa City banker who has been going to games since he was a kid, so much success in such a short period of time has been a bit hard to process.
"I don't think there's been a better time," said Cilek, who serves on the Johnson County I-Club's board. "But the problem with being an Iowa fan for such a long time is you want them to win, but you're afraid they're not going to. So you hate to be too optimistic."
"Our goal is not to jinx it," Cilek laughed.
According to UI Sports Information, the last time the Hawkeye football and basketball teams spent time in the Top 10 in the same academic year was in 1988-89, when Hayden Fry and Tom Davis' squads were the toasts of the town.
Cilek grew up in the 1950s cheering for the Hawkeyes' "Fabulous Five" team, which went to two Final Fours, and Forest Evashevski's football squads, which won a pair of Rose Bowls. Cilek took his family to see Olson's Hawkeyes' Final Four in 1980, and he cheered on Fry, Gable, Davis and C. Vivian Stringer's teams in the '80s and '90s.
But with college athletics evolving into the big business it is today, and football and basketball often dominated by a handful of juggernaut programs, Cilek said it's even more gratifying to see Kirk Ferentz and Fran McCaffery keep Iowa City on the national college sports map.
"It's more big-time than it used to be," Cilek said. "So in this town of (71,000), how can we compete? It's amazing."
Gary Dolphin, the radio voice of the Hawkeyes for football and men's basketball, said this may be the most enjoyable stretch he's seen in his 19 years of calling games at Kinnick and Carver.
"We've had great football seasons in and of themselves, and terrific basketball seasons," Dolphin said. "But never have we had a school calendar year where we've had this kind of success."
In fact, it's approaching a full year since Hawkeye fans have felt the sting of a regular season loss in Big Ten season play in either football, men's basketball or wrestling. The last setback was when when Iowa fell to Northwestern in men's basketball on Feb. 15, 2015.
University of Iowa Sports Information associate director Matt Weitzel said it's been a whirlwind year for his office, with requests from national media rolling in as the buzz around the Hawkeyes has increased in football and basketball.
While there's been little time to consider where these past few months rank in the annals of Hawk history, Weitzel said the scene outside the Rose Bowl before the Jan. 1 game — some 50,000 Iowa fans are said to have made the trip to Pasadena, California — was a special moment for UI Athletics staff.
"Getting out of the bus and seeing the Iowa fans rallying around the team and cheering as we walked into the stadium was something I'll never forget," Weitzel said.
Nate Kaeding, the former Hawkeye and NFL placekicker turned Iowa City business leader, said the Hawkeyes' success resonates beyond Kinnick and Carver.
"It brings added attention from visitors," said Kaeding, who owns the downtown collegiate clothing shop Tailgate and has a stake in several local restaurants. "We certainly rode the Rose Bowl wave hard and heavy, and there's been a demand like we haven't seen before in Hawkeye apparel and Rose Bowl apparel.
"It's certainly a win-win for everyone and is really exciting for the community."
Kaeding, who is the Iowa City Downtown District's retail development coordinator, said Tailgate sold about 9,000 T-shirts, sweatshirts and other apparel that it created for the Rose Bowl, both in-store and online. He said that enthusiasm has carried over to the winter sports, with the men's basketball team's trajectory mirroring the football team's unexpected rise into the national spotlight.
"The one downside, " joked Kaeding, "is that it's hurting people's pocketbooks who made the big investment to follow the team out to Pasadena, and now they're checking the bank accounts to see if they can follow them in the basketball tournament."
Joe Chmelka, a UI alumnus and president of the Polk County I-Club, said this year's teams have surpassed even the highest of expectations.
"These are the best of times for Hawkeye athletics, and when you're in them, you don't always realize how incredible they are," Chmelka said. "But I think we're all realizing it's an incredibly special time in Iowa athletics right now."
Chmelka's I-Club chapter hosts a spring football banquet each April, and last year the event drew about 600 people who came out to see Ferentz. But Chmelka said given the groundswell of Hawkeye goodwill, he's preparing for more than 1,000 attendees this spring. Likewise, attendance at board meetings and game watches in the Des Moines area has surged, he said.
Pam Finke, director of ticket operations for UI Athletics, said big wins can result in a flurry of ticket sales the following day. For instance, the Hawkeye men's basketball team's two victories in recent weeks over former No. 1 Michigan State no doubt contributed to this past Sunday's sellout against Michigan, and another packed house is expected this Sunday when the Hawkeyes host No. 22 Purdue. Otherwise, Finke said, plenty of tickets are available for the remainder of Iowa's home games.
Meanwhile, when football season ticket renewal forms go out in the coming months, Finke expects to see a healthy increase in demand. Football season ticket sales sagged heading into the 2015 season, with UI selling about 37,900 season tickets to the public, students and faculty — or 16 percent less than the 45,600 sold in 2014. But Finke expects to recapture a number of fans this year following the 12-2 season.
"There are couple of things — the great season we had last year and the great schedule we'll have this year," said Finke of a 2016 home slate that includes home games against in-state rival Iowa State and regional Big Ten draws Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska. "Last season it was just the opposite."
For Brady Bisgard, 21, a UI senior from Marion, the Hawkeyes' success has been night and day from his freshman year in 2012-13, when the Hawkeyes finished 4-8 in football, and fell short of the NCAA Tournament in men's basketball for a seventh-straight season.
Bisgard said while student attendance at UI athletics events, like at a lot of universities nationally, has been on the decline in recent years — sparse student sections are not an uncommon sight at Carver and Kinnick — he's optimistic that with the Hawkeyes winning, that trend will reverse.
"It's nice to hear students talking about sports in a positive light," said Bisgard, who is the current president of the Hawks Nest student group. "Usually they are, but this year it's been extremely positive buzz."
For Hawkeye fans, the good times could even extend beyond the NCAA wrestling and basketball tournaments in March. Coach Rick Heller's Hawkeye baseball team returns three all-Big Ten players and two-thirds of its pitching rotation from last year's team, which was the first at UI in 25 years to make the NCAA Regionals.
That will no doubt give the city residents getting haircuts at Red's World plenty to talk about before next football season.
"I've seen a lot of coaches come and go," Larson said, "but it keeps getting better."