Brown: The cure for Iowa's ills? Just win, baby
CHICAGO – Austin Blythe answered the question without raising his voice or pounding his fist on the table. But his words tell you everything you need to know about the current state of the Iowa football program.
"We didn't come to Iowa to go 7-6 and get our butts kicked in a bowl game," said the senior center and anchor of the Hawkeyes' offensive line.
A 7-6 season, one that ended with a humbling loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, is in the rear-view mirror. And expectations for the season ahead are in the backseat.
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said at Big Ten football media day Thursday that 36,000 general public season tickets have been sold so far. That's compared with 39,793 last season, when expectations were in a more optimistic place. That number has dipped for a fourth straight season.
How do you fix 36,000 and clip the dip? Just win, baby.
You can talk all you want about a new sound system, longer tailgating hours and an improved fan experience. That won't overcome a 19-19 record over the last three seasons, wins in just 10 of the past 21 games at Kinnick Stadium and one home sellout since 2013.
"If we take care of the things we want to, our fans will respond in a really positive way," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "People in Iowa want to support the team. That's been my history, at least, over 25 years."
When Ferentz-coached Hawkeye teams were piling up wins, finishing in the top 10 and winning a couple of Big Ten titles, there were admirable traits. Teams with mental toughness and discipline. The Hawkeyes didn't beat themselves.
And they competed. Even in losses, Iowa left everything on the field. There's been some erosion since then.
Ferentz had no complaints in 2013, when his team bounced back from a 4-8 season to go 8-5. That team played start to finish. Last season? Not so much, especially in a 38-31 loss at Maryland and the 37-34 overtime loss to Nebraska. Games that the mentally tough Ferentz teams of old never would have lost.
"Two years ago, the losses we had, I'm not sure our opponents would have wanted to play us after those losses, whereas last year, a couple of them would have signed up for a doubleheader," Ferentz said. "If you look at it in that regard, that's the part that's hard to take, when you don't do your absolute best on the field and leave something out there. To me, that's the challenge in coaching."
If it sounds like Ferentz is pointing fingers, he is. At himself.
"It starts with coaching," he said.
There's a lot of talk about sprucing up the north end zone of Kinnick Stadium, and building a new dorm for athletes on campus. All that goes before the Board of Regents next week.
Bells and whistles are nice, as the new state-of-the-art football facility can attest. Recruiting has taken a spike because of it.
But getting back to mental toughness and discipline and playing the full 60 minutes on the field will rejuvenate the fan base and get the buzz back. And Ferentz knows it.
"If we don't do a better job of mastering those, it's hard to think we're going to be successful at the level we want to be successful at," Ferentz said.
Senior defensive end Drew Ott promises this team will compete this season, start to finish.
"I'll get on people if they're not competing," Ott said. "So there might be fights in the locker room if that happens."
It's about establishing a culture, Blythe said. A culture that used to exist at Iowa.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.