IOWA CITY, Ia. — This journey started with a symbolic statement during the dog days of summer, far from cheering crowds and the pageantry of college football.
Right there, in the middle of the weight room. That’s where Chris Doyle, Iowa’s strength coach, left a smashed a trophy case for his guys to see.
“We came in one day and it was in pieces, and we immediately understood what that signified,” senior center Austin Blythe said Saturday after Iowa clinched a spot in next month’s Big Ten Championship game with a 40-20 victory over Purdue. “And we just went to work.”
Iowa’s underachieving 2014 season included an 0-4 record in trophy games.
“You don’t own trophies,” Doyle said as he walked off the field Saturday. “It was just a message to our guys that we had to earn a trophy. That’s all.”
Doyle’s motivational home run now includes a Grand Slam of riches: A Cy-Hawk Trophy. A Heartland Trophy. Floyd of Rosedale. And a Big Ten West Division trophy.
In the privacy of Iowa’s locker room, championship T-shirts and hats were passed out. The Hawkeyes' 21 seniors, playing their last game at Kinnick Stadium, posed with the newest addition to the trophy case.
“It’s a moment I’ll carry for the rest of my life,” Blythe said.
Iowa wins the West outright.
Iowa has, and always be, a developmental program under Ferentz. This is a program that recruits football players that fit their system, not five-star prospects. That’s why the time spent with Doyle in the state-of-the-art weight room is so important.
“This is a by-product of the guys we have and the way they’ve been working,” senior tight end Henry Krieger Coble said. “It’s just a thrill to be around guys like this.”
Both have touchdown catches against Purdue.
Iowa went undefeated at home for the 12th time in school history and the first time since 2004. Eleven victories ties a single-season record held by the 2002 and 2009 teams. This team could stand alone with a victory at Nebraska on Friday.
That, too, is a trophy game. So is the conference title contest, of course.
Three months ago, Iowa had been 10-11 in home games the previous three years. Coach Kirk Ferentz was catching heat. Season ticket sales took a nose-dive.
And then everything changed.
“I couldn’t see this coming,” Doyle said. “But we knew we had a special group of seniors, a special group of guys.”
Ferentz will take you back to January, when this current group of seniors embarked on their final season.
“They were the seniors that were going to lead this team, and they’ve been committed going back to January,” Ferentz said. “For the most part, every step along the way has been pretty positive. And then we’ve had some younger guys, too, acting like seniors. Guys like C.J. Beathard, guys like Josey Jewell. So there’s really been a great buy-in.”
Iowa finishes 7-0 at home for second time ever
Jewell goes back to that crushed trophy case this summer.
“I walked in that day, and it was kind of crazy,” said Jewell, a sophomore linebacker. “I didn’t think (Doyle) would do anything like that. But it shouted out a message to us, that we needed to understand we didn’t play well last year. We weren’t even close to what would have been. We all took it in a positive way.”
It was senior fullback Adam Cox who looked at the destruction and uttered a motto the team has carried through 11 games so far.
“He said, 'The trophy isn’t going to walk itself over here,’” said another senior, running back Jordan Canzeri. “We had to get it done.”
Saturday, they did. But there was no public display of affection, even though those hearty fans who brushed snow off their Kinnick Stadium seats probably deserved a glimpse at the prize, clinched outright after Wisconsin's loss to Northwestern later in the day.
But there’s another game to play. Friday at a Nebraska team with a bowl berth on the line.
Be proud of what you’ve accomplished, Ferentz told his team afterward. But we’re not done yet.
A shot at regular-season perfection awaits.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Iowa takes down Purdue, 40-20, to clinch the Big Ten West but will face challenges next week against Nebraska.