Brown: Austin Blythe an ideal Ferentz football player
INDIANAPOLIS — He plays center, where it’s easy to be out of the public eye. But Austin Blythe stands tall, the epitome of a Kirk Ferentz-coached Iowa football player.
“What a football player,” Ferentz said.
The senior will make his 44th consecutive start Saturday when the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes play No. 5 Michigan State for the Big Ten championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Blythe is candid, not controversial. He plays the game with a single-minded purpose, to help his team win. Delivering a crisp block means more to him that getting his name in the headlines.
“Everything about him is just stellar,” Ferentz said.
Months ago, Blythe told his family he wanted the 2015 Hawkeyes to be a team that Ferentz talked about to future teams, just like he does now with the 2002, 2004 and 2009 squads.
“I think we’re there,” Blythe said. “But at the same time, I think there’s so much left to accomplish.”
Saturday might be the biggest game in Iowa football history, when you consider that a Big Ten title and a trip to the College Football Playoff are on the line.
So how did an underachieving 2014 season turn into a history-making 2015 season?
“On Saturdays, all you see is the tip of the iceberg,” Blythe, one of the team captains, explained. “But there’s a whole body of the iceberg you don’t see. And that’s all the work you put in in the weight room. Spring ball, fall camp. People don’t see that, and they don’t appreciate that.”
Had Iowa gone 9-3 in 2014, and not 7-6, Blythe acknowledges that this team might not have approached 2015 with the same sense of urgency.
“That’s probably fair,” Blythe said. “We needed that season to reboot the Iowa program and understand this is not what Iowa football is about. It’s not what it has been about since coach Ferentz has been here. We just wanted to raise the bar even higher.”
“To have this opportunity in front of us as seniors is just really special, and really satisfying,” Blythe said. “But it doesn’t really mean anything if we don’t finish.”Mission accomplished. Iowa had its first undefeated regular season since 1922, and has won a record 12 games, with more on the table.
But as Blythe gets older, he’ll always think back fondly to 2015. He married Kylie Ritchie in May. And his team is 12-0.
“I’ve really been blessed with a lot of good things that have gone on in my life in the last year,” Blythe said. “Hopefully, there’s more to come yet in this last month.”
A three-time state wrestling champion at Williamsburg with a 187-11 record, Blythe was also offered a scholarship in that sport by Iowa coach Tom Brands. He gave it serious consideration.
“I love the competition, the one-on-one aspect (of wrestling),” Blythe said. “Just beating the guy across from you. But at the end of the day, the team aspect of football is what drew me to ultimately play football. Every snap is like a wrestling match. You’ve got to be perfect with your technique and fundamentals to win.”
Kylie is a school teacher, and Austin has brought some of his teammates to class on occasion. He’s also gone to other schools.
“It’s really gratifying to do that for kids,” Blythe said. “I was in their shoes once, looking up to players.”
Blythe recalls attending a Kids Day at Kinnick Stadium one August and getting his hat signed by Abdul Hodge and Brian Ferentz. He still has the hat, and Brian Ferentz is his position coach.
“I don’t think he believes it,” Blythe said. “I should bring it in and show him.”
Not many would have believed this 2015 season was possible either, back in January. Back when that iceberg was starting to form in the weight room. Just like a center on the field.
Hard to see, easy to appreciate.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.