How has Iowa become college football's most polarizing team?
College football’s most polarizing team had just put the finishing touches on another victory last Friday when Fox Sports analyst Clay Travis took to Twitter to pose a question that still baffles him.
“If a team like Iowa made a run to the Final Four in NCAA tourney everyone would love them,” Travis tweeted. “Do it in (college football) and it’s mostly hate. Why?”
The query elicited a flood of responses — nearly 200 in five minutes — mostly from fans of other factions who poke Iowa’s schedule and style of play and dig up recruiting rankings and results from past seasons.
Somehow, the Hawkeyes — a team devoid of divas, arrest records and NCAA run-ins, an overachieving bunch of guys once considered too small, too slow or not skilled enough to play for blue-blood programs — have overcome long odds to wedge their way into the national championship chase.
A remarkable story? For certain. One that the rest of the nation is ready to embrace? Certainly not.
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“There’s a lot of resentment,” Travis said. “They’re the quintessential Cinderella if this were in the context of an NCAA tournament season. It’s wild to me that people won’t buy into that concept in football. I think it’s just laziness, and I think it’s also just the perspective in which you look at it. I think Iowa is a great story.”
Others, however, are waiting for the clock to strike midnight on Iowa’s time at the ball.
An Alabama fan took a playful swipe at the Hawkeyes in a mock public service announcement about how to "talk to your kids about an undefeated Iowa." The viral video that went online in October has generated more than 465,000 views on YouTube.
ESPN's Paul Finebaum, who often champions the Southeastern Conference, said Tuesday on the "College Football Live" program that “Iowa has no chance” to beat Michigan State in Saturday night’s Big Ten title game. Never mind, by the way, that the Hawkeyes are coming off a victory against the Nebraska team that handed the Spartans their only loss. Also, oddsmakers have Iowa as only a 3.5-point underdog as of Thursday.
Finebaum, though, has been polite with his Iowa opinions in comparison with radio personality Colin Cowherd.
Cowherd, host of “The Herd” on Fox Sports Radio and TV network Fox Sports 1, has called Iowa “a fraud,” basing his argument on the program’s shortage of blue-chip recruits and a non-conference slate that he said includes “Lamar, North Texas State and Panera Bread.”
“Iowa’s a poser,” he said on the air three weeks ago. “They walk into the club, they’re a $30,000-a-year millionaire. Look at my Corvette. It’s leased. Look at my jewelry. It’s fake. Look at my jeans. They’re my brother’s. They’re the ultimate poser in a nightclub. Look at me, look at me. You make 32 grand a year, cowboy, sit down.
“You’re a poser. Michigan’s not. Michigan State’s not. Ohio State’s not. Iowa’s a poser. Give your brother his jeans back.”
Some of that is Cowherd being Cowherd, a talented, witty radio host who knows how to stir up discussion and sometimes, as WHO-TV’s John Sears puts it, “doesn’t use facts because they get in the way of him making a funny point.”
But it also gets to the heart of the Hawkeye hate: Iowa isn’t one of college football’s name brands.
“If you flipped the resumes and put Ohio State’s name on Iowa’s resume, you’d probably have people slobbering all over the Buckeyes saying how good they are,” Sears said. “It’s because they’re Ohio State. But you put the Iowa name on (the 12-0 record) and it doesn’t have that brand appeal.”
America typically latches on to the underdog narrative. By and large, sports fans would rather see upstarts such as the small-market Kansas City Royals getting fitted for World Series rings rather than the big-budget Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees. As Travis mentioned, the little guy becomes the big fan favorite during March Madness.
College football fans, on the other hand, love their blue-bloods. Remember five years ago, when Boise State threatened to elbow its way into the BCS title game before a late-November overtime loss at Nevada?
“There was so much backlash against them that you’d think Boise State had threatened their families or something,” Fox Sports college football writer Stewart Mandel said. “In basketball, there’s 68 spots (in the NCAA Tournament) and if somebody gets in and goes on a run, there’s a feeling that they deserve that. In football, there’s only four (playoff spots) now, and they’re so coveted. People want to make absolutely sure — and you’ll never be certain of this — that the four teams are the most deserving.
“So whenever there’s a team they feel is unintentionally gaming the system or getting an easier break than everybody else, then everybody gets all up in arms about that. I also think in Iowa’s case, they’re seen as a bland team and they don’t have star power.”
Asked this week if he senses a growing respect for his team, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said: "I don't listen too much to what's going on outside, but from what I can tell there's still not a lot of it there. That's fine. All we're trying to do is play and win every game in front of us.
"(One week) we were (ranked) ninth and described as mundane. The next, we jumped up four or five spots and we were described as consistent. We'll take that as a compliment. Bottom line is, we haven't worried too much about how people perceive us. We've just been trying to win the games in front of us."
Inside the Hawkeye locker room, the anti-Iowa chatter has been met with amusement and a sense of satisfaction for fueling it with one victory after another.
“It’s to the point where you almost enjoy reading it, because you get to be the party-crasher in a way,” linebacker Cole Fisher said. “It’s amusing to listen to and read some of the things people say.”
Fisher added: “We’re not your typical team that’s in these situations year-in and year-out, and maybe people are seeing this as just a fluke year. You’d think a lot of people would see us as the underdog, the hard-working team that’s having some success and might like that. But it seems like it hasn’t gone that way this year.”
It’s not Iowa against the entire nation.
“There are some people I work with who like the story, and they’re behind Iowa,” said ESPN’s Chris Hassel, a Muscatine native who has gone to bat for his home-state Hawkeyes on air and via social media throughout the season. “Guys like Danny Kanell and Joey Galloway, they’ve watched the games and they think Iowa is a legit team.”
They might be in the minority, though. Hassel said it’s going to take a playoff win over a team such as Clemson, Alabama or Oklahoma for Iowa to win over its skeptics.
“If Iowa loses this week or in the first week of the playoff,” he said, “I think all these haters will still feel validated that Iowa does not belong, as long as they don’t make the championship game.”