I think now I understand.
Why does Cyclone Nation need further convincing? Why are so many Cyclone fans like Natalie Wood's character in the classic film Miracle on 34th Street, still not believing in Santa Claus despite the fact she's having dinner with him that night? Why do they have to be practically begged to sell 20,000 season tickets in football, or sellout a game at Jack Trice Stadium against an opponent other than Nebraska or Iowa?
For over five years now I have searched for the answer to those questions. Three seasons ago, when we started this website and magazine, I came up close with this phenomena and heard first hand from those at the Jacobson Building frustrated by it. How is that a winning football program with at least 60,000 alumni – not to mention their families, friends, and fellow fans – within driving distance can't draw standing-room-only crowds each week in a 45,000-seat stadium?
I think now I understand.
Having sat through that 209-minute championship tease that Iowa State called a football game on Saturday, I can now honestly say I feel your pain. As a lifelong Michigan fan I didn't think I could experience a feeling of emptiness like losing Bo Schembechler's last game on a terrible officiating call in the 1990 Rose Bowl, Chris Webber's infamous timeout in the 1993 Final Four, or the gut-wrenching Hail Mary pass Kordell Stewart threw to Brian Westbrook in 1994.
But this hurt more.
I didn't go to school at Iowa State, nor am I intimately related to anyone else who did. My entire genealogy consists of Hawkeyes and Wolverines. I wasn't converted to the cardinal-and-gold via Johnny Orr as a child. Heck, I'm not even what most of you would consider to be an ISU fan.
Nevertheless, I can't ever recall leaving a sporting event with the nagging sense of longing I left Ames with following Missouri's beyond-description 17-14 overtime win. When A.J. Kincade intercepted Bret Meyer in the endzone to clinch it, it took me several moments to take a breath, let alone get up out of my seat. I sat motionless in the press box long after all of my media contemporaries departed for the post-game presser. I was in shock and awe.
The only thing I remember until making it to my car was Steve Waters, former publisher of Cyclone Illustrated, putting his arm around me and saying something to console me. I never picked up on what he said.
I was simply as devastated as any of you fans could possibly be. The level of my anguish surprised even me. At our homestead, we're all Maize-and-Blue, all the time. That hasn't changed, and never will. Most of my friends thought I would go Clone once I started Cyclone Nation, and now say they are impressed that it hasn't happened to the degree they previously thought. In all candor, that's probably hurt our sales to some extent.
Yet this was different, and I think it's because it was personal.
I don't have a personal relationship with anybody in Ann Arbor. I don't do a radio show in Michigan. My church, family, friends are all here, as is my means of commerce. In short, I've become what I thought I never would when I moved here in 1995—a real, honest-to-goodness Iowan.
I felt so much empathy for Dan McCarney, Chris Ash, Tony Alford, Terry Allen, Barney Cotton, John Skladany, Mike Grant, DeMontie Cross, Jack Whitver, Jordan Carstens, Bob Montgomery, Ben Bruns, Eric Heft, John Walters, Tom Kroeschell, Mike Green, Betty (the lady who answers the phone at Mac's office whose last name I don't know), Bruce Van De Velde, Wayne Morgan, Bill Fennelly, and anybody else involved with the athletic department I know.
I felt so much empathy for good friends of mine like Dave Sanderson, Chad Winterboer, Kurt Cole, and Brian Patterson. Lifelong Cyclone fans who had waited through years of 50-point blowouts for a moment like this. I felt so much empathy for boosters like Mike Lacey, Tom Broderick, and Mark Hill, who believe so much in this program that they devote their time and resources to support it.
I felt so much empathy for so many of you I have conversed with via message board, open phone time on the radio, or face-to-face at Greater Des Moines Cyclone Club events.
I would imagine most of those folks are just now getting over this loss. Even my good buddy who came to the game with me, who is a die-hard Hawkeye, was crushed following the defeat.
How did this happen? How did a money kicker blow a field goal from the six-yard line with a minute left? Were the laces out? How did they not score in overtime with a first-and-goal from the three-yard line?
I wish I knew. I wish I could tell you that it was because I sensed a lack of fire on the Iowa State sideline from the start, which I did. Not that ISU wasn't intense, but it almost seemed as if it were trying not to get too high for the game instead of playing loosely. That's not uncommon for a young team, which is used to being the underdog, trying to take the next step
I wish I could tell you it was because they couldn't run the football, but they've won several games this season they struggled to run the football in. I wish I could blame it on conservative play calling, but just about every coach in America would've played it safe on the final drive of regulation just like the Cyclones did. Even Ed Cunningham said so on ABC. You run down the clock, make the other team use their timeouts, and then bury the chip shot to win the game. ISU did everything right, until the ball left Bret Culbertson's foot. The play that blew up the drive in overtime was the option, which ISU had blown up Missouri's defense with more than once that afternoon, so you can't blame ISU for calling it again.
I wish I could tell you it was because the fans didn't do their job. However, considering how cold and wet the conditions were, and the fact the students were away, I actually think 40,000 is a pretty good crowd.
Yet none of these things are why ISU lost on history's doorstep—again. And that's why I am beginning to understand. Steve Paris' thrilling fumble recovery, James Wright's big catch over the middle, and the defense holding the Tigers to just a field goal in overtime; all of these big plays down the stretch ultimately produced nothing. It was almost as if the cruel hand of fate swooped down on the Skunk River and said here, but no further.
The Big 12 Championship game? Come on, Iowa State doesn't get that far. Beating Florida State on national television? Come on, Iowa State doesn't get to do that, so Seneca Wallace is tackled – perhaps – at the goal-line. Beating tradition-rich Alabama in a bowl game? Nah, Iowa State can't do that so how about four missed field goals to rip your heart out? The Final Four? Nope, instead you can play Michigan State essentially on the road and get introduced to a new call known as the blarge just when momentum is going your way.
For every Insight.com Bowl there is a Hampton. For every exhilarating win over Iowa there is a blowout loss to Oklahoma. Beat Marquette, which was in the Final Four the previous year, and then lose to the State University of New Jersey in front of the nation at Madison Square Garden. Tim Floyd defied Cyclone karma for a while by winning the last Big 8 Tournament title in 1996, until he was rewarded with the worst winning percentage by a head coach in NBA history.
Every time the Cyclones are poised to reach the pinnacle they get punished, and usually in a cruel and unusual fashion.
It was almost eerie when I got home and watched the television replay because ABC used the occasion to discuss all the times since 1912 Iowa State fell short just when it was about to win a conference crown in football. Were they prescient? How could they know all of those montages were building towards another chilling chapter in that dubious history?
They knew because they were at Iowa State. It always happens to Iowa State.
And that's what makes those damned Cyclones so endearing to so many of you, while turning so many cynical others away in exasperation. It's why 35,000 of you will spends lots of money to go to Phoenix for a bowl game, but then the athletic department has to worry about televising the season-opener against Northern Iowa for fear of negatively impacting their gate.
Rooting for Iowa State is like waiting on the Lord. It's a study in patience and requires enduring faith. To do both asks the believer to trust in the things not yet seen, but you just know the payoff will be magnificent. You only hope you're still right side up when it finally does happen.
The McCarney Way
Your team just blew a once in a lifetime opportunity in its own stadium on network television. The raw emotion of the moment is still prevalent. You're standing in the locker room talking to the Cyclone Radio Network about it before you've had a chance to wind down with a shower and a reassuring hug from your family.
How do you respond?
Well, I can tell you what I might say, and chances are it wouldn't be suitable for family viewing and require me to make a burnt offering afterwards for atonement. Thank Heaven the head football coach at Iowa State is a more composed man than I am.
I marveled at how Mac was able to keep perspective, despite the disappointment, when discussing the game. He was hurt, and hurting for his players and coaches, yet he still maintained a big-picture outlook. It's not easy at that time to remember that five weeks ago you and your program were left for dead by so many know-it-alls like me, and now five weeks later you're headed to your fourth bowl game in five years. It's not easy at that time to remember that three-fourths of this team will return next season and it arrived a year ahead of schedule when it was picked for the cellar. It's not easy to be thankful at a time that you feel like sulking.
Yet that's what makes Mac the Mac we all know and love. He may not reinvent the wheel every fall Saturday, or come up with a scheme of tactical brilliance. However, he is a natural born leader blessed with the sunniest disposition I've ever been around for someone in such a high-pressure job.
Those are the two qualities, along with his work ethic, that have made him successful at a school previously known as a coaching graveyard. And those attributes are what led him towards a season that should end with his peers naming him Big 12 Coach of the Year.
All-Big 12 Team
Now that the regular season has been completed it's time to select the best of the best in 2004.
QUARTERBACK—Jason White (Oklahoma, Sr.)
RUNNING BACK—Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma, Fr.)
WIDE RECEIVER—Todd Blythe (Iowa State, Fr.)
WIDE RECEIVER—Mark Clayton (Oklahoma, Sr.)
OFFENSIVE LINE—Vince Carter (Oklahoma, Sr.)
OFFENSIVE LINE—Jammal Brown (Oklahoma, Sr.)
OFFENSIVE LINE—Sam Mayes (Oklahoma State, Sr.)
OFFENSIVE LINE—Justin Blalock (Texas, So.)
OFFENSIVE LINE—Daniel Loper (Texas Tech, Sr.)
DEFENSIVE LINE—Jonathan Jackson (Oklahoma, Sr.)
DEFENSIVE LINE—Dan Cody (Oklahoma, Sr.)
DEFENSIVE LINE—Mike Montgomery (Texas A&M, Sr.)
LINEBACKER—Derrick Johnson (Texas, Sr.)
LINEBACKER—Barrett Ruud (Nebraska, Sr.)
DEFENSIVE BACK—Ellis Hobbs (Iowa State, Sr.)
DEFENSIVE BACK—Brodney Pool (Oklahoma, Jr.)
DEFENSIVE BACK—Charles Gordon (Kansas, So.)
DEFENSIVE BACK—Jamie Thompson (Oklahoma State, Jr.)
PUNTER—Dan Sepulveda (Baylor, So.)
RETURNER—Antonio Perkins (Oklahoma, Sr.)
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR—Cedric Benson, Texas
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR—Derrick Johnson, Texas
COACH OF THE YEAR—Dan McCarney, Iowa State
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR—Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
My Top 25
Here is my ballot this week.
2. Oklahoma (11-0)…Last week—2…This week—idle…Next week—Colorado (7-4) in Big 12 Championship game.
4. Utah (11-0)…Last week—4…This week—idle…Next week—season over.
5. California (9-1)…Last week—5…This week—idle…Next week—at Southern Mississippi (6-4).
6. Texas (10-1)…Last week—6…This week—beat Texas A&M, 26-13…Next week—season over.
9. Tennessee (9-2)…Last week—11…This week—beat Kentucky, 37-31…Next week—#3 Auburn in the SEC Championship game.
11. Miami, Fla. (8-2)…Last week—8…This week—idle…Next week—#7 Virginia Tech (9-2).
12. Michigan (9-2)…Last week—10…This week—idle…Next week—season over.
14. Iowa (9-2)…Last week—14…This week—idle…Next week—season over.
16. Wisconsin (9-2)…Last week—19…This week—idle…Next week—season over.
17. Florida State (8-3)…Last week—20…This week—idle…Next week—season over.
21. Virginia (8-3)…Last week—18…This week—lost to Virginia Tech, 24-10…Next week—season over.
22. Florida (7-4)…Last week—NR…This week—idle…Next week—season over.
23. West Virginia (8-3)…Last week—21…This week—lost to Pittsburgh, 19-16…This week—season over.
24. Texas Tech (7-4)…Last week—NR…This week—beat Oklahoma State, 31-15…Next week—season over.
Dropped out: #22 Texas A&M (7-4), #23 Oklahoma State (7-4), #24 Bowling Green (8-3), #25 UTEP (8-3).
Honorable mention: #26 Miami, Ohio (8-3), #27 Texas A&M (7-4), #28 Oklahoma State (7-4), #29 Navy (8-2), #30 Colorado (7-4).
Handicapping the Heisman
With so many candidates even, why not give it to the underdog?
1. Alex Smith (QB-Utah)…His team is undefeated, and he doesn't have nearly the talent at his disposal than the below signal-callers do. Besides, the below signal-callers get to play for the national title, so think of this as a consolation prize for the Utes' program.
2. Matt Leinart (QB-USC)…Monster performance (400 yards/five touchdowns) against the Irish in primetime moves him up, but will it be enough to win it like it was for predecessor Carson Palmer two years ago?
3. Cedric Benson (RB-Texas)…Let's stop holding that Sooner loss against him. He's had a fantastic career and season. His numbers are better than a certain freshman from a rival school, and defenses key on him more.
4. Jason White (QB-Oklahoma)…Bye week hurt him because Leinart got center stage all to himself and performed well. Now gets a primetime spotlight against the Buffaloes. Can he redeem himself in Kansas City?
Waiting List: Adrian Peterson (RB-Oklahoma), Braylon Edwards (WR-Michigan), Stefon Lefors (QB-Louisville).
Will beating Tennessee a second time be enough to cause a shakeup at the top of the BCS? I doubt it, but we'll find out in a week. By the way, the MAC is going to cash in this holiday season with as many as six bowl bids!
Orange (BCS #1 vs. BCS #2)…Oklahoma vs. USC
Rose (Big Ten #1 vs. BCS)…Michigan vs. California
Sugar (SEC #1 vs. ACC #1)…Auburn vs. Miami, Fla.
Fiesta (BCS vs. Big East #1)…Utah vs. Pittsburgh
Capitol One (Big Ten #2 vs. SEC #2)…LSU vs. Iowa
Cotton (Big 12 #2 vs. SEC #3)…Texas vs. Georgia
Gator (ACC #2 vs. Big East #2)…Florida State vs. West Virginia
Outback (SEC #4 vs. Big Ten #3)…Tennessee vs. Wisconsin
#Liberty (C-USA #1 vs. MWC #1)…Louisville vs. Boise State
Peach (ACC #3 vs. SEC #5)…Virginia Tech vs. Florida
Continental Tire (Big East #4 vs. ACC #4)…Syracuse vs. North Carolina
*Emerald (At-large vs. MWC #3)…Wyoming vs. Navy
Holiday (Big 12 #3 vs. Pac-10 #2)…Texas A&M vs. Arizona State
@Houston (Big 12 vs. SEC)…UTEP vs. Iowa State
Alamo (Big Ten #4 vs. Big 12 #4)…Ohio State vs. Texas Tech
*Silicon Valley (WAC #2 vs. At-Large)…Fresno State vs. Bowling Green
Independence (Big 12 #5 vs. SEC)…Oklahoma State vs. Alabama
Insight (Big East #3 vs. Pac-10 #4)…Boston College vs. UCLA
Motor City (MAC #2 vs. Big Ten #7)…Minnesota vs. Miami, Ohio
$MPC Computers (WAC #1 vs. ACC #6)…Georgia Tech vs. Akron
Hawaii (C-USA vs. WAC)…Southern Mississippi vs. Hawaii
+Fort Worth (Big 12 vs. C-USA)…UAB vs. Troy
GMAC (MAC #1/2 vs. C-USA #2)…Toledo vs. Memphis
Tangerine (ACC #5 vs. Big 12)…Virginia vs. Colorado
New Orleans (Sun Belt #1 vs. C-USA #4)…North Texas vs. Cincinnati
*—No bowl-eligible Pac-10 team
$—No bowl-eligible WAC team
#—Liberty Bowl gets first pick for losing Utah to BCS
^—No bowl-eligible Big Ten team
@—No bowl-eligible SEC team
+—No bowl-eligible Big 12 team
%—No bowl-eligible ACC team
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday in Iowa from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)