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Keeler: Hawkeyes’ mantra of working hard won’t change

[ 6 ] April 9, 2011 |

Iowa City, Ia. — James Vandenberg met reporters Friday wearing a t-shirt that read: “WE BUST OURS TO BEAT YOURS.” The “yours” being tails. That summed up Hawkeye football, in a single sentence, as neatly as anything.

“Unless you’re in the program, and know what we’re doing every day,” the quarterback said, “you’re never going to really understand it.”

She is a program that sells herself as the ultimate underdog with teeth, the place where two-star prospects wind up having five-star careers. It’s one of the reasons you embrace them, love them, follow them to the ends of the earth. Few teams represent their respective fan bases — or at least, how that fan base wants the rest of the world to perceive it — the way Iowa football does.

To get there, blood is sometimes spilled. Urine sometimes turns brown. That doesn’t make it justifiable, or even right. It is what it is: a fine line, crossed when machismo trumps common sense.

Still, asking the Hawkeyes to ratchet down their workouts is like asking a Corvette to idle. It defies the mission statement.

The trouble, of course, is that spring football practices end Saturday, and the players will soon be on their own again. The last time the Hawkeyes had a break, once everybody reconvened 13 kids wound up hospitalized, right out of the chute.

Officially, no one was found to be at fault; unofficially, the whispers that some Hawkeyes might’ve had a few too many Christmas cookies haven’t really gone away.

“I’ve never had a sense that players are mistreated there,” ABC analyst Ed Cunningham said when asked about Rhabdogate, the latest rot of a rocky off-season. “I’ve been to other places and been at other schools where I’m like, ‘These kids are being used.’ I’ve never gotten that sense at Iowa.”

In his younger days, Cunningham was a fine offensive lineman at The University of Washington. He’s run a mile on those cleats. Several miles, in fact.
“We had a thing called, ‘Mat Drills,’ ” Cunningham continued, “and if you say that to any ex-Husky who was there during the Don James Era, they might throw up right now.”

In the first workout after winter break, James used to take the Washington players down to the wrestling room. There, the coaches would run them until they dropped or hurled, whichever came first. Every January, you knew it was coming, like a root canal for your hamstrings.

“They had trash cans in there because they knew people were going to barf,” Cunningham recalled. “You knew (darned) good and well that if all you did (over break) was sit on your (butt) and eat candy or anything else, you knew you were going to pay the price.”

Cunningham thinks the worst of that price has been paid by coach Kirk Ferentz and the program, at least from a public-relations standpoint. In a sport where Auburn and Ohio State are kings, the Hawkeyes look like altar boys. Over time, many will forget. Most will even forgive.

“I just try to push that to people,” Vandenberg said, “that it’s not nearly as bad as it seems.”

IOWA FOOTBALL 2011: NOT NEARLY AS BAD AS IT SEEMS. Can’t imagine Ferentz giving the green light for that one on a t-shirt.

“Sometimes, their job is like herding cats,” offered Dan Schaefer, the guardian of West Des Moines Dowling wideout Amara Darboh, one of the top in-state prospects from the Class of 2012. “How do you keep track of a bunch of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old guys, what they’re doing off the field?”

Fair question. So is this: A writer the other day asked defensive back Micah Hyde, after the hullabaloo of the past four months, what he thought was the biggest misconception of Iowa football as we know it. He pondered this for a second, then replied:

“I think people think that the stuff that we do — we don’t work as hard as we have (in the past). We work really hard here, and that’s why we do so (well). That’s why our high is so high.”

Working harder than the next guy isn’t just a pride thing in Iowa City. It’s a state of mind. A calling. Even though spring ball officially ends after this week, the mantra never rests. For better or worse, neither will the Hawkeyes.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Sean Keeler: Sean Keeler has been a sports columnist at The Des Moines Register since 2002. Got a story tip, comment, complaint? E-mail him at skeeler@dmreg.com. You can follow him on twitter at twitter.com/seankeeler or on Facebook at facebook.com/smkeeler. View author profile.

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