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Harty: Sustaining success tough in college football

[ 26 ] October 11, 2011 |

What we’re seeing now under Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is a natural process for the Iowa football program dating back to when his predecessor and former boss Hayden Fry turned things around.

With all his success, which includes winning two Big Ten titles, six of nine bowl games and having four double-digit win seasons, Ferentz hasn’t kept Iowa at elite status on a regular basis.

Fry didn’t, either.

My definition of elite status is being ranked among the top 10 teams nationally or at least in the top 15.

To do that on a regular basis is asking too much from most programs, including Iowa because it lacks many of the built-in advantages that fuel the elite programs.

Only once since the 2004 season has Iowa finished ranked in the top 10 nationally. That came in 2009 when Iowa finished 11-2 overall and ranked seventh in the Associated Press poll.

This could prove to be a rebuilding season because at Iowa they’re inevitable if you look at the program’s track record under Ferentz and Fry.

Iowa is 3-2 heading into Saturday’s game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium and 11-7 since the start of last season. The Hawkeyes also are 4-5 in Big Ten games since the start of last season and 21-20 in conference games dating back to the start of the 2006 season.

This current stretch of being average came after four seasons from 2002-05 in which Iowa finished 25-7 in Big Ten games and 38-12 overall.

Nothing good lasts forever under Ferentz, but nothing bad does either.

It was the same way under Fry, who coached at Iowa for 20 seasons from 1979 to 1998 and won three Big Ten titles.

“You run out of steam,” said long-time radio broadcaster Bob Brooks, who has covered the Iowa football team for over a half century. “The pendulum swings back and forth and it’s tough.

“It’s not an easy chore to sustain something like a Michigan or a Penn State or Ohio State when they were legal if they ever were.”

Ironically, the three programs Brooks mentioned recently have struggled to stay among the elite, but for different reasons.

Michigan went through a tumultuous coaching change with Rich Rodriguez replacing Lloyd Carr after the 2007 season. Rodriguez only lasted three seasons at Michigan before getting the boot. A lesser program might have given him more time, but patience is thin at Michigan because of its high expectations and storied past.

Brady Hoke has since replaced Rodriguez and the Wolverines now are climbing back to elite status with a 6-0 record.

Penn State has struggled over the past decade to stay among the elite, but most attribute it to 84-year old coach Joe Paterno’s advanced age.

As for Ohio State, an NCAA investigation revealed numerous infractions that led to Jim Tressel resigning as coach on Memorial Day. The Buckeyes won a national title under Tressel in 2002 and five consecutive Big Ten titles, but now they’re 0-2 in conference games under coach Luke Fickell.

The difference between Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State compared to Iowa is that’s easier for them to stay at elite status when all the right pieces are in place than it is for Iowa.

You put Ferentz in charge of one of those three programs, or a program such as Alabama or Oklahoma and the odds of him keeping the program at elite status increase significantly.

Now that doesn’t mean any coach can win at a school such as Alabama as evidenced by how much the Crimson Tide struggled until Nick Saban took over.

But now with the right coach in place, Alabama has a good chance of winning double-digit games each season.

Howard Jones and Forest Evashevski lifted Iowa to elite status years ago, but neither stayed as coach long enough after rebuilding the program to be subjected to an inevitable skid.

They also coached when players played offense and defense so it wasn’t as hard to recruit as it is now.

A lack of quality depth usually is what separates Iowa from the superpowers. It’s not as easy to recruit at Iowa and sometimes you have to take chances on less-heralded prospects.

It makes for a great story when somebody such as a Bob Sanders emerges from obscurity, but for every Bob Sanders there are countless other recruits that don’t pan out.

That might help to explain why Iowa has been hampered by a high rate of attrition, with 27 players from the 2007, 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes having left the program.

There is a benefit to cheering for a school such as Iowa because fans appreciate the good times more because they can’t take them for granted, whereas at some traditional powers the fans expect to win.

“That’s one of the things that I’ve always said, ‘Yeah, you don’t win (at Iowa) every year or every other year, you don’t get to a BCS (bowl) every year or every other year,’” Brooks said. “But boy when you do you’re a lot more thrilled. So I think it’s a better situation.”

It just doesn’t feel that way now coming off a 13-3 loss at Penn State on Saturday. The season still is hanging in the balance and it’s hard to say right now which way the pendulum will swing.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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