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‘The perfect storm’: A look back at the 2002 Hawkeyes

[ 0 ] September 14, 2012 |

Kirk Ferentz is not one to boast in public. He seems more comfortable poking fun at himself and tempering expectations for his team.

Every once in a while, though, the circumstances will cause Ferentz to let his guard down, as was the case after the Iowa football team defeated Texas Tech 19-16 in the 2001 Alamo Bowl to finish 7-5 overall.

Ferentz climbed on to the victory stand inside the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, and declared that the Hawkeyes were back.

He wasn’t exaggerating considering what happened the following season when Iowa finished 11-2 overall and 8-0 in the Big Ten.

The 2002 season was the start of three-year stretch of unprecedented success in which Iowa combined to finish 31-7 overall and won two Big Ten titles.

“I think he knew what he had not only coming back, but what he had coming down the line,” Iowa radio play-by-play broadcaster Gary Dolphin said of Ferentz, who was in his fourth season as the Iowa coach in 2002.

The 2002 squad is one of just three teams in school history to finish undefeated in the Big Ten, one of just two to win 11 games overall and one of three to have a quarterback finish runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, with Brad Banks earning that honor as a senior.

Its roster was filled with future NFL players such as defensive back Bob Sanders, offensive linemen Eric Steinbach and Robert Gallery, defensive linemen Matt Roth and Jonathan Babineaux, tight end Dallas Clark and kicker Nate Kaeding.

Many of the players from the 2002 team, including Banks, have returned to their alma mater this weekend to be honored for what they accomplished a decade ago.

And some never left Iowa City, including Ed Hinkel, who as a redshirt freshman started at receiver and returned punts for the 2002 team.

“We were just pretty special at every position,” Hinkel said. “There wasn’t one weakness on that team that I can think of where we could have been better.

“I think that was a pretty special group of guys. It was the perfect storm having that group together in one season.”

Even the backups on the 2002 team were talented, players like linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, running back Jermelle Lewis and receiver Clinton Solomon.

Greenway and Hodge were just getting started as redshirt freshmen that season. Both were forces on special teams and would go on to become all-Big Ten linebackers.

Lewis was a force as a kick returner and as a backup to starter Fred Russell at running back. Lewis stepped in when Russell was injured against Michigan and showed the skills that made him Ferentz’s first blue-chip recruit by rushing for 109 yards during a shocking 34-9 victory at the Big House.

“I thought going into the season we had a chance (to be special),” Hinkel said. “You could kind of see each year we were getting a little better. You could just tell the program was getting better each year and you just knew as the season went along that we had pretty special group of guys together.”

Season of stars

The 2002 team was filled with numerous individual stories about players rising to great and unexpected heights.

Clark was the recipient of the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end. He switched to tight end after coming to Iowa as a walk-on linebacker.

He was so respected after the 2002 season that Clark skipped his senior year to enter the 2003 NFL draft. He went on to earn all-Pro status with the Indianapolis Colts and now plays for the Tampa Buccaneers.

Steinbach and Gallery earned first all-Big Ten honors as offensive linemen in 2002 after they both had switched from tight end.

Center Bruce Nelson also made first-team all-Big Ten that season after coming to Iowa as a walk-on tight end.

Sanders earned a reputation as the Big Ten’s most ferocious tackler, as well as numerous postseason honors for his play at strong safety.

West High graduate Nate Kaeding was considered the nation’s premier kicker as a junior that season and was the recipient of the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the top kicker in college football.

Nobody on the team was more celebrated than Banks, though.

He went from being the backup quarterback who played occasionally as a junior in 2001 to the runner-up for the 2002 Heisman Trophy.

Banks is one of few dual-threat quarterbacks to play at Iowa over the past three decades, and his ability to run was a valuable weapon.

“We had an outstanding year,” Banks said. “We had some awesome players and some wonderful people on that team to make it what it was.”

Dolphin was hired as Iowa’s radio play-by-play broadcaster in December 1996. He’s covered 16 Iowa teams from start to finish, but the 2002 team stands alone.

“I would have to say without question that was the best team (under Ferentz),” Dolphin said. “They won some games on sure guts. They dominated the teams they were supposed to dominate for the most part.

“And what I loved about it, not only were they great football players, but it really was a cast of characters. I just liked the mixture of characters and personalities on that team because you’ve got to have that in football today.”

Hinkel credits Banks’ popularity with his teammates for helping to build the right team chemistry. Banks stayed humble throughout the 2002 season and never made excuses.

He blamed himself for the only loss during the 2002 regular season, a gut-wrenching 36-31 setback against Iowa State in which the Cyclones overcame a 17-point halftime deficit at Kinnick Stadium.

Banks fumbled twice in the third quarter to help ignite Iowa State’s comeback.

“It makes it so much easier because you knew Brad always had your back,” Hinkel said. “He was always cracking jokes and he was friendly with everybody. He didn’t think he was better than everybody else. He was a great teammate.”

The 2002 team was unique in many ways, including being one of the fastest teams in school history position by position.

From receiver C.J. Jones to Clark at tight end to Banks at quarterback, the group as a whole could fly.

“They were all fast,” Dolphin said. “It was maybe for that reason as much as any that was a unique team. The 02’ team was probably the fastest that Kirk’s had in 14 seasons.”

The 2002 team climbed to as high as No. 3 in the polls before losing to Southern California 38-17 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, 2003, in Miami.

Iowa hadn’t played since defeating Minnesota 45-21 in the regular-season finale Nov. 16 in Minneapolis.

C.J. Jones returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against USC, which was led by senior quarterback Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman Trophy over Banks that season. However, as the game progressed, Iowa performed more like a team that hadn’t played a game in more than a month.

The players also were allowed to travel to the Orange Bowl on their own instead traveling as a team. Ferentz now prefers to travel as a team to bowl games, saying he learned his lesson from what happened in the 2003 Orange Bowl.

“Ultimately, USC was pretty good,” Hinkel said. “I think the long layoff, not to say that’s why we lost the game, but after we beat Minnesota I don’t think there was anybody in the country that would have beaten us if we would have played the next week, just the way we were playing at the time. We were kind of on a roll.”

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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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