Kirk Ferentz stood in front of an attentive Jasper County I-Club crowd at Iowa Speedway in Newton as snowflakes, not race cars, danced outside on the second day of May.
“Hopefully 4-8 is as rare as May snow,” joked Iowa’s football coach.
Levity and a 4-8 season, Iowa’s worst since 2000, are strange bedfellows.
“If you’re going to be in coaching or involved in athletics, anything that’s competitive, you better be able to take the bad with the good,” Ferentz said. “If you can’t face the music after a loss or a disappointing season, then you should probably think about changing your vocation.”
Visits to 10 I-Clubs across the state this spring — five featuring Ferentz, five featuring men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery — provided a similar vibe for Iowa’s top two revenue-producing sports.
Hawkeye fans view Ferentz, heading into his 15th season, with cautious optimism.
“I think there’s going to be some grumbling if you’re not consistently winning and going to bowl games,” said Dr. Doug Peters of Burlington, who attends Iowa football games home and away. “You get a taste of those good seasons and people want more and more, which is good. You hope your fan base doesn’t want anything less. I think Ferentz wins the right way. You don’t want to take shortcuts. Coach Ferentz, I always put my trust in him and the staff.”
McCaffery’s rising basketball program has been greeted with unbridled enthusiasm.
“He brings a lot of energy to the program,” said Jeff Goergen of Atlantic. “Three or four years ago, I started tuning out on basketball because they weren’t even entertaining to watch. And now, win or lose, they bring effort every time. That’s what I like to see.”
The perception of these two programs is a 360-degree spin from 2010, when Ferentz was coming off a 11-2 season and an Orange Bowl victory and McCaffery had just inherited a 10-win program. While the football wins have trended south since that Orange Bowl season, from 11 to 8 to 7 to 4, Iowa’s basketball victories have headed north from 10 to 11 to 18 to 25.
“I sense that it is different, but I still think everybody is really excited about football and always will be,” McCaffery said. “People are just a little more locked in and in tune to what we’re doing, because we gave them reason to. They identify with our players, they identify with the improvement, and that’s great.”
The I-Club, the university’s fundraising arm for intercollegiate athletics, travels the state each spring. This year’s 21 banquets, between April 16 and May 24, serve a multitude of purposes. It’s a way for fans to rub shoulders with coaches. It’s also a way for those coaches to say thanks for the support. And it’s a way to beat the drum for financial contributions.
“We can’t compete without your loyalty, your passion and your support,” Matt Henderson, executive director of the National I-Club, told the North Iowa I-Club in Clear Lake last month.
Henderson said the I-Club raises an estimated $25 million annually for the athletic department through annual gifts, endowed scholarships and capital campaigns. There are 19,000 I-Club members, representing all 99 Iowa counties and every state but Vermont.
Many of those fans travel long distances to attend games at Kinnick Stadium or Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The I-Club tour is considered a payback.
“This is our one chance to go on the road and say thanks for coming out, thanks for your financial support … the things that help us compete, day in and day out,” Henderson said.
Other high profile head coaches, like wrestling coach Tom Brands and women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder, and numerous assistant coaches are also part of the I-Club caravan. Bluder was paired with Ferentz, who attended 10 I-Clubs. Brands traveled with McCaffery, who made 11 appearances.
McCaffery and Ferentz are treated like the headliners, a point not missed by Brands. As he spoke to the Webster County I-Club in Fort Dodge, a huge sign reading “Welcome Coach McCaffery” was draped on the wall behind him.
“And then we’ve got this sign,” Brands, who has led Iowa to three NCAA titles, said tongue-in-cheek. “Thanks a lot for the welcome.”
Ferentz is not deaf to the criticism his program has received after a 4-8 season.
“It just comes with the territory,” Ferentz said. “It’s something I knew 15 years ago, when I got started here. If you don’t do well, there’s going to be negativity. I think things just get amplified a little bit more, that’s the only difference. Or they get amplified in a different way. It used to be at the bar, the barbershop, wherever. Now, there’s all kinds of avenues to get it out there.”
Avenues like internet message boards, where critics can vent on the state of Hawkeye football anonymously.
“There’s something wrong with that,” Ferentz said. “No question about that.”
The fans who attend I-Clubs are more rah-rah, less lower the boom. In his I-Club speeches, Ferentz doesn’t try to sugarcoat a disappointing season with cheerleading, spin control and pipe dreams.
“We all have ownership,” Ferentz told the North Iowa I-Club after being greeted with a standing ovation. “It starts with me.”
At every stop, Ferentz talked about the new coaches on the staff, the work ethic of his returning players, the battle at quarterback and the need to improve while letting the blame land squarely on his shoulders.
“The fans tend to be optimistic and see the glass half full,” Ferentz said. “I’m sure everybody is disappointed with last year, me included. So it starts there.”
Longtime Polk County I-Club president Joe Cmelka has experienced his share of ups and downs in football, so a 4-8 record doesn’t put him in panic mode.
“We’ve been here before,” Cmelka said. “It’s not like we’re getting hammered every game. And I think that’s why everyone is cautiously optimistic. We have a ton of young talent on this team. We lost a whole bunch of players there in a weird recruiting cycle for three years. For us to be successful, we’ve got to have redshirt juniors and seniors. We’ve got to have burly, mean, nasty 23-year-olds.”
Cmelka likes the depth at running back, and thinks the defense will be solid. He is uncertain what a first-year quarterback will deliver.
“It doesn’t turn around overnight,” Cmelka said.
April 24 wasn’t a typical day for McCaffery. He had a pre-dawn wakeup call in Los Angeles, flew to Chicago recruit and then boarded a private plane that landed at an air strip in Manchester. Even though it was a clear day, the pilot had to make two passes before landing.
“It’s not like it was LAX,” McCaffery said as he arrived at the Delaware County Fairgrounds Pavilion to speak to the Northeast Iowa I-Club.
Short on sleep, McCaffery still sold dreams when he addressed lofty preseason expectations.
“Now we have to go out and prove it,” McCaffery said. “But the reality is we’re relevant again on a national level. I told you we would play at an up-tempo style, one you would enjoy watching. There’s no question that has happened. Now the next step is getting in the other tournament and doing some damage there.”
McCaffery is East Coast by heritage but all Hawkeye as he works an I-Club room. Shaking hands, posing for pictures, signing autographs, he understands the Midwest way of life.
“Iowa is still Iowa, where it’s predominately rural,” said Bob Flynn, secretary-treasurer of the Boone-Story County I-Club since 1986. “You have to have somebody who can relate to a lot of different people. We’re agriculturally based. There are metropolitan areas like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport. But if agriculture does well, the state does well. I think it’s important that coaches at Iowa acknowledge that.”
Flynn said football coaches have done that for years. Basketball coaches haven’t been as consistent.
“We’ve had the ones who would come to our banquets and look at their watches, and the ones who would stay all night if we let them,” Flynn said. “And you can probably guess the ones that were looking at their watches.”
McCaffery coaches with fire and brimstone, emotions that lead to photogenic fury.
“I signed a lot pictures that weren’t very flattering of me,” McCaffery told the Marshall County I-Club.
Iowa hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006, and McCaffery embraces that challenge.
Ferentz embraces the challenge of making sure 4-8 won’t happen again.
Though there was nothing he could do about snow in May.
“What a year, huh?” Ferentz said.