Who's Afraid of the Hapless, Irrelevant Cyclones?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The love affair Cyclone fans have with Paul Rhoads is bizarre. Or is it?

I'm sure you've all read it by now. The faux-intellectual diatribe produced by BHGP's answer to Hemingway, aka StoopsMyAss. It is designed to tell you, intellectually deficient Clown fan, how Paul Rhoads is a charlatan selling you false hope in the form of rah rah videos, and how it's all just a mistake by the incompetent Jamie Pollard to disguise the ill-advised firing of Iowa State's "Hayden Fry", best known to you as Dan McCarney. It's all filtered through a well thought out, yet wholly inaccurate "analysis" of the Mangino hire.

This puzzling piece raises a multitude of questions ranging from why Iowa State fans love Paul Rhoads, to why anyone in their right mind would think firing Dan McCarney was a mistake, to perhaps, more importantly: why do Hawk fans even care?

Strap in, intrepid reader, for my quasi-drunk ramblings that will guide you through these, life's greatest mysteries. And so much more....

Why Do Iowa State Fans Love Paul Rhoads?

Well, if you believe our neighbors to the east, it's basically due to one of two things 1) we love to suck and/or 2) because he's a wonderful cheerleader who makes rah rah speeches to disguise the "fact" that he's a terrible coach. Let's get the rah rah thing out of the way right now. Yes, we do love that side of Rhoads. Having been spurned by Gene Chizik, and told by everyone that we're just little ol' Iowa State and no one will ever build a career here, having a coach who genuinely cares about the players, fans, university, and community in the way that Rhoads does absolutely endears him to us.

How could it not? What red-blooded fan of any team wouldn't get a little misty eyed watching a video of their rookie coach spontaneously expressing his pride and gratitude for an under-talented group of players who just pulled off a historic upset for their program? Well, I guess the Mensas in Iowa City would tell you that they turn their nose down at the very notion, but those of us living in reality feel different.

However, this is only part of the reason ISU fans, in general, continue to support Rhoads after an abysmal 2013 campaign. The biggest reason is the success that ISU has enjoyed under Rhoads in comparison to his recent predecessors, and within the context of ISU football, as a whole. Let's look at some numbers, shall we?

6-5
7-4
4-8
3-9
2-10


These were the records of the 5 ISU teams prior to Rhoads.

6-6
5-7
6-6
6-6
3-9

These are the records of Rhoads' 5 squads at ISU.

ISU has averaged an extra win per season under Rhoads. While this is no stat to celebrate, it does indicate improvement. However, these raw numbers fail to tell the entire story as well. Here are some more numbers: 2 and 4. These are the number of wins over ranked opponents in the 5 years prior to Rhoads' hiring, and in his tenure, respectively. Both of the ranked wins prior to Rhoads came at home in 2005. 3 of Rhoads' 4 wins have come on the road. This does not include a victory in Lincoln in 2009 against a Nebraska squad that was in and out of the rankings all season, and was ranked the week prior to the game.

Here are some more numbers: 13 and 21. These are the number of ranked opponents that ISU has played in the 5 years prior to Rhoads and 5 years with Rhoads, respectively. What this means is that under Rhoads ISU is winning more games, they're winning them against better opposition, and they are beating more of those difficult peers. 3 of Rhoads' seasons (including 2 of his 6-6 years) were against a 9 game Big 12 schedule. All of the 5 years prior were against an 8 game schedule. In those prior 5 years, the Clones didn't play OU or UT in 3. Rhoads has avoided OU and UT only once (in 2009).

Viewed through the lens of trends, that is clear improvement. While people whose arguments tend to be weakened by strength of schedule discussions tend to avoid that analysis, the rest of the world does not. There is absolutely no doubt that these increased win totals have come against significantly tougher schedules, and I'm sorry Iowa/Big 10 fans, strength of schedule fucking matters. It just does and any disinterested individual would echo those thoughts.

More numbers: 2 and 3. The number of bowl appearances before and after the Rhoads hire.

These numbers illustrate the guts of why ISU fans love Rhoads. Prior to Rhoads, wins against ranked opponents were rare. Hell, staying within 2 touchdowns of a ranked opponent was rare. Today ISU fans believe, and that belief is based in reality/results, that we can go into any game and have a chance to win. Home or away. They believe the chance of a postseason reward is higher than it was. They believe that on any given Saturday they're going to go to the game - be it in Ames or elsewhere - and be entertained. Isn't that what this is all about?

Firing Dan McCarney Was Not A Mistake

Welcome to the new narrative in Hawkeyeland: firing Dan McCarney was ISU's version of firing Dr. Tom, and our program has regressed in his wake.

I've seen a lot of short-sighted, patronizing, condescending, and wildly inaccurate attempts from Hawk fans at understanding or analyzing ISU, but this one might take the absolute fucking cake. They like to point to Danny Mac's 9-3 2000 season as a reason for a lifetime contract. They think that ISU fans are being hypocritical for wanting Mac fired over 6-7 win seasons, and then celebrating Rhoads for doing the same. What they fail to grasp is the true underlying issues for McCarney's demise at ISU, and how Rhoads, in so many ways, has outperformed Mac in those areas. While Rhoads may not ever be our Hayden Fry, to call him - AT THIS POINT IN TIME - an abject failure/McCarney 2.0 is both premature and misinformed.

7-6
2-10
6-5
7-4
4-8

These are the records of Mac's last 5 squads. In a vacuum, that looks like a 5 year stretch that ISU fans can accept. Bowling more often than not with a few crappy rebuilding years. However, as we all know numbers don't exist in a vacuum. In 2002 ISU rose to a level of prominence our football program has never seen before or since, and came immediately plummeting to the ground in a dumpster fire full of injuries, inept coaching, and opponent's realization that ISU really was a 1 man show. 2003 was possibly the worst football I have ever witnessed. It was shaping up to be a rebuilding year, but it was absolute scorched earth.

Enter 2004. McCarney leads a JUCO heavy squad with some legitimate offensive talent against a historically weak schedule (only one of ISU's opponent's was ranked all season). The young squad claws their way to 6 gritty wins, heading into a home bout with a 4 win Mizzou squad (who had been eliminated from bowl contention) for a trip to the Big 12 Championship. In typically McCarney fashion, a late lead is blown and a walk-on kicker misses a chip shot to ice the game. They falter in OT. But hey - after 2003, this was pretty good. We got everyone coming back. NEXT YEAR IS GONNA BE OUR YEAR!

2005 rolls around. Expectations are up a little in Ames. Expectations soar after the Cyclones demolish a Top 10 (albeit wildly overrated) Iowa squad. ISU walks into Lincoln undefeated, but again, blows a lead and the game in OT, as the Cyclone defense drops a game winning interception. Losses to Mizzou and Baylor, both of which feature some classic self-inflicted wounds and potent choking look to drive the Cyclone Big 12 North hopes underground again. Suddenly, the team wakes up and reels off a nice winning streak, and heads into Lawrence in the final week of the season needing only a win against a 5 win Jayhawk squad to reach the conference title. Yet again (with the help of some horrible calls), ISU blows a 4th quarter lead via conservative play calling and pisses away a 2nd Big 12 North title. But, just like last year, everyone comes back on offense. We're getting better we tell our selves.

Now we're into 2006. Although I said 2003 was the worst football I've ever watched, 2006 gave it a run for its money. Despite loads of experience at key positions, Mac's terrible OL recruiting (just sign a bunch of fat kids from Western Iowa) strategy comes home to roost. Bret Meyer runs for his life. Stevie Hicks has nowhere to go. The Cyclones scrape by UNLV, UNI, and Toledo in shoestring fashion, and then get their shit absolutely pounded in for the remainder of the season. An eventual 6 win KU team wins 42-10 in Ames. The buzzards are circling. People are fed up. It wasn't supposed to go down like this. Following an ass whooping from a weak CU squad, Dan McCarney, to the overwhelming relief (and bittersweet sadness) of Cyclone fans everywhere, "resigns". A week later, his players win one for the gipper, aided heavily by a controversial (albeit real) holding call against Mizzou.

12 years of Cyclone history had elapsed. Dan McCarney had taken an utter graveyard to the heights of decency; but following the choke jobs/collapses of the 2002, 2004, and 2005 seasons, and the absolute scorched dog shit of the 2003 and 2006 seasons, it was clear that Mac had hit his ceiling. Said ceiling wasn't that high, and that unless he was missed OU and UT, he was probably looking at a dumpster fire season. The recruiting had fallen off as well, as classes anchored around one or two JUCO studs and loads of unathletic Midwestern kids weren't going anywhere. A change had to be made. There was nothing to sell.

There isn't a major conference program in the country that would have been satisfied with that 5 year period, given the circumstances. It simply wasn't acceptable for a coach that deep into his own program to routinely squander opportunity upon opportunity to elevate his program, and to continue those squanders via making the same mistakes ad nauseum. However one defines ceiling, there can be no doubt that Dan McCarney had hit his.

In his first 5 years at ISU, Paul Rhoads has laid a foundation that seems able to exceed anything McCarney did. Rhoads has won a road conference game in every season in Ames; something McCarney struggled mightily with. He has beaten ranked teams on a regular basis. Recruiting is at a higher level than it was under McCarney. And all of this is being done in the face of a schedule which is, unarguably, MUCH more difficult than what McCarney faced. I haven't even bothered to compare McCarney's first 5 years with Rhoads', because in his first 5 years, he never exceeded 4 wins. On top of all of this, support in the ISU program has never been higher. The old adage goes "you have to spend money to make money". For years ISU labored in obscurity with poor facilities and short sighted athletic directors who never invested, nor encouraged that the fans invest, in the program to a level necessary for success.

In the immediate wake of McCarney's firing, ISU broke it's all-time season ticket sales mark.  In the 7 years since, it has gone on to shatter that old mark, to the tune of actually selling out of season tickets. That's something that seemed impossible to imagine in 2006, a year that saw the whole stadium sell out twice. With the current renovations, and now guaranteed expansion of Jack Trice stadium underway, ISU football will be armed with an arsenal that once seemed impossible. There is no way any of this would have been possible without firing Dan McCarney, and without the successes that Paul Rhoads has obtained in his 5 years in Ames.

Why Do Hawk Fans Care So Much?

The short answer: they're scared of the future.

They are afraid of a paradigm shift that both displaces their status as the top dog in the state of Iowa and erodes something that cuts to the very core of their identity as Hawkeye fans.

Ever since college football exploded into the popular medium in the last 50's, the Hawkeyes have been the superior football program in the state, and developed a stranglehold on both the media and number of fans. It was the late 50's-early 60's, and Forest Evashevski was leading the Hawks to Rose Bowls, producing #1 overall picks in the NFL draft, and according to some people, winning national titles. The University of Iowa was also cranking out journalism grads who were running the media in the state, including such influential and far-reaching sources as WHO and the Des Moines Register. Hawkeye supremacy was certainly unchallenged in the hearts and minds of Iowans, but it was also unchallenged on the field of play. In the 50's and 60's, ISU fielded some decent teams, but none that flirted with the level of greatness the Hawks did.

In the late 60's and 70's, a brief opportunity for ISU to tip the tables occurred when first Johnny Majors, and then Earle Bruce, found some success in Ames. Each guiding the Cyclones to 2 bowl appearances while Iowa was mired in 15 or so consecutive losing seasons. However, a short sighted administration failed to give either man the compensation or resources necessary to keep them pacing the sidelines. In the mean time, Iowa stepped their game up with the hiring of Hayden Fry.

In the late 70's, Iowa brought in Hayden Fry, a man who had found success coaching at the University of North Texas (ironically enough, the current home of Dan McCarney). Fry had a vision to make Iowa a strong program, and part of that vision was ensuring they were the only game in town. He made no bones about his belief that he had to destroy ISU football in order for Iowa to succeed - a belief that permeates the Iowa fan base to this day. He also made good on it, shaking off a couple early defeats at the hands of the 'Clones, and going on to win 15 straight games against ISU - many by very wide margins. He was also taking Iowa to national prominence in the form of major bowl berths, including several Rose Bowl appearances. All the while, ISU muddled at the bottom of the Big 8, constantly held back by short sighted admins who passed on hiring such future coaching greats like John Cooper and Bill Snyder in lieu of footnotes like Donnie Duncan and Jim Criner. The gap grew both on and off the field.

Eventually, in the late 90's Dan McCarney broke the on-field stranglehold. He made beating Iowa the goal of the ISU program, and the players had responded. However, as hashed out earlier, they were never able to take that next step. ISU remained an afterthought in the local press, and Hawkeye fans still vastly outnumbered Cyclone fans pretty much everywhere but Ames.

Beginning with McCarney's firing and the excitement around the Chizik hire, and fueled by Rhoads's early successes, interest in and attention paid to ISU football began increasing at an exponential rate. Since the firing of McCarney ISU football has received an unprecedented amount of support in terms of both fan attendance, and donor support. ISU has had record attendance, averaging well over 50,000 fans in a 42,000 seat stadium for the past 3 seasons. ISU has been selling out games for opponents that weren't Iowa. In 2013 ISU sold out all but 1 game. This is better attendance, in terms of percentage of capacity utilized, than Iowa.

Thanks to the previously discussed charisma of Rhoads, and the numerical increase in the ISU fan base, the media in Central Iowa has been far more pro-Cyclone than it was just a couple of years ago - to the point that Iowa fans accuse those outlets of an ISU bias. This notion was completely absurd as recently as 2010, when the Des Moines media was practically celebrating the prospect of Big 12 collapse. There is no doubt that the firing of McCarney and subsequent successes of Rhoads (modest as they may be in the grand scheme of things) have been instrumental in dramatically increasing the popularity, visibility, and viability of ISU athletics. To many Iowa fans, this is a very bad thing.

A big part of our sports fanhood is the emotional side of it. The romantic affiliation we have the game, with our team, and with the way it makes us feel. Who you root for often dictates how that is expressed and what you value as a fan. For many Iowa fans, whether they recognize it consciously or not, the superiority of the Hawkeyes has just been a part of cheering for the program. They aren't Cyclone fans because how could you be a Cyclone fan? How could you root for those hapless losers from Ames? Those losers who celebrate a 6 win season? Those losers who only care about punking "big brother"? It's beneath them, because they are superior to us. That superiority should be obvious - right? Iowa has more trophies. Iowa has more fans. Iowa just dominates in this state. They've taken that identity on because it defined the dichotomy of the program. By the same token, many ISU fans relish the role of the underdog. The opportunity to show you belong against the best of 'em. David v. Goliath. How could anyone root for the team that always wins? Doesn't that get boring?

These dichotomies can often define our fanhood, and there is more evidence every day that slowly (but surely), ISU is eating away at Iowa's dominance. Just drive around Des Moines for a day and tell me if you see more Iowa or ISU gear. 10 years ago, it would have been Iowa dominated, no contest. Today it's 50/50 at worst. The media in Des Moines is the same way. Now, a lot of that can be credited to the massive success of Fred Hoiberg's hoopsters, but prior to 2013, the success of Rhoads and Co. was the main driver on that bus.

Since the genesis of college athletics' cultural popularity, Iowa has been the Goliath to ISU's David, and each side has learned to relish their roles to various degrees over that period of time. However, as David keeps getting ballsier, and drawing more sheep to his flock, it makes Goliath question his place. It makes Goliath worry. Suddenly, it appears that the Hebrew and Philistine may actually end up on the same footing. That is not a world Goliath is ready for. It changes everything about Goliath that he has learned to love in himself. It makes him that which he has disregarded. The downside to David is far less. If David ascends to the top, he merely accomplishes what he set out to do. It is far easier to adjust your image up than down (the inverse of which ISU fans so painfully learned during the Greg McDermott era).

The only way to stem this tide is to ensure David's failure. To eradicate him, much as Hayden Fry once did. This is why Iowa fans are so heavily invested in discrediting Rhoads and the things he has actually accomplished. They see the progress he's made as a threat to their entire worldview, and now that he has shown glimpse of weakness they've projected their fear of losing their dominance into a collective belief that Rhoads is an incompetent snake oil salesman despite evidence to the contrary. Desperation is a stinky cologne, and they wear it well.

Creating a favorable construct is better than facing your fears head on.

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