IOWA CITY — Saturday wasn’t the first time Northern Iowa football coach Mark Farley impressed me.
I’ve covered a few of his team’s NCAA playoff games the last few years. I’ve seen him in victory and defeat, and he stays who he is under both situations. He assembles football teams that know how to play the game and play it well.
Saturday, his guys lost at Iowa, 17-16. After the game, Farley took a long, long time before he met with reporters. He likes to compose himself and think about how he’s going to say things. But that doesn’t mean he uses a filter and goes phony. It just means he wants to verbalize things the way he wants them verbalized.
After this crushing loss when the Panthers were sooooo close to the biggest upset in college football in Week 1 of the season, and sooooo close to making an eternal warm memory for UNI, Farley was blunt. Not rude, not crude. But blunt. Honest. Here is a lot of what he said after the game:
“You tell them that it hurts and it’ll never go away. At the same time, you’re very proud of how they played. Because I felt they represented our program as well as any football team could represent our program.
“We came out with three things. We wanted to win the line of scrimmage and we did that. We wanted to play with 11 guys doing their assignments and doing them well, and beating the person across from them, and they did that.
“Above all, we wanted to play with class and pride for the university and for our program. They did that beyond. So they did what I asked them to do and that’s why (losing is) painful.
“Our purpose is to win a national championship. A couple of games stand out in my mind. Appalachian State (which beat UNI in the 2005 NCAA I-AA title game) stands out in my mind. Richmond (which beat UNI in the 2008 NCAA FCS semifinals) stands out in my mind, and the University of Iowa stands out in my mind. We came here to win this football game.
“It’s not a matter if UNI will beat Iowa. It’s a matter of when it’s going to happen. It should have happened today and we didn’t make the play at the end. That’s football.
“The attitude of any UNI football team … I think it’s pretty clear. I’ve told everybody a hundred times. The attitude of any UNI football team is that we can win any game on any field that we step foot on.
“The irritation comes from the loss, knowing that we know we should have won that thing hands down. We gave up some points and we gave away some points. But we put out some fires, and when they made a couple runs — we knew that was going to happen — we put those fires out and we stayed in the game.
“We’re going to end up again on a Saturday afternoon hopefully playing for some title someday.
“The big question this afternoon was can we win the line of scrimmage? And I think we did that. The other question was all the freshmen we played. We started two true freshmen at corners, a freshman tailback started for us, we had a couple of (freshmen) receivers out there … There was a lot of inexperience. To put them on that field today was a test, and they passed the test because of the poise and the composure.
“We feel fortunate to have the players that we have and we feel fortunate to represent the university we represent.
“I don’t know I if I was surprised by anything Iowa did because they do everything so well. What we told our kids coming into this game is (Iowa) beat Penn State, you throttled Wisconsin, you throttled Minnesota, you go right down the list. … They beat some awfully good football teams by a lot of points last year. They held great offenses to 10 points or less. They put 28 or 34 points on some great teams as well.
“What they do, they do so well. They believe in what they do, and that’s why they’re good.
“We didn’t change anything. That’s the same football team we put on the field last year. That’s the same offense we ran last year and that’s the same defense we ran last year. We believe in what we do as well.
“We spread the field. I thought we had two great plans offensively and defensively. I think that showed. I think you all saw the game.
“That’s why it took so long for me to come (to his press conference), because I as at a loss for words.
“Hopefully, when this day is done and this week is done, the state of Iowa will understand how good UNI is. It’s always been kind of Iowa State/Iowa. I don’t want to get into all that, but we felt since we beat Iowa State (24-13 in 2007), this (beating Iowa) was a barrier we had to break down. The next barrier is winning a national championship. We’ve done most everything else there is to do.
“We respect the heck out of the University (of Iowa). I really think you’ve got a neat thing going here. At the same time, we line up against you and we think we can beat you.
“I think we … (long pause) I think we outplayed them across the board. I’m proud of my football team. I thought they did very, very well.
(About losing 45-21 at Iowa in 2005 and 41-17 at BYU in 2008) “What happened to us in 2005 and what happened at BYU is very similar. We took that field and we got caught up in the environment. It’s a rush standing in that tunnel before you come out. You get that rush and you go out there a little wobbly in your legs, and you make mistakes. You fly around and miss some tackles, you fumble the ball, you throw a bad ball. The next thing you know you’re down 28-0.”
OK, that’s a lot. But I found it to be one of the most-interesting, straight-talking postgame press conferences I can remember from a college coach. He hurt. He smiled at times. He rued the missed opportunity, sang the praises of his players, and paid tribute to Iowa.
But he’ll never believe his team shouldn’t have won that game. It’s going to hurt, but every disappointment Farley’s program experiences only seems to make it stronger.