Lessons learned at its first Orange Bowl trip have served the Iowa football program well.
But they were hard lessons and still eat at Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz. He may want them to keep gnawing.
Look, USC probably would have defeated Iowa in the Jan. 2, 2003, Orange Bowl even if the Hawkeyes had played close to the form that won them 11 games that season.
The Trojans’ edge in team speed was jarring during their 38-17 romp. They gained 550 yards, and their defense made life rough for Iowa quarterback Brad Banks.
Would that have significantly changed had the Hawkeyes come to the game sharper than they were? Probably not. But that isn’t the point, according to Ferentz.
“The worst feeling in the world is leaving a bowl site after a game knowing you didn’t play representative of the season you had,” he said in a phone interview this week. “If you played well and lost, that’s something you can live with.”
To Ferentz, Iowa wasn’t itself that night. That forever changed the way Ferentz and his staff set game-week guidelines and schedules.
“The way that season went,” Ferentz said, “in many ways, it was almost a storybook year. We went through the Big Ten undefeated, we had several consensus All-Americans, national awards. Things accelerated a little bit, and maybe past our control.
“In general terms, we lost focus a little bit as a team and it carried over into our preparation. We got caught up in taking some bows. Everybody was feeling good. We forgot it takes hard work.”
Seven years ago, many of the Hawkeyes’ top contributors were from South Florida, players who felt very much at home during the week before the Orange Bowl. Banks, receivers Maurice Brown and C.J. Jones, and defensive linemen Fred Barr and Colin Cole were among them.
Those players and their teammates might have been better off had Iowa gotten a Rose Bowl bid that season instead of a trip to their home bases.
“A lot of times, that’s a distraction,” Ferentz said. “Players get ticket requests. They have friends knocking on their doors saying ‘Let’s do this or that.’”
Given the chance, a young man wants to show off his favorite haunts to his teammates, be the tour guide, show them a good time.
Iowa’s staff still recruits Florida but has veered from the southern part of the state. Four Hawkeyes are from the state, none from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. Not all of the many players Iowa pulled from South Florida panned out, and the Hawkeyes have built a bit of a recruiting foothold in Tampa-St. Petersburg.
Iowa is 3-2 in bowls since that Orange Bowl, having outscored its opponents 146-109. Even in the losses, the Hawkeyes weren’t unprepared or undisciplined.
Their head coach and his longtime assistants have kept that first Miami trip in mind when it comes to the days leading to their bowls.
Iowa had 13 penalties to USC’s six in that Orange Bowl.
“The one thing that jumps out to me,” said Ferentz, “is there were a lot of things in that game that were really uncharacteristic of our team that season. Our defense jumped offside three times. That’s something that team did not do. It was more concentration than anything else.”
The template Ferentz uses for bowls ever since is simple. Players get the first few days at a bowl site to have their fun, to “give our guys a chance to explore whatever there is to explore.”
After that, it’s a business trip, minus the obligatory and structured bowl-related events they attend as a team.
The Hawkeyes are scheduled to leave Dec. 27 for Miami. Ferentz said his plan was to leave the 28th, but last week’s snowstorm convinced him to go a day sooner. He doesn’t want the players losing time needed to adjust to the climate.
Miami isn’t Tampa or Orlando. Same state, different world.
“It’s a place that’s very un-Iowa-ish,” Ferentz said. “It’s not the real world where we’re headed. We want them to enjoy things, but we have to really keep our focus.”
A safe guess: Ferentz will remind his players of that between now and the Jan. 5 kickoff.