“What’s a Chippewa?”
Of all the kooky, crazy questions my 4-year-old son asks me these days, I could not bring myself to answer this one. An attempted explanation of the tribal origins of the Ojibwe people would only confuse lil’ Jack more. I changed the subject -- he moved on to superheroes and Play-Doh.
I’m jealous of Jack. Like most other post-preschool Iowa fans, I am having a difficult time ridding my mind of dancing Chippewas.
As a player, after a bewildering loss, the mental transition is even more challenging. Upsets like this, in college and professional football, have a prolonged sting. A host of questions ping-pong in our heads. Are we that bad? Am I that bad? If we can’t beat these guys, who can we beat? A football team's collective self-image is far more wobbly than the one they publicly project.
Adding fuel to our insecurity is the deafening noise of what can seem like pitchfork-wielding townspeople. Best if we shut down our Twitter accounts and go on a Facebook vacation. People say the darnedest things when they are pissed. I've learned not to take the personal attacks personally. Consider the source, I remind myself.
I must admit that when I was 19 I wasn’t very good at putting to rest questions about my own abilities. I needed some help. All week the current Hawks have faced the task of preparing for a balanced Minnesota offense and an attacking 4-3 defense. But the team has more to worry about than X’s and O’s. Much more. They’ll have to beat down those nasty questions about their own competence. And, like I did, they’ll need some help.
Enter the Hawks' sensible leader. Kirk Ferentz is like a master arborist. He has an uncanny ability to see the forest, the trees, and a path through them; to ground his players in reality during the course of the most volatile of seasons. It’s one of the hallmarks of a great football coach. As the volume and heat rises on the outside, he keeps a steady hand on the thermostat of the team.
In 2000, we stunk. We lost eight of our first nine games by a combined score of 263-126. Through it all, as the doubt thickened and the noise from the outside grew louder, Ferentz constantly brought our attention back to those things that we could control. “Focus on the details.” “Prepare and practice with a purpose.” “There is no big picture. Take it one step at a time.”
This is not mindless coach-speak. In dark times, what else do you have to cling to? You follow the instructions of someone older and more enlightened; you lace up your cleats and go to work.
We could have drowned in the criticism during that season. I missed three field goals in a home loss against Ohio State. I still remember waking up in the top bunk of my dorm room, the Sunday after, staring at the pockmarked ceiling, wanting never again to step foot into Kinnick Stadium.
But on that morning, as I still am to this day, I was buoyed by the wisdom of my head coach. I got my rear end up out of bed and made the walk across campus to the team meeting. I took ownership of my performance and offered no excuses. I analyzed the kicks and identified the specific reasons for the mistakes. That week in practice I worked deliberately towards correcting them.
Two weeks later, I made four field goals in an overtime victory against Penn State in Happy Valley.There will always be questions swirling around football teams, just as there will be questions swirling inside football teams--there will be disconnects from the fans and disconcerting thoughts from within. Thank goodness for a head coach who knows how to guide a team through stormy times.