TAMPA, Fla. — For the Iowa Hawkeyes, Santa Claus didn’t come down the chimney. Reportedly, he was spotted in the elevator of the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay.
It was a different Christmas. But a great one.
“It’s nice to be around family, but this is where we want to be,” offensive tackle Brandon Scherff said. “Christmas Day was a business trip.”
Business remained good Thursday afternoon at Tampa’s Jesuit High School, where Coach Kirk Ferentz put his Hawkeyes through a two-hour practice. Iowa (8-4) faces LSU (9-3) in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
Last season, the Hawkeyes didn’t have to juggle business with pleasure. At 4-8, they were home for the holidays. And they were miserable.
“I honestly didn’t like being around my family those days,” Scherff said. “Well, actually I did. You know what I mean, right?”
That mixed sentiment is understood by everyone in college football.
“You want to be with the fellas, getting ready for a game,” cornerback B.J. Lowery said.
The Hawkeyes actually arrived Christmas Eve, a departure from previous seasons when Ferentz allowed players to spend Christmas at home with their families. Some of them were detained by weather and arrived late to the bowl site. So the new philosophy is a pre-Christmas arrival.
Iowa players are soaking it all in — and that included Thursday night’s Team Welcome Dinner, where the Hawkeyes and Tigers were treated to an Outback feast.
“You start with the bread, then they’re giving you steak, ribs, chicken, shrimp, my gosh,” said 6-foot-7, 300-pound offensive tackle Brett Van Sloten. “If you’re a vegetarian, this wasn’t your kind of place. We finished our stuff, then we got some more from the tables where the smaller guys were. Now I’m ready for a nap.”
The teams devoured more than 5,000 pounds of food, including 750 pounds of sirloin streak topped with 40 gallons of Diablo sauce, 750 pounds of chicken, 900 pounds of ribs, 700 pounds of house salad, 400 pounds of baked potato, 1,600 coconut shrimp, 160 bloomin’ onions, 1,600 honey wheat dinner rolls, 1,200 pounds of cheesecake, 80 gallons of barbecue sauce and dozens of cases of soda and water.
“We’re here to have fun, but we have to do everything in moderation,” wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “We know what we really here for — to win a game. You have to balance it and that goes for everybody, including some of the older guys who have to be reminded of that.
“There are a lot of adjustments. You’re dealing with schedule differences and a new environment. There are a lot of different people from the outside world. When you wear this (Iowa) logo, you’re a target anywhere you go. It’s just being smart.”
Part of that football intelligence involves the proper preparation.
“The younger guys who are on their first bowl trip, they need to follow the lead of the older guys,” long snapper Casey Kreiter said. “We have some free time, but when it gets later into bowl week, you’ve got to taper back on the activities.
“Just being in this nice weather is an adjustment. When we’re going from the complex to our indoor facility in negative-degree weather, guys are usually running and trying not to slip on the ice. Now we’re out here in shorts and T-shirts. We couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Ferentz said his team, which hadn’t been outdoors since its victory Nov. 29 at Nebraska, has a good plan.
“We think we have a good feel for our opponent, now the trick is actually stopping that opponent,” Ferentz said. “We’re getting acclimated. This is kind of like the first few days of (training) camp, when it’s really warm. I think we’re adjusting and I think we’ll be fine. We know our top priority winning this game.”