Friday, September 7, 2012

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in fyi on Sept. 6, 2011.

University of Iowa alumnus Nick Tomlonovic is a Hawkeye fan through and through. He wears the black-and-gold striped bibs to the games; his black Ford Mustang sports Hawkeye plates that read “GOH4WK5.”

And this Saturday, he’ll be cheering proudly as the Hawkeyes host the annual intrastate football matchup against the Cyclones of Iowa State University in Kinnick Stadium.

It’s a contest he looks forward to all year and even has fun with as he boasts on Facebook in the days leading up to the game.

“On the last day, I always write, ‘It’s the Hawkeye State,’” says Tomlonovic, a videographer from central Iowa who works in University Marketing and Media Production.

Iowa may have the edge in the series at 39–20, even winning 15 in a row between 1983 and 1997, but at the turn of the millennium, the Hawkeyes were in the middle of an ugly five-game losing streak. Since then, there has been a back-and-forth, with Iowa taking four of the last six (but not the most recent contest, a dramatic 44-41 defeat in Ames that took three overtime periods to settle).

It’s long been a heated rivalry, perhaps felt most by the teams’ ardent supporters. A mere mention of the matchup on Hawkeye message boards online is sure to draw spite and ire about the “Cyclowns” from “LAmes.”

“I don’t know if it’s the same at the Michigan–Michigan State game or the Ohio State–Michigan game, but it seems like when Iowa and Iowa State play, there is an added electricity in the air,” says Phil Haddy, longtime staff member who recently retired from his position in UI athletic communications. “You can feel it when you walk into the stadium—and it extends all the way up into the press box. It doesn’t matter how good or bad either team is.”

So what is it about this matchup that gets fans particularly riled up? John Murry, associate professor of marketing in the Tippie College of Business, points to demographics.

“Both schools are large and have a substantial number of alumni located in the state,” he says. “A Hawkeye fan can work at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, for example, and there will be plenty of Iowa State fans there to create interesting conversations over a cup of coffee. Likewise, in Des Moines, there are plenty of Iowa fans. Fans of both teams are intermixed, living with each other throughout the state on a daily basis. I think that’s what makes this rivalry fun.”

Murry knows a little about state school rivalries: he did his undergraduate work at Kansas State University before heading to the University of Kansas for an MBA and a PhD. Iowans, he says, are good at remembering that the gridiron showdown is just a game, however—and it’s one he says should remain on the schedule regardless of any further expansions of the Big Ten Conference that could shrink Iowa’s nonconference schedule.

“I think it would be a sad day for sports if the rivalry were discontinued—it creates a lot of fun throughout the year,” he says, noting that he found it amusing when Iowa State placed a billboard near Cedar Rapids following the school’s 2005 victory that said, “It’s a CYCLONE STATE.”

“Emotions run high for this game,” Murry says, “because no matter how much one team is favored, the underdog always has a chance to win.”

The two teams have not always met. They first played each other in 1894—Iowa State won the inaugural game, 16–8—but after the 1934 contest, the rivalry went on a 43-year hiatus, says Haddy.

“There was bad blood between the two teams in the 1930s, and they decided not to play anymore,” he says. “Then the state legislators got involved because they wanted the two teams to play, and although there was some resistance, the series resumed in 1977.”

That game is one Haddy remembers well, and in his 40 years in the athletics department, it places among his top five, he says. Both teams took the field for warm-ups and then retreated to the locker rooms. When the Iowa State players returned, they wore new jerseys with block letters across the front reading “BEAT IOWA.”

Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, the tactic didn’t work. The No. 19 Cyclones failed to overcome multiple errors, including a fumble (which Iowa ultimately turned into a touchdown) as well as a missed field goal with four minutes remaining. The Hawks prevailed, 12–10.

“It was a terrible game,” recalls Haddy. “Even though Iowa won, nobody could do anything. Quite frankly, there was so much emotion expended, it took the life out of both teams…The crowd was incredible, though, and they stormed the field after the game.”

Since then, the Hawkeyes and the Cyclones have faced off every September (with the exception of 2001—the game that year had been scheduled the weekend following 9/11 and was postponed until November). The heated rivalry provides a challenge for Chuck Green, UI assistant vice president and director of public safety.

“The rivalry is fun and always exciting, but it can be very challenging for law enforcement and security personnel. Part of that is due to the fact that there are so many more people in town for that game,” he says. “The game day changes we implemented in 2010 made the game less challenging, and having a morning kickoff [that year] certainly helped things go smoother.”

Dee Hurst, director of human resources in the Tippie College of Business, is an ISU alumna who proudly wears cardinal and gold. The University of Iowa may “write the check,” she says, but on game day she has to stick with her alma mater.

“It’s lively,” she says of her in-stadium experience, “but in all fairness, both teams’ fans have extremes. You just have to be ready to hold your own. If ISU loses, I get a considerable amount of flak at work. My colleagues will point out the painful plays. On the other hand, they can take it in the chops if Iowa loses. We’re all good sports.”

With the 2011 addition of the University of Nebraska to the Big Ten lineup—and to Iowa’s schedule—Hurst suggests that perhaps Hawkeye fans and Cyclone fans can unite at season’s end to rally around a common goal: witnessing the defeat of the Cornhuskers. Even if it means Cyclones have to begrudgingly root for a Hawkeye victory.