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Point/Counterpoint: What kind of sports school is Iowa?

BY DI STAFF | FEBRUARY 25, 2014 5:00 AM

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Wrestling

Carver-Hawkeye Arena first opened its doors a few days after the world rang in 1983 as the New Year. On that January day, fans clad in Black and Gold flooded through and filled the seats to watch — wait for it — a wrestling dual.

Dan Gable’s team pummeled Oklahoma that day. It was spectacular — but not because Iowa won. That much was expected.

It was spectacular because a wrestling dual was the first event held in the school’s newly built arena. And it makes sense because Iowa is, and always will be, a wrestling school.

This is one of the silliest debates our staff has ever made public. When people think of Iowa, they don’t think football or basketball. They think wrestling. They think Gable. They think Tony Ramos pinning another Penn State opponent. They think national championships, solid black singlets, and cauliflower ears.

More over, Carver is more of an advantage for home wrestling duals than it is for home basketball games. Ask any ref who has ever called a meet on the Mediacom Mat. That crowd, no matter the size, is absolutely ruthless. The fans love their wrestling more than any other sport on campus.

I’m baffled this is even an argument. Schools are often recognized for their athletics success. Fans take pride in their successful teams. That’s why we see Alabama as a football school and Duke as a basketball school.

With that in mind, it’s important to remember that Iowa, as a whole, has claimed just 27 team national championships in its storied history — and 23 of those in wrestling.

Look, the football and basketball programs have done some tremendous things for the campus. But Kirk Ferentz has only boasted a 10-win team four times in his 15 years at the helm. And while Fran McCaffery has revived a program that was once a laughingstock, the basketball team still hasn’t done, well, anything.

Wrestling is the runaway winner here. Only at Iowa will you find a bronze statue of a former wrestling coach. It’s the only sport on campus that’s in the conversation for a national title every single year.

You’d only find that kind of expectation at a wrestling school.

— by Cody Goodwin

Football

This is so dumb. The fact that there are people around who think Iowa isn’t a football school makes me worry a little about their mental stability.

First, let’s take a stab at wrestling. Sure, Iowa boasts 23 national titles in the sport. But really, who cares? There is no such thing as a wrestling school. Carver-Hawkeye can’t even get 15,000 people to watch arguably the most competitive sports team in the entire state on a consistent basis, which renders all other arguments invalid.

Iowa football sucked two years ago. But in a 4-win season, Kinnick Stadium never saw a crowd dip below 66,000 people strong. More than four times the number of people will come to watch a shaky football team than watch a wrestling team in national-title contention. Ouch.

Iowa being a basketball school is a sillier argument (almost). Sure, spirits are (were) at an all-time high for the Iowa men’s hoops program going into this year, but even now that hype has tapered off. Iowa basketball hasn’t done a thing worth mentioning since 1999, when it made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney. The majority of Iowa students were below the age of 7 in 1999.

Football games are played on Saturday (and Black Friday) for a reason: They are mini holidays that come but 12 times a year. At home just six times. Do people travel from all corners of the country to eat barbecue, drink beer, and debauch downtown Iowa City for wrestling or basketball? Does Melrose Avenue become essentially one big carnival on Saturdays for wrestling or basketball? Do 40,000 Iowa fans travel to Tampa to watch Iowa basketball or wrestling get beat up by an SEC school in January?

The answer to all of these dumb questions is no. Iowa City has an entire festival dedicated to the beginning of the football season early in the fall. We create glorified county fairs just for football.
But really, the crux of the matter comes down to this: Football game days are the only time of year you can get a “Big Ass Turkey Leg,” and that’s the most important thing of all.

— by Ben Ross

Basketball

It seems premature to declare Iowa a basketball school, particularly given how emotionally draining the season has been to this point, but it is clear (to me, at least) that the transition is complete.

It is important, first, to determine what makes a “basketball school” or a “football school.” I’d suggest that the dominant sport at any given school is that with the most powerful psychological hold over the largest number of fans. At this point, neither the football team nor the wrestling team can thrill or devastate Iowans as completely as the basketball team can.

Consider the degree to which the basketball team’s rise from incompetence to competence to above-averageness has captivated us. The loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 22 sent 15,000 spectators and countless more outside Carver into a daylong catatonia. Even my opponent, the esteemed Ben Ross, called the loss a “gut punch” the likes of which he’d never felt as the result of an Iowa sporting event.
Iowa is a basketball school not because the team has the power to destroy its opponents, but because it has the power to destroy us.

Football has, by contrast, lost its ability to really depress Iowa City’s collective psyche. The program’s last nationally relevant game was in 2010. Iowa football has since been mired in aggressive mediocrity, and in response, we’ve come to expect very little from it.

Yes, even during the lean years, people still love the institution of Iowa football — the ritual and the party. But what recent years have shown is that enjoyment of football is importantly independent of the outcome of the games.

That’s the hallmark of a deeply traditional party school, sure, but not a football school.

And then there’s wrestling. It’s more popular here than anywhere, but it’s still a niche sport incomprehensible to all but the most determined of fans.

Iowa City, for now, belongs to Fran McCaffery.

— by Zach Tilly


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