Psychology and Iowa football: Patience with a patient

A mixed bag with the Hawkeyes ranging from big wins, league titles and tough rivalry losses

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IOWA CITY — A door closes and the crowd has left Kinnick Stadium. All that remains is a patient, a psychologist and a mirror.

The patient is Iowa football. He’s 2-2 and faces an uncertain future. The psychologist has studied Iowa football up close and from afar.

Iowa football walks into the room. “Lie down,” the psychologist says as he draws the curtains.

“Thank you,” Iowa football responds. “It’s been a rough go of things lately. I’ve got this headache, and I’m not sure which direction I’m headed.”

The psychologist smiles. “So, Iowa, I’ve looked at your files. You seem to be at a crossroads. Let’s start with the big picture. You’ve had some terrific moments under Coach Kirk Ferentz. You’ve won shares of two Big Ten titles, an Orange Bowl, 11 straight seasons of postseason eligibility. Coach Ferentz is highly regarded, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, maybe even a Hall of Famer. Who knows where you’d be without him. After all, this isn’t heaven; it’s Iowa.”

The patient loosens up.

“But,” the psychologist adds, “you’ve got issues. The fan base is edgy. There’s public fatigue with your message, which seems overly measured, calculated and, oftentimes, resistant to change.

“While you’ve had success in the aggregate, there’s a disconnect with the micro. Over the last seven seasons, only twice have you won more than seven regular-season games. Since 2006 you’ve lost 10 games as a double-digit favorites. Plus, you’ve had problems against historic rivals Iowa State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.”

Iowa turns his head with disdain. “We’ve beaten those teams on a regular basis. It seems like only yesterday we smacked Iowa State three straight times and shut out Minnesota two years in a row. We’ve had as much success as anyone against Wisconsin.”

The psychologist hands Iowa a water bottle. “Yes, you’ve beaten them all often and at times decisively. But — and listen up — you’ve had issues winning close games. In games decided by four points or less, you’re 1-11 against those teams.”

Iowa pauses, then asks, “What about that game in Wisconsin, 2009?”

“Yes, that was an impressive win. It was the last time anyone had beaten the Badgers at Camp Randall. But it was 20-10.”

“It sure felt like less than 10 points,” Iowa replies.

The psychologist continues. “But it’s more than just about Wisconsin. This is about Minnesota and Iowa State, two programs that don’t share your level of recent success. Look at the energy those teams bring against you. Psychologists have theories on your example, among them are the promotion and prevention focuses. When people think about achieving success, that’s promotion focus. Prevention focus is when you try to avoid failure.”

Iowa responds. “I don’t see the correlation. We’ve tried to win those games. We want to beat them as badly as they want to beat us.”

“But,” the psychologist says, “there’s a passionate disconnect. Even your senior center and captain, James Ferentz, agrees. He said this week about recent games against Minnesota, and I quote, ‘It’s embarrassing the way we played, the lack of emotion we showed. This game means a lot, not just to our fans around in Iowa City, but to fans across this state and the nation.’

The psychologist adds, “From my vantage point, those teams seem to play harder against you than you do against them.”

“That’s bull (bleep),” Iowa retorts. “Over the last 10 years, Iowa State is only 5-5 the next week after playing us. Some of those losses have come to UNLV, Toledo and Northern Illinois. We’re their Super Bowl.”

“Well, what are they to you, a preseason game?” the psychologist snaps. “Your fans don’t feel that way after losses. You see Paul Rhoads? Yes, he’s a little eccentric, but his enthusiasm is contagious. Iowa State’s fans are energized with Rhoads. Your fans ... not so much.”

The patient shrugs. The psychologist goes on.

“Let’s talk Minnesota. It’s your oldest rival. You compete for the most special trophy in college football. But you treat the game like it has little or no value. Granted, some of it is deserved. Before 2010, you had beaten them eight of the last nine games. Your fans referred to their stadium as Kinnick North. They tried to drag the goal posts to Clear Lake after you clinched an unbeaten 2002 Big Ten season. You closed out the Gophers’ Metrodome experience in 2008 the way a truck smacks a squirrel, 55-0. As defensive tackle Mitch King said, ‘It was senior night all night long.’”

“Good times,” Iowa replies with a chuckle.

“But you’ve been outplayed the last two years. Minnesota clearly wants the pig. Your program seems indifferent, almost complacent. Minnesota has popped you twice with onside kicks. You were either unprepared or failed to match their intensity. Coach Ferentz admits the perception’s there, saying, ‘I imagine if we would have won those games, there wouldn’t be the perception. It’s pretty simple. When you win, it solves all problems. When you lose, there are perceptions.’”

“Fair enough,” Iowa reluctantly agrees. “But we correct our mistakes, regroup and focus on preparing for the next game. It works for us.

“Look at last year. Yes, we lost 22-21 at Minnesota. We were terrible. But we played our best game the following week against Michigan, 24-16. We’ve beaten them three years in a row. We’ve never done that before. Plus, we’ve defeated Penn State eight of the last 11.”

The psychologist concurs. “But therein lies some of the problems. New York University Professor Gavin Kilduff cowrote a paper on ‘The Psychology of Rivalry.’ The paper identified ‘higher status was positively related to opponents’ feelings of rivalry.’ “Kilduff says, and I quote, ‘There’s this theory of social comparison which suggests we tend to pick as targets of comparison individuals or groups that are slightly ahead of us. That’s kind of a motivating factor.’

“Maybe that’s what happening here between you — Iowa — with Minnesota and Iowa State, and well as with you and Penn State. As Kilduff said, and I quote, ‘The most basic interpretation would be that there’s this difference with motivation, consistent with what the fans’ interpretation is.’”

Silence, then a buzzer. The session is over. Iowa exhales. The psychologist scribbles a few notes and dispenses one more piece of advice.

“Iowa,” the psychologist says, “remember you’re in good shape and ... have some fun.”

Iowa nods and stares into the mirror. Then he walks out the door.

It’s Minnesota week.    

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