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IOWA CITY — The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., happened on a Tuesday morning.
The head coaches of the football teams of Iowa and Iowa State, Kirk Ferentz and Dan McCarney, were alerted to what was happening by their teams’ video coordinators. They watched. They, like everyone else, were stunned.
Then, because they still had a game to play against each other in Ames that Saturday, they led their teams into practices that afternoon.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” McCarney said this week. “We got out of a staff meeting room. Now we’re going to break off and go offense and defense and special teams. Mike Motl, who’s still today the video coordinator at Iowa State, yelled as I was walking back to my office to check on messages before I got started watching some tape.
“There was a television screen in his office. He said ‘Look at this!’ The first plane had run into the side of the World Trade Center. We’re watching that and we’re just in shock. We don’t know what’s going on. And while we’re standing there, here comes the second one and right then we knew we were under attack and in trouble.”
“Very surreal,” Ferentz said about that morning in then-Iowa video coordinator Matt Engelbert’s office as they watched the television coverage. “Probably even stranger, we practiced that afternoon.
“On one hand you’re trying to concentrate and focus on game preparation and getting ready for a game. On the other hand, it’s one of the most hard-to-grasp things that’s ever happened, certainly in my lifetime.”
McCarney described his team’s practice that day as “horrible.”
“The reason I did it was I wanted to get everybody together. Good or bad or great practice or horrible practice or whatever, I just wanted to get us together. We needed to be with each other.
“We understood something was going on here that wasn't good for America. But you’ve still got to rally your staff, you’ve got to rally your kids. It was Iowa State-Iowa week of all weeks.
“So Kirk and I stayed in touch. We were talking how about how can we can honor the people that perished, is there anything we can do that would somehow honor them, anything.
“Meanwhile, you’re still trying to get your team ready to play if the game were still going to be played. You can have your own personal feelings, but if the game was still going to be played, we had to get our team ready to go.”
But focusing on practice, he said, “was impossible.”
Athletics directors Bob Bowlsby of Iowa and Bruce Van De Velde of Iowa State had several phone discussions with each other on that Tuesday and Wednesday. Because it was a nonconference game and air travel wasn’t involved for the visiting Hawkeyes, the Big 12 and Big Ten left it to the two schools to decide if they wanted to go forward with the game.
On that Thursday morning, the NFL announced it wouldn’t play that weekend. All college teams and conferences that hadn’t yet called off games quickly did so. Ferentz held a news conference on Thursday under the assumption the game was on. Shortly afterward, it wasn’t.
“The strong, strong consensus,” Van De Velde said that day, “was we should step back and re-evaluate this thing. We need to let some time pass and recover from this tragedy.”
In hindsight, it was the only thing to do.
“I don't know how many people felt like this,” Ferentz said, “but I know at this point now that I really didn't grasp, fully grasp, what was taking place or the impact of that whole thing.
“It’s changed all of our lives, not to mention just the tragedy of the whole thing and all the loss.”
The Iowa-ISU game was rescheduled for Nov. 24. A lot of people seemed to enjoy it being played as the regular-season finale for both. It’s been held every September since, other than last year when Big Ten teams didn’t start the season until October.
Saturday is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Twenty years is a long time, and it isn’t. Never forget? No one with a memory of it could even if they tried.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Engelbert said Tuesday about watching the horror alongside Ferentz.
“The guys that we coach here,” Ferentz said, “a lot of them weren't born or a lot of them were infants at that point.
“Just the historical perspective of the whole thing, it's amazing. But it's changed our country and changed the world.”
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