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Iowa football’s ‘extra special’ 2002 season put Ferentz, Hawkeyes on map
‘They knew who we were in 2002’
IOWA CITY — Derek Pagel remembers how you practically “couldn’t give a T-shirt away in 1999 with Iowa on it” when he was a redshirt freshman defensive back on a 1-10 Hawkeyes team.
Offensive lineman Robert Gallery, a true freshman in 1999, remembered it was “brutal getting off the bus.”
But 2002 was different.
Gallery saw “people hanging out at the dining hall to get autographs.”
“Everybody had, by 2002, Iowa license plates and Iowa T-shirts and Iowa sweatshirts,” Pagel said. “It’s funny how that works.”
What Gallery described as a “dynamic change” was not a surprise considering what was happening on the field. A year after going to the first bowl game of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, Iowa reached another height in 2002.
The Hawkeyes won a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990 and earned their most prestigious bowl invitation in more than a decade.
“The appreciation for being (11-1), I think, is so much greater because if you went 1-10 three years before, you know what the bottom felt like,” Pagel said in October. “So when you got up top, it felt extra special.”
The 2002 roster was “loaded with talent,” Pagel said.
Quarterback Brad Banks was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
Iowa had 15 players drafted from 2003-05, including future All-Pro safety Bob Sanders.
Tight end Dallas Clark was a first-round pick in the next spring’s NFL Draft. A year later, Gallery was the second overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
The year did not look like a storybook season in late September. The Hawkeyes, a week after a narrow win against Ben Roethlisberger and Miami (Ohio), suffered a 36-31 loss to Iowa State behind an electric performance by Seneca Wallace.
“Any time you deal with a setback, you look for ways to better yourself and not let it happen again,” Banks said. “Everybody was taking accountability and wanted to fix mistakes that they made and not let them happen again.”
The Hawkeyes then won their next nine games to finish the regular season 11-1 and rise as high as No. 3 in the Associated Press Poll.
“We never wanted to taste that defeat,” Banks said.
Two weeks after the bitter loss to the Cyclones, Iowa had the sweetness of a 42-35 win at then-No. 12 Penn State despite sweating out a late comeback bid.
Iowa entered the AP Poll and rattled off wins against Purdue — Banks’s eye-opening performance, punctuated by a game-winning touchdown to Clark on fourth-and-goal, resulted in a narrow win — and then Michigan State and Indiana.
Then came perhaps the biggest test of the season as No. 13 Iowa visited No. 8 Michigan.
Norm Parker, Iowa’s defensive coordinator at the time, gave the defensive players “a little heads up on what Michigan Stadium was all about” from his time at rival Michigan State.
“He was like, ‘It’s going to be a bunch of old people sitting down,’” linebacker Grant Steen said. “’They’re not real rowdy.’”
The Michigan fans did not have much to be rowdy about as Iowa trounced the Wolverines, 34-9, with 24 unanswered points in the second half.
“From the mist and the mud in Michigan Stadium Saturday, one thing couldn’t have been clearer to the 111,000 fans and an ESPN audience,” Gazette columnist Mike Hlas wrote at the time. “Something quite special is going on with the University of Iowa’s football team.”
The surprisingly big win in the Big House was unsurprisingly a big confidence boost for a team that went 3-9 two years earlier.
“Any time we can win against (Michigan), it’s almost a win for the season,” defensive lineman Derreck Robinson said. “If we can beat them, we can beat anybody else.”
The blowout over Michigan was part of a six-game stretch to close the regular season in which Iowa won every game by 16 or more points.
The 45-21 victory at Minnesota clinched the share of the Big Ten title.
In an event that helped birth the "Kinnick North" moniker, the game was highlighted by the Iowa fans storming the Metrodome turf, ripping down the goal posts and trying unsuccessfully to carry them out of the stadium through the revolving doors.
“That was cool, especially to do it on somebody else’s field,” Pagel said. “I think we had more fans than they did there that day. That’s what it felt like.”
Both Iowa and Ohio State were undefeated in Big Ten play to end the season, but there was no Big Ten championship game at the time. Iowa did not have a chance to unseat Ohio State from one of the top spots in the BCS rankings.
"We were firing week in and week out,“ Gallery said. ”We could have played anybody … anybody that supposedly was the best.“
Ohio State did not have a loss. However, Iowa did.
So Iowa went to the Orange Bowl while Ohio State played in the national championship and won. A BCS bowl was still a big deal, though, for a program that had not been at that stage in a long time.
“The fanfare and all this stuff leading up to (the Orange Bowl), we hadn’t really experienced that level,” Gallery said. “That bowl game took it to the next level. … Leading up to it was awesome.”
Along with being on ABC and being one of the prestigious BCS bowls, it was the only bowl game on Jan. 2 that year.
“Any time you can play a game where you know everybody’s going to watch, you know it’s special,” Steen said.
Iowa shined initially in the national spotlight. C.J. Jones returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown as the ABC play-by-play commentator exclaimed, “C.J. Jones, C.U. Later!”
The outcome was not so special for the Hawkeyes, though, as Heisman winner Carson Palmer led USC to a 38-17 win.
“It was a closer game than what people think it was based off the final score,” Steen said.
Iowa and USC were tied, 10-10, at halftime before USC pulled away in the second half.
All the other accomplishments of 2002 aside, the Orange Bowl loss still lingers.
“As great as that team was, most of us will never forget,” Gallery said. “One of the first memories when we talk about that year is how it ended, but that’s sports.”
Steen, now on the Seattle Seahawks staff as a strength and conditioning assistant, works for Pete Carroll, who coached the victorious Trojans.
“The Orange Bowl game gets brought up every once in a while,” Steen said. “I try to not let them bring that up too often.”
Despite the disappointing ending to 2002, Iowa was clearly on the college football map.
“They knew who we were in 2002,” Robinson said.
Iowa was No. 8 in the final AP Poll. It was the Hawkeyes’ first time ending the year in the poll since 1996. It also was Iowa’s highest position in the final AP Poll since 1960.
In the 10 years leading up to the 2002 season, Iowa won 46.6 percent of its games and went to five bowl games.
In the 20 years following the 2002 season, Iowa has won 64.7 percent of its games and has come up short of a bowl invitation only two times.
“Every year since then, it’s been great,” Robinson said. “I think that year kind of made us.”