Sports

Coronavirus ran through many of year's top stories

Ogden column: Shutting down of events is The Gazette's No. 1

Kingston Stadium sat empty in Cedar Rapids in the spring with no track and field meets and no soccer. (Liz Martin/The Ga
Kingston Stadium sat empty in Cedar Rapids in the spring with no track and field meets and no soccer. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Where to begin? Where to end?

To say 2020 was a challenge would be the understatement of the decade. Maybe decades.

But here we are, the first day of 2021 with optimism that things can only get better.

In our little corner of the world — sports in Eastern Iowa — we hope for things like NCAA tournaments in men’s and women’s basketball and wrestling, and state championships for our high schools. We hope spring brings warmth, but also track and field, soccer, golf and tennis.

We hope for a Masters and Drake Relays in April, minor league baseball at Memorial Stadium and a major league season that runs its normal course. We hope for a Fifth Season 8K and Bix 7 in July. We hope for events with crowded grandstands, stadiums and arenas.

We also hope for good health and the end of the pandemic. We aren’t completely single-minded, you know.

But before we move too far into 2021, let’s take a look back at 2020. The Gazette sports staff voted on what it felt were the biggest stories in a very unusual year.

There’s no reason for suspense — you’ve had enough of that this year — so let’s get right to it.

The top two stories — by a landslide — were the coronavirus pandemic and what it did to winter championships and spring sports and the racial issues within the Iowa football program.

The shut down of all sports from March through the start of high school baseball and softball edged the Iowa football problems for No. 1, but not by much.

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Third on our list was the remarkable — but not surprising — football season Iowa State wraps up Saturday at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.

Fourth was Iowa being the first state in the country to bring sports back with baseball and softball seasons in the summer. The University of Iowa cutting four sports — men’s and women’s swimming, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics — in response to lost revenue because of the pandemic completed our Top 5.

The common theme there, of course, was the coronavirus. With the exception of Iowa and ISU football storylines, the other three were in direct response to COVID-19.

Iowa’s incomplete wrestling season — the No. 1 ranking and Big Ten title that ended without an NCAA Championships — ranked No. 6, followed by former Hawkeye wrestling coach and Cyclone wrestler Dan Gable earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the derecho that damaged so much, including the ImOn Ice Arena, causing the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders to skip the 2020-21 season; the hype surrounding this Hawkeye men’s basketball season; and the All-American season of Iowa’s Luka Garza.

Last year — it feels good to write that — started normal enough. Iowa and Iowa State were coming of football bowl games at the end of 2019 and basketball and wrestling were chugging along. Then that word showed up.

Coronavirus almost seemed like a joke at first, definitely something that wasn’t going to disrupt our world. Until it did.

In March, right as Iowa was getting ready to play in the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament and small-college wrestling teams were warming up for their national tournaments — including the NCAA Division III event in Cedar Rapids — things started to drop. The NBA, followed by those conference basketball and NCAA wrestling tournaments were among the first to go.

The Iowa high school boys’ state basketball tournament wrapped up with only a handful of fans in the stands.

The NCAA tried to salvage something, then its basketball tournaments were gone, too.

Then things went silent.

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Spring sports were the next to fall — schools went online and there would be no high school sports. Colleges did the same, meaning, among many other things, no Drake Relays.

Youth sports and camps didn’t happen, the RoughRiders season ended and the Kernels never got started.

It was a strange time for athletes, sports fans and those of us who make a living telling stories about the games and those who play them. The only sports “news” for months came in the form of postponements and cancellations.

On the bright side, we found other things to do — card and board games with family, getting outside for walks or runs or bike rides. More people played golf and fished.

As long as we were outside and kept our distance, we felt safe.

And just when it looked like the shutdown was going to keep us away from summer and fall sports, the Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union decided to conduct baseball and softball seasons, albeit shorter than usual but we had games and we had state championships.

The Big Ten first balked at football in the fall, but the Big 12 was determined and made it work. That decision — along with the SEC and ACC — forced the Big Ten to reconsider.

High school fall sports reworked schedules and played on.

We were back to an abnormal normal in many ways.

Of course, there was a cloud that hung over the Iowa football season — and still lingers today.

In June, shortly after Coach Kirk Ferentz met with the media to talk about his message to players about the George Floyd’s death, former Black players started publicly questioning the culture in the program.

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James Daniels tweeted “There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.”

More than 50 others chimed in and, eventually, an external investigation found, among other things, “the program’s rules perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.” Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was let go — albeit with a hefty payout — and Ferentz vowed change would follow.

“We’ve got to try to do a better job,” he said.

Change like this doesn’t happen overnight and that’s why this storyline will stick with the Hawkeyes for years to come. Let’s hope we all learned lessons from this and many other incidents in 2020.

Every story has to have a happy ending, and what has been a better “good” story than the Cyclone football season? Matt Campbell has built a program with simple fundamentals and a desire to be “the best version” of itself every day. Iowa State won the Big 12 regular season title, played in the championship game and now is prepping for Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.

Win or lose, what Campbell has done in Ames has been nothing less than remarkable.

Here’s hoping for an equally remarkable 2021 — for all of us.

Comments: (319) 398-8416; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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