ARTICLE

Fan discontent reaches critical mass in e-mails to Gary Barta

You were bitterly disappointed over Iowa's 7-6 season, and, via email, you let Gary Barta know

Iowa fans react after a targeting penalty was called against Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Jordan Lomax (27) during the s
Iowa fans react after a targeting penalty was called against Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Jordan Lomax (27) during the second half of their college football game against Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014. Lomax was ejected from the game. Iowa State won 20-17. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

You watched a 17-point lead evaporate in the third quarter. With it, you watched the Iowa Hawkeyes slip into a postseason of discontent.

The Hawkeyes held a 17-point lead in the third quarter against Nebraska on Nov. 28 and then proceeded to crumble. In retrospect, would an eighth win have helped rub salve on what turned out to be a disappointing 2014 season? In a word, yes. Absolutely yes.

In the postgame, Coach Kirk Ferentz used the term “that's football” three times while athletics director Gary Barta watched from a folding chair along the wall to the right. That wasn't what anyone wanted to hear, not after blowing a 24/7 lead to a rival.

“That's football,” Ferentz said. “There's ebb and flow. You could probably ask the same thing about their offense in the first half up until the last drive. That's football. It goes back and forth, and fortunately we were able to get it going again and get back there and score to get to 28.”

None of this sat well with you and many of you let Barta know.

Via a Freedom of Information Act request, The Gazette received more than 250 emails fans sent to Barta in the week after the Nebraska game.

Why do this?

The Cornhuskers forged a comeback and dropped the Hawkeyes to 0-for-4 in traveling trophy games in '14 (including a historic 51-14 loss at Minnesota) and to a 10-11 record at Kinnick Stadium in the last three seasons.

This clearly is a high-water mark for discontent in the Ferentz era. Barta discussed the wave of reaction he received after the TaxSlayer Bowl defeat, 45-28, at the hands of Tennessee. Many read Iowa's 8-5 record in 2013 as a build up to possibilities in 2014. It didn't turn out that way and so volatile reaction.

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It doesn't hurt to look in the mirror once in a while and do a self-check on degree of fandom.“That's football” isn't what you say when you're the coach of a team that allows a 17-point second-half lead to slip away at home to a rival. But there were two emails that dropped F-bombs and three more that referenced male genitals. That's equally inappropriate, no?

There are no guarantees for return on investment in sports. That inner negotiation spills out in different ways. According to these emails, one of those ways could be a high level of nonrenewals not attending games at Kinnick this fall.

The emails break into three categories: Super Angry, Sincerely Concerned and Courteous and Totally Pro-Ferentz.

We went through each category and culled common phrases and thoughts. The top 50 emails have been posted with the sender's name and email address redacted.

Super Angry

“After 17 years, I'm calling it quits. I am finally giving up on your ability to run the athletic department as well as Kirk Ferentz's ability to run the football program. I would rather get a vasectomy with someone's false teeth than watch that bullsh** product you put on the field.”

That actually was one of the more tame missives.

The leading phrase in this group of emails was “fire Ferentz,” mentioned explicitly in 36 emails. The No. 2 idea was “fire Barta,” which showed up in 26. There were 18 references and permutations of what fans perceive as shortcomings in Iowa's recent record. The 10-11 mark at Kinnick in the last three seasons was a favorite. While we're on Kinnick, there were 15 straight-up “I'm not renewing tickets for next seasons” in emails.

Next was 13 references to “That's football” and/or reaction to Ferentz postgame news conferences in general.

The Nebraska result triggered these responses, but there was more than that. When athletics director Shawn Eichhorst fired Nebraska coach Bo Pelini 48 hours after the Iowa game and he mentioned the Hawkeyes program in his news conference.

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“Our kids showed great character and resiliency in a tough environment,” Eichorst said, “so it did play a factor. But in the final analysis, I had to evaluate where Iowa was.

“As I looked back on the outcomes, I'm trying to look back at who are championship-caliber football teams at that moment and how competitive we were in those games.

“We weren't playing for a conference championship and neither was Iowa. I have great respect for Iowa. It's a great institution and a wonderful football program, but in the final analysis, their record was where it was and ours was where it was. Fair enough?”

So, 12 mentions of Nebraska/”Nebraska AD”/Pelini. Twelve also was the number of emails with general cussing.

The disproportionate complaints toward offensive coordinator Greg Davis came through here, with 11 mentions compared to just one complaint toward defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

There were five mentions of former Iowa basketball coach Todd Lickliter, who was fired in 2010. Other coaches mentioned included Steve Alford, Bob Stoops and Bret Bielema (mentioned twice in this category).

“Boring” was the most common adjective, used four times. Some of the other adjectives included “frustration,” “embarrassing,” “stubborn,” “arrogant” and “irrelevant.” The context is self-explanatory.

There was one email that cast Eichhorst in the role of Greg Marmalard from the movie “Animal House” against Barta as Eric Stratton. “Isn't this an indictment against our entire American society?”

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Tying this category together was a reference to the Roman Empire from Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the character Patrick Stewart played in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“I wonder if the Emperor Honorius, watching the Visigoths coming over the seventh hill, could truly realize that the Roman Empire was about to fall.”

Sincere, Concerned and Courteous

You could plainly read conflict and pain in some of these emails.

There were 26 “fire Ferentz” mentions, but there also were 16 that expressed admiration and respect. Emailers made 14 mentions of Ferentz's contract, but also thanked Barta for reading their emails 24 times.

There were 28 mentions of nonrenewal of season tickets, but the term “lifelong Hawkeye fan” or something in that vein was written 29 times.

Nebraska/Eichhorst/Pelini rung with this group, too, with 12 mentions. Ferentz's 7-9 record against state-rival Iowa State and dissatisfaction with losing to Iowa State (a 2-10 team last season) came up 16 times.

These emails came from a more practical, analytical and, really, heartfelt place.

Some of the adjectives: “alarmed,” “apathetic,” “frustrating,” “conservative,” “stale” and “disappointed.” Some phrases that stood out: “accountability” (mentioned 10 times), “sucked the life out of” and “reason to reinvest emotions.”

Between these two categories, Iowa's QB squabble from 2014 was mentioned more than a dozen times. Iowa's streak outside of the top 25 (which goes back to late November in 2010) was mentioned 10 times. Nonrenewals were mentioned, but so was ticket scalping. Some fans expressed that it'll be easy and cheap just to buy tickets outside of Kinnick before games.

As with the “Super Angry” category, former Iowa player, assistant and now Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema was mentioned six times. Some of this stemmed from a short courtship between Nebraska and Bielema during the Huskers' coaching search.

Some passages from this group:

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— “I won't take up much of your time as I know it is valuable. I wanted to let you know of my feelings toward Kirk Ferentz. As much as I love the man, and for what he has done for Iowa football, I think maybe 16 years is long enough as Iowa football has become stagnant.”

— “My family has made the difficult decision to stop supporting the Iowa football program until your office values accountability under Kirk Ferentz.”

— “The Iowa athletic department is big business, you know that very well. It's time for a change in the football program. If you can't see that, then maybe its time for a change in your position. I'm not ok with average.”

— “You (Barta) are on the clock for instituting change and winning back the fan base you are beginning to lose. I assure you it is going to get a lot uglier than it is now and quite frankly is looks like a horror show already in this fan's view.”

— “I canceled my season tickets 2 years ago due to the direction I thought this program was headed, and after the last two years I have no regret as the product remains the same.”

— “What really concerns me is that I don't see things getting better. There doesn't seem to be any urgency to get things back on track. I sense a 'ho hum, another 7‐5 season' type attitude. I'm tired of these seasons. I'm tired of not being relevant nationally. I'm tired of not being ranked. I'm tired of not playing any big games that matter at Kinnick. I'm tired of Greg Davis' offenses. I'm just tired of average. And I'm discouraged that I don't see things getting better any time soon. We shouldn't settle for average at Iowa. Iowa fans are not unreasonable. I live in Nebraska and I can tell you what unreasonable fans sound like! But Iowa fans deserve better than what we've been getting the past few years.”

— “I will make this as respectful as possible. Coach Ferentz has done many amazing things for the University of Iowa. That being said, I will no longer continue to support Iowa football as long as he remains the head coach.”

— “I consider myself to be a sensible fan. I am never going to throw people under the bus or make idle threats because of a 7‐5 season, but I felt that I would be remiss if I did not at least reach out with my view. I love Coach Ferentz. I have been in his camp for many years even when others have voiced opposition. Furthermore, I have never been concerned with his salary. He has done great things for our program and university and, quite frankly, the revenues and profits that he has helped to produce warrant a sizable income. Despite my respect and admiration of the man, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that it simply is time to move on.”

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— “It's asking a lot of people to pay high prices for stadium food when downtown Iowa City has such a better selection at humane prices, or to try to navigate the mass of humanity in the concourses during halftime when at home I could get up and hit the restroom in less than a minute. The tradeoff is the game day experience, but until someone like Bret Bielema with his pulse on what it means to be a Hawkeye beating Iowa State, exciting offensive gameplans built around playmakers and a punishing defense is wearing the headset on the sidelines, the game day experience simply doesn't warrant the commitment. It's not justifiable. Our money is only a drop in an ocean so I'm sure it won't be missed in the short term, but I don't think my opinions are unique.”

Totally Pro-Ferentz

There were five emails that offered unqualified support for Ferentz and the program.

“I spent several years working as an (athletic) trainer and am married to a Texas high school football coach. I understand the demands of the coaches and the fact that as fans, we see about 5% of what occurs within a program. I trust Coach Ferentz to be the expert in the complexities of his players and many other variables that go unseen. I could not be more proud to be a Hawkeye and have Coach Ferentz lead the team of young men throughout the year. He leads with integrity and class. It is clear in how the team follows a high standard and are held accountable that we have the right person leading the program.”

— “I know you usually only hear from the negative 'vocal minority,' but I wanted to pass along thanks for looking at the big picture, and publicly confirming that Kirk Ferentz will return to coach Iowa Football. While winning is important, I appreciate Coach Ferentz's focus on life skills, graduation, holding student athletes accountable, and most importantly being a great representative of the University. I am a season ticket holder and alumni who saw the program revitalized under Coach Fry, and understand many of the unique challenges Iowa faces in maintaining a competitive football (and basketball) program. Yes, I will be renewing my season tickets for the 2015 football season.”

And then there was a short-and-to-the-point email that brought up an excellent point.

“Kirk Ferentz is a great coach and even a better person ... He represents Iowa University in such a positive manner ... I fully support Kirk and his staff!!! I don't want to ever get complacent, But believe with the facilities and an energized staff there are good things to come!”

You can choose to mark these emails down as the “vocal minority,” or you can look at this as where the bar might be for the 2015 team.

What's acceptable — or, really, sellable — for Ferentz year No. 17? At some point, these emails could be considered the “vocal” and not the “minority.” The gauge on that is difficult, but in a postseason email survey conducted by the UI, 64 percent of Iowa fans were “likely” to renew season ticket purchases. That compared to a national average of 72 percent.

To the point of the last email, the physical plant and personnel that is Iowa football has changed. The Hansen Performance Center is up and officially running after a couple of years and $55 million of fundraising. Iowa's coaching staff has been completely overhauled since the 2012 season. A recruiting staff was hired and put in place last summer.

Ferentz has said this is a results-driven business. The majority of these emails came from a point of view that needs to see some results. If not, then a certain percentage of you seem poised to make a business decision about something you love.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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