IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes don’t win every football game. There are various reasons. It rarely comes down to one guy doing something he shouldn’t be doing.
Last week at Michigan, the Wolverines blitzed a lot and sacked Iowa QB Nate Stanley eight times. The Hawkeyes were held to 1 rushing yard. The defense was steadfast, but some young players gave up big plays that mattered in UM’s lone TD drive.
Here’s my rule when it comes to criticizing college athletes ...
Wait, first we should talk about criticizing college athletes. It’s totally fair. This is a money game and the players know the stakes. They’re not naive bumpkins out there praying for a positive review after a bad play.
Football players are held to rigor every day. A team without rigor and standards is dead in the water. They know this going in. They hear it every day in practice.
What do they hear? You hope it’s constructive criticism, and if it isn’t, well, that’s probably a former coach. The tyrant/coach thing just can’t be anymore. You can be mean. You can cuss all over the joint. “You criticize the play, not the player.”
I like that idea.
I am a critic. That is the job, if you’re doing the job correctly.
I assume the players, in a postgame setting like Michigan, a grueling 10-3 grind of a disappointment for the players I talk with, don’t want me to come up and smile and say, “How’d it go, buddy?”
I assume players want to be held to rigor, ache for a standard. The competitive diehards (that’s pretty much every Hawkeye, right?) will immediately put that criticism fuel in their tank, whatever is said or written or tweeted.
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That’s how competitors are wired. Guess what is part of the DNA of probably 99.9 percent of the players Kirk Ferentz recruits? Competitiveness. It’s a differentiator in a game where the slightest edge can mean everything in the moment.
So yeah, the Hawkeyes running game has some work to do. The secondary can’t really claim “rookie status” anymore. Wisconsin isn’t going to give anyone a headstart.
It’s been 21 years or whatever for me. That’s a lot of thoughts on the one topic I’ve covered in that amount of time. I’m sure I’ve made enemies within. That’s going to happen. All interactions remain cordial. If someone wants a piece of me, it’s never been outward.
So, when I say there’s a line between criticism and ridicule, I know, in 21 years, that I may have crossed that line. No, I know I’ve crossed that line, especially when I was a 30-year-old idiot without any sort of editorial playbook.
As the calendar flips, your eyes open. Your POV changes. Couple summers ago, I went up to Waukon to visit Parker Hesse’s family. His folks, Marcia and Perry, graduated high school in 1985. Same year I did. I wondered if I wasn’t getting as old as the players’ parents and there was the answer, standing right there in front of me on their front porch between two cornfields in the beautiful Driftless part of our state.
The players are my kids’ age.
There have been other lessons. My wife used to always buy our eggs at Kroul Farms. You know Matt, he’s the ANF honoree this week. He was a terrific defensive tackle for the Hawkeyes in the mid-2000s. Living in the area, I’d met his dad, John.
We were coming back from the 2007 game at Penn State. It was dismal. Iowa never had any footing. Just an overall long day, not unlike last week at Ann Arbor.
We’re walking out to board. We’re talking. The mood was light. And I know John was joking. You can tell when someone is joking. John threw his arm around my shoulders — he’s way bigger than me, the quintessential 5-11 — and said, “I’m not going to have to beat the shit out of you, am I?”
We both started laughing. I think we both needed it. I think he sensed that.
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It’s the hardest thing to present a losing effort for, I guess, entertainment purposes. Still, there must be rigor from my end. That’s how this works. I’m always going to assume players want it.
So, criticism and not ridicule is where I land. I know people want heads. I’m not going to do that. And when it is time to criticize — hi, last week — I always keep it to the general unit and not the specific player. I mention when there’s a screw-up and don’t feel the need to rub anyone’s nose in it.
After Tuesday, I already know they feel bad enough.
That’s where I stand as a sportswriter who does actually show up every week and asks the questions that need to be asked (hopefully in a respectful tone).
I’d rather you not walk up to Nate Stanley on the street and dump your frustrations on him. Obviously, I can’t babysit this stuff. I don’t really have a stake in how you behave and I’m not going to tell you how to be you.
I just think it’s selfish and I know it doesn’t help. I’d rather we not make it weird.
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