Iowa Football

Outback Bowl No. 6 is all about status for Iowa football

From the key to the city to a bag of corn, the trophy that matters for Iowa is beating an SEC team

Herky The Hawk during the Outback Bowl Beach Day Sunday, December 30, 2018 at Clearwater Beach. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)
Herky The Hawk during the Outback Bowl Beach Day Sunday, December 30, 2018 at Clearwater Beach. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

TAMPA, Fla. — The Hawkeyes had just punched out Texas Tech in the 1996 Alamo Bowl.

Iowa dominated, putting the Red Raiders and running back Byron Hanspard, who was a 2,000-yard rusher that season, in a 27-0 headlock.

Head coaches beam after bowl victories. And then-Iowa head coach Hayden Fry certainly was in a good mood. Still, you remember that Fry didn’t hold back when something irritated him.

His Hawkeyes mangled Texas Tech and he just couldn’t help himself.

“We should have been in Florida to start with, instead of Michigan,” he said.

This was the time of something called the “bowl alliance” and the Outback Bowl was a fence Fry’s Hawkeyes couldn’t quite climb.

Iowa and Michigan finished the 1996 season 8-3. Iowa finished higher in the Big Ten standings, but Michigan got the Outback nod. In 1995, the Outback invited Penn State. Then in 1997, it pained Iowa to see Wisconsin go.

Iowa did a Texas two-step between the Alamo in San Antonio and the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Of course, that drove Fry nuts and, of course, the Outback and Tampa, Fla., was where Fry wanted to high-porch picnic.

“It would nearly take an act of God to keep Michigan from going someplace, with their tradition and all of that,” Fry said in 1996. “They’re the ones we worry about more than anyone. Even if we had a better won-loss record and finished higher in the Big Ten, that’s what we worry about.”

Here we are in 2018.

During Beach Day festivities at Clearwater Beach on Sunday, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was given the key to the city of Tampa.

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The Hawkeyes (8-4) will face No. 18 Mississippi State (8-4) in their sixth Outback Bowl at 11 a.m. CT Tuesday (ESPN2).

The fence has been climbed and then climbed again. And again. And so on.

“Earlier this year, before your first game against Northern Illinois, I was in Iowa City, and I had a funny feeling I was going to see you again,” said Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn.

If the Outback has become the new Alamo/Sun, no one Iowa is complaining. No one Outback Bowl is complaining.

“I remember Iowa coming to us with a huge sack of corn kernels,” said Jim McVay, Outback Bowl CEO/president. “There were like 16 bowls at the time and whomever you took, they were coming. Iowa had that reputation for passionate fans.”

Read more: Meet Jim McVay, the Ouback Bowl’s million-dollar man

The committee process favored the Michigan brand. That was then. Now, McVay cited Iowa’s finish the season and compared it to down turns Wisconsin and Michigan State experienced (both lost two of their last three).

“They’re like the perfect bowl team,” McVay said. “Everyone wants Iowa.”

When bowl talk ’18 began in earnest at the beginning of the month, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta didn’t blink when the Outback popped up on the radar, even though five times since 2003 and now three times since 2014 was a lot of Tampa time.

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“We know what we’re going to get here,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said.

So, Iowa is good with the Outback and the Outback is good with Iowa.

When Iowa finally got the Outback invite in 2003, it was a big deal and the Hawkeyes played up to it. crushing Florida 37-17. An estimated 25,000 Iowa fans showed up at Raymond James Stadium.

Travel is down for Iowa and the Outback this year, with Iowa reporting between 5,000 and 6,000 tickets sold.

“Travel is changing, it just is,” said McVay, whose bowl has awarded $148 million in payouts throughout the years. “You have 41 bowl games. You have emphasis on the playoffs. There’s some weakening in the travelability, but we keep going forward.”

Read more: If 2018 Hawkeyes are to have a memorable win, Outback Bowl is it

It was still a big deal for the 2006 matchup with Florida, which had first-year head coach Urban Meyer at the wheel. The Gators won the national title the next season.

Coincidentally, that was Hawkeyes offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s final game as a Hawkeye. He was a three-year starter on the offensive line.

“It’s kind of sobering,” Ferentz said. “I don’t have many memories as a player anyway, certainly not good ones. I was pretty mediocre.”

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Three years after Conference USA officials blew the onsides kick call — even Meyer in the 2006 postgame, “I hope they were offsides. To make a call like that one. ... Boy, that was a tough call” — the Hawkeyes drubbed a disinterested, undisciplined South Carolina team 31-10.

That launched a brilliant 2009 season that saw the Hawkeyes win the Orange Bowl over Georgia Tech.

The 2014 Outback felt like a rebirth for the program after a 4-8 2012. It was a game effort against a supremely talented LSU team, which included wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, but ultimately a 21-14 defeat.

Linebacker James Morris summed it up perfectly in the postgame.

“Our record speaks for itself,” Morris said. “We’re 8-5. We’re not the best team in the history of Iowa football, but we’re better than 4-8. We’re 8-5 and every time we went out there, we tried to do our best. It didn’t always happen for us, but we played hard just tried to honor the fans, the coaches and each other.”

The 2017 Outback essentially ended in the first half, when QB C.J. Beathard injured his hamstring on a fourth-and-goal late in the first half. Iowa didn’t convert and didn’t survive, falling 30-3.

“The thing that stands out to me, two years ago, was we had a couple critical plays that we couldn’t make,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I think if we make those it was a whole different game. I think the score is totally unrepresentative of the game, but we didn’t make the critical plays and Florida did, so we lose.”

Read more: Iowa-Mississippi State analysis, prediction

So now, Outback Bowl No. 6. With a TaxSlayer Bowl defeat to Tennessee squeezed in, the Hawkeyes have a three-game losing streak against the SEC, which has a national finalist in Alabama.

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Outback Bowl No. 6 is about status for the Hawkeyes. The SEC is the best. Status still matters in college football and Iowa has to show it’s got some.

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

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