Not much on Purdue University’s campus last Saturday indicated a football game was about to take place at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Auto traffic on Stadium Drive was light. A store selling Purdue garb across the street from Mackey Arena had plenty of elbow room for customers.
But the Iowa-Purdue contest was as real as could be to family members of Hawkeye and Boilermaker players, the only spectators inside 62,500-seat Ross-Ade Stadium. A Big Ten football season had begun, and some of the people who campaigned hardest for it to happen were present to see it unfold.
On Aug. 11, the conference canceled the fall season. On Sept. 16, the league reversed that decision. In between, a lot of players’ parents from Iowa and other Big Ten schools strongly urged the league to rethink things. Did that affect the conference’s hierarchy?
“The Big Ten and (league commissioner) Kevin Warren are saying it didn’t,” said Gary Koerner of Des Moines, the father of Iowa junior defensive back Jack Koerner, who had a team-high 13 tackles in the Hawkeyes’ 24-20 loss. “They’re the only ones that know.”
The availability of daily antigen testing shaped the decision. So, of course, was the potential loss of a year of television money.
Nonetheless, the unwillingness of parents and others at Iowa and, notably, Nebraska and Ohio State, to quietly accept not having a season kept the fire burning.
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“There were times when it was looking the darkest where my dad and my mom and Big Ten parents would say ‘There is a shot, we could have a season,’” Jack Koerner said Tuesday during Iowa players’ Zoom conference with the media. “Even myself, I started to be like ‘I can’t see it at all.’
“My dad and mom and other Big Ten parents really pushed for that. They just always kept the faith and were just relentless and just would not really take it sitting down.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way they did that. The fact we have a season now, I feel like a lot of it can be attributed to them.”
Originally, Gary Koerner and a few Hawkeye parents got together on Zoom and talked soon after that Aug. 11 news of no season.
“When I heard the stories of the fifth-year seniors and the guys who were going to get a chance to play and fulfill their dreams, and listen to the parents talk about how depressed and how upset they were, that’s what got me energized to participate,” Gary Koerner said.
“I think that resonated with a lot of the parents. Before you knew it, we had 200 people on the next Zoom a day later. Very quickly, you realized almost all of them felt the same way, and we decided to take action.”
They sent an open letter to the Big Ten asking for an explanation on the decision-making process and a chance to offer their own input. Koerner was a constant presence on Twitter, sharply questioning the conference. This is a tweet of his from Aug. 14:
“Be hypocritical. Do not communicate. Do not be transparent. Do not show courage or optimism. Do not get input from key stakeholders. Ignore those most impacted. Don’t plan for contingencies. Leading is tough, we get it, but it’s the job.”
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Koerner said what he and other parents felt most strongly about was that their sons were better off physically and mentally with a season than without one.
“We were worried about them being not only depressed, but being outside their normal structure and environment,” he said. “It felt like they were more at risk to COVID than they were before. That was irony or hypocrisy that kind of fueled our argument, especially with the general students going back to campus.
“We’re parents and we understood what the schools were doing to keep our kids safe. We understood that when they were outside of football the risks to COVID were amplified. I hope those messages made it to the boardroom table.”
The families will be the only Iowa fans in Kinnick Stadium Saturday for Iowa’s home-opener against Northwestern.
“We tried to do the I-O-W-A cheer at Purdue,” Koerner said, “but my son said he couldn’t hear us.”
Bet that he hears them Saturday. It’s home, you know.
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