CEDAR FALLS — On a cold, late, late mid-December night in 2005, a chartered jet filled with disappointed people landed at Waterloo Regional Airport.
Northern Iowa’s football team had returned from Chattanooga, Tenn., after losing 21-16 to Appalachian State that night in the NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) championship game.
UNI Coach Mark Farley, among the first people off the jet, held the airport door open for everyone else in the traveling party, offering encouragement to his players and thanks to everyone else.
“Next time, we’ll bring that trophy home,” Farley and many others on that flight surely thought.
But there hasn’t been a next time. UNI made it to the national semifinals in 2008 and has been to the quarterfinals as recently as 2015. The FCS division, however, seems to get better each year. Especially in the Panthers’ own neighborhood.
All of UNI’s seven Gateway Conference/Missouri Valley Football Conference titles under Farley came between 2001 and 2011, the first 11 of his 18 seasons as coach. Not coincidentally, North Dakota State joined the MVFC in 2008.
The Bison not only are 50-6 in the MVFC and have won seven straight league titles since 2011, they have won six of the last seven FCS championships. In 2016 they upset Iowa, the team UNI plays Saturday night in Kinnick Stadium.
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“The Dakota schools have changed this league,” Farley said. “The investment the Dakotas put in their football programs is far and above anybody else in FCS with the exception of Montana right now.”
The Panthers were 60-20 in conference play over Farley’s first 11 seasons. They are 28-20 since. It’s not as if they stopped being prominent. Last season they beat three top-10 teams in the last six weeks of the regular season and won an FCS playoff game for the ninth time in the 10 years Farley’s teams have reached the postseason.
But the team that eliminated UNI was South Dakota State, the third-straight time the Panthers’ playoff run was ended by a club from their own league.
“We obviously have a very competitive program and always have,” UNI Athletics Director David Harris said this week, “one that competes with anyone we play. We play in the very best conference in FCS football and when we have the chance to play FBS teams we win our fair share.”
But Harris expects as much, and maybe more. In August he announced something he calls “Panthers Rising,” termed “a 5-year strategic plan to bring UNI athletics to unprecedented levels of success in academics, competition, and in all of its endeavors.”
It’s an initiative with six specific goals, including “Financial Accountability” and “Community Engagement.” Another is “Competitive Excellence.” One metric for that is “All teams finish in the top 3 of their conference standings.”
“We want to be better this year than we were last year and better next year than we are this year,” Harris said. “That doesn’t mean we expect to win every game, but we want to be in a position to be competitive in every game.
“We expect a high level of success with our football program. We recognize the importance of football to our overall program.”
Unlike the Dakota schools, UNI is in a state with an FBS program. Two, in fact. The Panthers can only wonder what it would be like not to have certain Iowa players siphoned off by the bigger state schools.
Consider Parker Hesse, standout Iowa senior defensive end from Waukon, Farley’s hometown.
“I thought he would come here had he not been offered by Iowa down the stretch,” Farley said. “I can probably say that about three or four players on that football team.
“I know his dad and mom very well. Waukon’s not that big. We all come from the same blood up there.”
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, not Farley, landed linebacker Josey Jewell of northeast Iowa near the end of the 2013 recruiting season.
“I’m sitting there watching that kid play basketball in Decorah High School, nobody else was recruiting him,” said Farley.
“I understand Iowa coming in late on some of these guys. They’re just doing their due diligence. Some people get worked up about it, but I just say stay with these kids. Because we’ll get a Marcus Weymiller (senior UNI captain from Waukon who rushed for 809 yards last year) and they’ll get a Parker Hesse. When it all shakes out, there’s not too much difference between those two players.”
Farley has gotten many hidden in-state gems, too. The Hawkeyes invited running back David Johnson of Clinton to join them as a walk-on. Johnson instead took Farley’s scholarship offer. He now is among the NFL’s premier players, as Iowans Bryce Paup and Kurt Warner of UNI were before him.
Ferentz is in his 20th season as Iowa’s coach. Farley is in his 18th at UNI.
“I think you’ve got to fit the state,” Farley said. “How (Ferentz) plays his offense and defense really fits the kids from the Midwest, fits players from Iowa. Hopefully, we’re doing something very similar.
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“You can have sustained success, you just have to find a way to get the right players and develop them.”
Another haunting what-might-have-been for UNI came at Iowa, in 2009. In one of the all-time weird, wild finishes at Kinnick, the Hawkeyes blocked two field goals in the final seven seconds to secure a 17-16 win.
“It’s not a matter of time if UNI will beat Iowa,” Farley said after that game. “It’s a matter of when it’s going to happen.”
That remark came in a moment of frustration. Farley has made no comparable comment this week. He poured praise on the Hawkeyes at his Monday press conference.
This week, Ferentz undoubtedly reminded his players that the Panthers played Iowa very competitively not only in ‘09, but in 2012 and 2014.
“I don’t think we’re going to sneak into town,” Farley said with a laugh about Saturday night’s game. “It may be dark, but it won’t be that dark.”
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