By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Unlike some of you apparently, I’m not ready to give up on the Iowa football team just yet.
Not with three winnable games still left on the schedule, including two at home, beginning with Saturday’s matchup with Big Ten West Division leader Northwestern at Kinnivck Stadium.
Not with a head coach who has been through more peaks and valleys than a roller coaster.
And not with the veteran leadership that Iowa has with players such as senior defensive end Parker Hesse and senior center Keegan Render both helping to lead the way.
Hesse and Render are both fifth-year seniors and have experienced just about everything during their college career, from the late-season collapse in 2014 to the undefeated regular season in 2015 to the current two-game skid that has turned a once-promising season into a frustrating season of what ifs and could haves and should haves.
Iowa could finish 10-3 or 6-7, assuming it plays in a bowl game.
So there still is plenty of incentive to stay the course, because despite the three gut-wrenching losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue by a combined 19 points, the chance to win nine or 10 games never should be taken for granted or considered a failure at Iowa.
“It’s a testament to this team the way we’ve stuck together,” Hesse said on Tuesday. “We’ve had two tough losses in a row now, but no one is pointing fingers, no one is looking to blame somebody else.
“Everyone has ownership in what’s happened good and bad this year. And we just want to go out this week and put together sixty minutes of good football and play together.”
Teams that lack leadership often crumble down the stretch, and we’ve seen it happen at Iowa.
The 2006 squad won five of its first six games before unraveling with six losses in the final seven games.
That was the season Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz coined the phrase “fat cats” apparently in reference to the mindset of some of the players.
Ferentz seemed to be saying that there was a sense of entitlement with some of the players on the 2006 team, but he didn’t throw any specific players under the bus publicly.
Ferentz has gone out of his way to praise the leadership on the current team, which is always a good sign because Ferentz doesn’t just give praise for no reason.
The senior class is small in numbers with just 13 players, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for with quality, especially with regard to leadership.
Hesse knows as one of the veterans on the team that it’s important for him to set the right example under any circumstance because others depend on him for guidance and inspiration.
“The really amazing thing about this team is it hasn’t taken a whole lot,” Hesse said. “It’s not like we’ve got to be calling meetings or calling guys out all the time. For the most part, this is a team that believes in each other and that’s what makes it easy. No one’s pointing fingers and everyone takes ownership in what we do good or bad. And everyone wants to improve together.
“So I think even though we’ve had some adversity, that’s what we’re focusing on right now is just sticking together and just keep pushing. There is only one way to play football and there is only one way to prepare for games.”
Sophomore defensive end Chauncey Golston said he often watches Hesse closely on and off the field and tries to emulate him.
“Parker teaches me a lot,” Golston said. “I sit next to him in meeting rooms and his demeanor like when he’s being coached and he’s always taking notes, and little by little that stuff rubs off on me.
“And when it’s my turn to take control of the defensive line, I want to lead like how he’s leading us.”
Hesse had to learn how to be a leader and that took some time. It helps that he has started since his freshman season because that gives him more credibility with his teammates.
“I would say that’s maybe something I realized this year or much later in my career is that everything you do people are watching good or bad,” Hesse said. “You’re either taking away or adding to the team, and especially when you become an older and more experienced player.
“People are watching you and they’re going to kind of feed off your energy. And if you’re paying attention to details and running through the whistle, they’re going to do that as well.”
It is moments like now when the culture within a program gets tested.
“Coaches really set the culture, but what happens on a day-to-day basis on really good teams is policed by the players,” Hesse said. “And I think with adversity like this, it’s difficult, but as a senior, and with my senior class and other experienced guys on the team, we just want to make sure that we stick together and we play as good as we can. We still have a really good football team and we still have the potential to play three really good games down the stretch.”
Ferentz relies on the leadership of his players to help overcome adversity.
“It's always important,” Ferentz said. It doesn't have to be a veteran, but it sure helps when you have veteran guys that are really committed. If they're focused, chances are the other guys might come with them at least. And then if you have veterans and encourage guys to come with them, that helps, too, and I think we have that.
“That's one thing about this team. We necessarily didn't have that in the spring, but it's emerged, and we have a really good group of guys that are committed, and they're showing other guys and telling other guys what we need to be doing.”
That kind of positive endorsement is why it's too early to give up on this Iowa team.
Maybe I’m giving Hesse and the seniors too much credit, but I can’t see them letting this season unravel. Some will say that it already has unraveled with the West Division title almost beyond reach. But as long as the players don't feel that way, it's no big deal.
It wouldn't surprise me if some of the fans who already have written off this team would climb back on the wagon with a victory on Saturday.
Northwestern had better come ready to play on Saturday because something tells me that Hesse and his cohorts will be ready.
And, of course, playing at home should help, too, after having played four of the last five games on the road.
Some of the goals have changed with Iowa having been all but eliminated from the Big West Division race after back-to-back losses. But the journey continues and where it ends will depend on how the players respond to adversity.
There is no magic formula other than staying the course and getting back to work.
“Anytime you get adversity and you’ve got a goal and you want to accomplish something and you’re so close it hurts,” Hesse said. “But everyone goes through stuff like that in life and people who become successful are the ones who can get up the next day and reset their mind and say I’ve still got things to accomplish and I’m going to get after it today.
“And that’s what we’ve been doing this week. We’re just totally focused on Northwestern and we just want to win on Saturday.”
Words only go so far, but I like Iowa’s chances to win on Saturday a lot more after listening to Hesse speak on Tuesday.
Because what he said reminded me that this Iowa team has too much pride, character and leadership to succumb to adversity.