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November 13, 2012

Tuesdays with Torbee

If the Civil War between Iowa Hawkeye football fans wasn't hot enough after the struggle against Indiana, Saturday's late game collapse against Purdue threw another handful of kerosene-soaked logs on the fire.

The debate rages on message boards, around water coolers and anywhere else Iowa fans hold forth: has Kirk Ferentz lost it? Are the Hawkeyes doomed to failure for the foreseeable future?

I'm not interested in wading into that debate here, other than to reiterate my stance that it seems awfully early to declare a program dead and a coaching legacy tarnished when the first sub .500 regular season in more than 10 years hasn't even ended.

That said, there is one trope the ardent defenders of the coaching staff and players regularly trot out that I'd like to challenge. It is the notion that the coaches and players take losses harder than fans. I don't believe that is true.

I make this argument with some nuance, however.

I have no doubt that on the field, in the final moments of a shocking defeat, or in a dejected locker room, the sense of loss, fatigue and gut-wrenching failure is greater among players. But there is one huge difference. In the days following a loss, players can take an active role to do something about it. They can study tape to see what went wrong, they can practice harder, they can begin preparing for the next opponent. Indeed, they have to take this approach to even sniff success again.

But not the fan. The poor powerless fans play the same "coulda, woulda, shoulda" scenarios over and over in their heads and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. Except get angry, and find some outlet for that anger (hence the inevitable radio talk show and internet message board rants).

Further, I've noticed that while many ex-players I've talked to still follow how the team performs after they've left, they don't take that performance personally, or believe it reflects on them. This is a much healthier and rational approach to college athletics, I admit, but it is not one shared by the most ardent of fans.

Though it may be irrational, the truly passionate fans have devoted years and years, season after season, and thousands of dollars to follow their team. That's why I think it's a disservice to mock them for caring so much.

It's easy for those directly associated with a program to shake their heads and snort derisively at the obsession of fans. And they are absolutely right that no one sitting in the bleachers spilled blood or sweat to try and achieve victory.

But you know what? Without those obsessive fans, the ones who care so much they will sit through losing seasons, travel thousands of miles, and spend copious amounts of money to follow their team, there really is no "college football" - at least not the multi-million dollar, televised spectacle that it has become.

Sure, games would be played. But the landscape would look more like Division III, with sparse stands sprinkled with parents, girlfriends and buddies.

The mob mentality of rabid fandom drives coaches nuts when - as happens in sports - bad breaks and poor seasons come around. That same mentality, however, feeds massive contracts, builds the practice facility Taj Mahals and funds entire athletic departments.

I've been an Iowa fan for more than 30 years. I've derived great pleasure watching Hawkeye teams exceed my expectations and achieve great feats. So don't tell me that my feelings of sadness or anger at losses pale in comparison to those of the players'.

It may be irrational to care so much, but once fans stop caring, apathy sets in. And that's an even deeper hole to dig out of.

Follow me on Twitter @ToryBrecht and follow the 12 Saturdays podcast on Twitter @12Saturdays


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