Published Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 7:57 pm / Updated at 11:30 pm
Shatel: Iowa fans haven't had much to honk about

If you're tooling down I-80 this morning heading east, keep an eye out for Kevin Halverson. You can't miss him.

He's the one driving the 34-foot Winnebago, painted white, black and gold.

On the side of the motor home, it says, “It's great to be a Hawkeye.”

On the back, there's a picture of Kinnick Stadium beneath the phrase “How 'bout them Hawkeyes?”

How 'bout 'em? Hawkeye Kevin, one of the proud Iowa fans who live among the red in Omaha, wonders how much traffic he'll encounter on the way from Omaha.

“I'm afraid there's going to be a lot of red in that stadium,” Halverson said.

That would be Nebraska red. Yes, smack in the middle of the bumblebee hive on Black Friday. Rivalry Friday.

There's no telling how many Iowa fans will bail on this game. I'll be stunned if red outnumbers black and gold. Iowans are obsessive about their football team, and, as the Hawk fans in western Iowa can attest, there are few things they dislike more than hearing Nebraska fans crow about their championships. Unless it's losing to them.

Still, the black market for tickets to Saturday's 11 a.m. game has very reasonable prices and an ample supply. Halverson's dad, a former Iowa baseball player who has missed precious few Hawk games over the decades, sent all of his tickets to Kevin.

“He said he was tired of the (losing),” Kevin said.

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There are many definitions of what makes or doesn't make a rivalry. When there are empty seats, or they are occupied by the “other” color, that's not a rivalry. No matter how much you try to sell it.

Perhaps the heroes today will be Iowa fans who show up to support a team playing its last game of 2012.

On paper, Nebraska versus Iowa should be a good rivalry. It should be so easy it doesn't need marketing props. Start with neighboring states, fans of each school who live on both sides of the state line. Throw in passion for football and water with care.

That's forgetting the spark that could really jump-start this thing. That is, Nebraskans telling their Iowa neighbors: “We care about football. You only think you do.” Husker fans love to act like they don't know Iowa football exists.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a Hawkeye fan say he'd love to stuff a black-and-gold sock in a Husker fan's mouth, I'd have a lot of dollars.

But here's a general rule of thumb about rivalries, and you can ask Kansas State and Colorado about this: Both sides have to hurt.

In Nebraska's rivalry with Oklahoma, and the pseudo-rivalries with CU and KSU, it was about those schools getting in the way of where Nebraska wanted to go. Which was to a league or national title.

In the case of Colorado, K-State or Missouri, they were viewed as more of an annoyance than a true rival, though some NU fans still root for CU and K-State to lose.

I think this Iowa thing has more potential than those. But first the Hawks have to grab Nebraska's attention.

That may have happened in 1981, when Hayden Fry's first Rose Bowl team stunned seventh-ranked NU in Iowa City. But since then, NU has won the past four meetings, including a thoroughly forgettable 20-7 Husker win last year in Lincoln, in which Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz appeared to give up before the game started.

Too bad we can't get these two together when they're both rolling, when they both would have stood in each other's way for meaningful stuff. In 1999, NU's last trip to Iowa City, the Huskers went 12-1 and won the Big 12 while Ferentz's first Iowa team went 1-10.

Three years later, Ferentz took his 11-1 Hawks to Miami to play USC in the Orange Bowl, but by then NU was going 7-7 and about to go under repair.

This would have been a fun rivalry to continue in the 1980s, when Fry and Tom Osborne were legends-at-large and knocking out nine or 10 wins a year.

What we have now is Ferentz, who isn't exactly Bill McCartney when it comes to lighting a fire under Husker fans' rental chairs.

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The Iowa coach is polite, classy and straight vanilla. Hawk fans like to say he's the definition of predictability.

For instance, the other day Hawkeye Kevin was complaining that Ferentz never, ever changes from his conservative ways. He specifically stated that, in the week before they play Iowa, all Big Ten coaches say they know what to expect from Iowa.

I had to laugh when, later that day, I read a quote from NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis saying the Husker staff expected Iowa to run what the Hawks have run all season.

The Huskers are walking into a beehive this week, but the buzz is all about Ferentz, his bloated $3.8 million salary, and how the program has eroded under his watch. There have been coaching defections, off-the-field incidents, injuries and not nearly enough depth to keep Central Michigan from leaving Kinnick with a victory.

There are more and more Hawk fans echoing the grumbles of Hawkeye Kevin, who has supported Ferentz in the past but now says it's time for a new coach. There's a little matter of a sizable buyout for Ferentz's long-term deal. But folks like Hawkeye Kevin say the school just spent more than $200 million on facility upgrades for football and basketball. The money's there.

This is what the Huskers are walking into Saturday, a day when they can clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game in their second year in the league.

Unless, of course, Iowa gets in the way. You want to start a rivalry? A Hawkeye win, coupled with a Michigan win over Ohio State on Saturday, would be a start.

But are the Hawks up to it? Nebraska's offense and defense are rolling, Iowa's got battered and bruised bodies and egos, and their offense is the kind that Bo Pelini suffocates.

We'll find out Saturday. Drive safely. Honk if you see a rival.

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Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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