Jeff Calentine could’ve walked into Jack Trice Stadium and picked a bleacher. Any bleacher. For free.
Growing up during the 1990s in Ames, Iowa, fall Saturdays felt like a three-hour dentist visit. Let’s tighten those braces, son! Iowa State had 10 consecutive losing seasons in the 90s. The low points? Hosting Nebraska.
“That was tough to sit there and watch, especially at an impressionable age,” said Calentine, 39, who works now for the La Vista public works department. “You almost have to fall in love with Iowa State to be an Iowa State fan. Because you weren’t being drawn in by top-10 performances and beating ranked teams.
“It’s having faith that something isn’t great but could be great one day.”
Twenty-plus years later, the days have come.
Friday night, Calentine will drive from Omaha to Ames, crash a few hours — “I won’t be able to sleep, I’ll guarantee that” — and arrive at Jack Trice before dawn, hoping to catch a glimpse of “College GameDay” and absorb the biggest college football game ever in the state of Iowa.
No. 9 Iowa State vs. No. 10 Iowa. Oh my.
“It’s going to be a madhouse,” Calentine said. “I won’t ever forget it. For me, it’s almost emotional because of what I’ve been through. Being a fan for so long and sticking with it. Makes it that much sweeter when it does happen.”
Meanwhile ... on the west side of the river, Nebraska strives for its first .500 season in five years, hosting a critical game against Buffalo. I know, it’s become cliché here in Husker Nation to gaze across the Great Plains and feel a sense of missing out. But if ever there was a week to beat the dead horse, this is it.
Memorial Stadium hasn’t hosted a showdown between top-10 teams in 20 years. Not even a game between Top 25 teams since 2013.
Iowans — both Cyclone and Hawkeye fans — are actually and sincerely encouraging Nebraskans to hang in there. Keep your head up. It’ll get better. “Give it time,” Calentine said.
He’s an Iowa State fan!
Bizarro world, right? But that’s how good Matt Campbell has been in five seasons. And while we occasionally tease Kirk Ferentz for his Kharisma and pooch punting, it’s hard to quibble with Iowa’s consistency and longevity.
The buzz for Saturday morning’s showdown starts in Ames and Iowa City, where Hawkeye tailback Tyler Goodson triggered the Cyclones’ Little Brother Complex on Tuesday.
“This is like their Super Bowl,” Goodson said, suggesting that it’s no big deal for Iowa.
The ripples of enthusiasm extend all the way to Omaha, where friends are talking trash and making bets.
For Calentine, it’s an annual case of Budweiser against former neighbor and diehard Hawkeye Phil Bruch, who comes from humble beginnings, too.
Poor guy grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, during the Hawkeyes’ 18-year streak of non-winning seasons. Then Hayden Fry showed up and flipped the culture. In 1981, Bruch was working in the university hospital — a diagnostic procedure — a few hundred yards from Kinnick Stadium when he heard the roars of a Big Ten championship.
“You gotta do your job, but you’re like, ‘Ooooh, I wish I was over there.’”
A few years later, Bruch moved to Omaha and endured another crummy decade — the 90s — before Ferentz remodeled the black and gold. Bruch, too, sees some of his story in the Huskers’ recent humiliations.
“The Husker fans have not had a long-term exposure to losing like Iowa State and Iowa fans have,” Bruch said. “We’ve always had that feeling that, ‘Oh, this could be the year.’ And your hopes get dashed each year.”
That sound you hear is your Husker neighbor grinding his teeth at the thought of Iowa and Iowa State fans feeling pity for Nebraska. Let’s wait until Iowa or Iowa State plays for a national title, right?
Accept it or not, the Hawks and Clones represent the best rebuttal to national critics who claim Nebraska can’t win big anymore. If the state of Iowa can produce two top-10 teams, you’re telling me Nebraska can’t produce one?
To get back, the Huskers would be wise to recognize Iowa and Iowa State’s strengths, primarily continuity, physicality and full commitment to player development and identity.
Basically all the things Nebraska used to represent.
“When Nebraska is changing coaches every few years, how do you get the consistency that kids can buy into?” Bruch said.
Makes you wonder if the Hawkeyes and Cyclones would be on this stage if Nebraska were still Nebraska.
Like third-world dictatorships or oceanic ecosystems, college football is a zero-sum game. When a bully falls, others rise up and fill his throne.
Nebraska’s collapse over the past 20 years has opened the door to some fascinating breakthroughs, first at Kansas State in the early 2000s, then Missouri and Kansas in the late 2000s. You might argue that Minnesota, Northwestern and the Iowa schools have benefitted, too.
Does Campbell lure three All-America candidates to Ames if Nebraska is a top-10 team? Doubtful.
Does Ferentz have a perennial Big Ten West contender if the Huskers hadn’t surrendered their championship formula? Not likely.
Nebraska’s loss is Iowa’s gain and it’ll never be more obvious when Jack Trice Stadium, for one day at least, becomes the epicenter of college football.
Calentine will be there, cheering his guts out while trying to grasp how it ever came to this.
Winning two or three games a year — for all those years — strains your devotion, he said. Makes you question your sanity, too. But when it finally turns around? Well, the agony enhances the reward. Joy overflows.
“I could see the same thing happening for Nebraska,” Calentine said.
A Cyclone offering hope for Big Red? Grit those teeth and smile, Husker fans.