By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa football team’s improbable march to its most recent Big Ten title in 2004 really came out of nowhere and made little sense if you consider the unusual circumstances.
It was unusual because Iowa was decimated by injuries at running back and had virtually no rushing attack, which is the driving force behind Kirk Ferentz’s ball control offense.
The 2004 team also lost two of its first four games, including an embarrassing 44-7 drubbing at Arizona State in the third game of the season.
Kirk Ferentz’s father also died during the 2004 season, and yet, his team stayed the course and refused to unravel.
The players and coaches turned tragedy and adversity into triumph and jubilation, and now 15 years later, they’ll be honored for defying odds at the 11th annual Fryfest event on Friday at Coralville’s Iowa River Landing.
“It sucks to see your teammates get injured, but it’s so awesome and inspiring to see your other teammates rise to the challenge, said Iowa City native Tyler Luebke, who started at defensive tackle for the 2004 team as a senior and former walk-on.
There will be a panel discussion at Fryfest featuring former players from the 2004 team, including receiver Warren Holloway, linebacker Chad Greenway and defensive end Matt Roth among others.
The players will also sign autographs and reminisce with fans about a season that ranks among the greatest in program history, and among the strangest in program history.
Even the final scores of some of the games were strange, most notably the back-to-victories over Ohio State and Penn State by scores of 33-7 and 6-4, respectively.
I remember looking up to the scoreboard at Kinnick Stadium in the final seconds of the Ohio State game and thinking we might never see anything like this again because rarely does Iowa beat the mighty Buckeyes, home or away.
And then a week later, Iowa surrendered two safeties to Penn State and failed to score a touchdown, and yet still found a way to prevail under brutal circumstances with Ferentz’s father having passed away just days before.
“It had its effect,” Luebke said. “When someone is as influential in your life as Kirk Ferentz is as a coach, you feel that loss and you feel that pain and you want to do your best to help him get through a tough moment.
“But the team was also going through a tough moment because we all felt it. We all felt his loss.”
What Luebke didn’t feel during the Penn State game was any sense of panic or that Iowa was in trouble. His confidence never wavered despite the close score and despite being in a hostile road environment.
“That was an interesting game,” Luebke said. “As weird as it sounds, and as close as that score was, I always felt very confident that we were in control of that game. It was just a weird feeling. The whole week was a weird feeling.”
A magical mission
It was after the Penn State game when I started thinking that the 2004 team was on a magical mission that defied logic.
The 2004 season started with back-to-back victories over Kent State and Iowa State by scores of 39-7 and 17-10, respectively.
However, Iowa was expected to win both games, so there wasn’t a growing sense that the 2004 team had a chance to be special.
Iowa was also coming off back-to-back seasons where it had finished 11-2 in 2002 and 10-3 in 2003, and there was concern that the momentum would shift during the 2004 season.
The level of concern grew considerably after the Arizona State loss, which was followed by a 30-17 loss at Michigan in the Big Ten opener a week later.
My biggest recollection from the debacle in the desert is getting drenched in a place where it hardly ever rains. It didn’t just rain prior to kickoff of the Arizona State game, it was more like a monsoon in the desert. The game was delayed approximately 40 minutes due to heavy rain and lightning.
The force of the rain that night was vastly superior to the force that Iowa had shown on the field against what was a pretty good Arizona State team that would go on to finish 9-3 that season.
The media also would learn on that roan-soaked night just how much Iowa quarterback Drew Tate hated to lose because to say that he was upset after the disaster in the desert would be understatement.
Tate was devastated and angry and had little to say to reporters.
Tate was even cranky sometimes after victories, so his patience was pushed to the limit after the Arizona State loss.
Most of the players had little to say after the Arizona State beat-down, and really, what could they say under the circumstances.
A punt return for a touchdown by reserve defensive back Walner Belleus long after the outcome had been decided is all that kept the Hawkeyes from being shutout.
“We didn’t come down here to lose 44-0,” Iowa offensive lineman Pete McMahon said to the media after the game.
When reminded that the final score was actually 44-7, McMahon said:
“We didn’t come down here to lose 44-7, either.”
That was a brief moment of levity that I will always remember about a miserable night in the desert.
The stench from the Arizona State loss followed the Iowa players back to Iowa City, where a toilet was placed in the weight room as a constant reminder of what had just happened, but also as a way to say "flush it" and move on to the next game.
Tate was also in a bad mood the following week after the loss to Michigan, but there was a feeling of hope after that game because Iowa had shown some toughness and resolve that was missing in the Arizona State game.
“Just like the saying goes, you learn more about who you are when you get beat,” Luebke said. “I think we did take strides during that week to recover from getting thrashed the week before (at Arizona State.”
Tate to Holloway
My lasting memory from the Michigan game was when Tate lost his helmet, but still stayed in the pocket looking for an open receiver despite being surrounded by pursuing defenders.
I remember thinking this kid is tough and will do anything to make a play.
Tate, as a sophomore and as a first-year starter, would go on to be named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year that season, which was capped by his now legendary touchdown pass to Holloway that defeated Louisiana State 30-25 as time expired in the Capital One Bowl.
It was fitting that the season ended that way because Tate’s touchdown pass to Holloway was symbolic of the season in that Tate took what could have been a disastrous play and turned it into arguably the greatest touchdown pass, catch and finish to a game in program history.
“Drew Tate kind of held us together in his own fiery way,” Luebke said. “It was so cool to see. We fed off his energy and his passion.”
Holloway hadn’t caught a touchdown pass for Iowa until he and Tate connected on the 56-yard scoring strike against LSU. Holloway slipped past the LSU secondary and then Tate hit him in stride, much to the shock of both fans bases that filled the stadium in Orlando, Fla., on that steamy New Year’s Day.
“And he’s a tiny guy,” Luebke said of Holloway, who stood about 5-foot-10 and weighed less than 200 pounds as a Hawkeye. “He was the smallest guy in the senior class that year. I was looking at a picture recently and he just looks tiny compared to all of us.”
“He’s soft-spoken. You couldn’t ask for it to have happened to a better guy.”
The 2004 squad certainly had its share of marque players, especially on defense where Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway were ascending to stardom as junior linebackers.
Luebke was also part of a defensive line that included Roth as a highly emotional and hard-charging All-Big Ten defensive end and the immensely talented Jonathan Babineaux at defensive tackle.
“There was just such a good vibe between the entire defense,” Luebke said. “We knew what to expect and we knew that Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway had our backs.
“Matt Roth went a little bit crazy at times and I maybe had to stay home a little bit. But we all sort of complemented each other’s playing styles.”
The players also handled adversity in a mature fashion and used it as fuel when things got tough. Maybe it took the two early losses to Arizona State and Michigan for the players to reach their potential and to realize what it would take to be successful.
“Adversity made us stronger and brought us closer together,” Hodge said in a recent interview. “In some ways, the two losses helped us because they created a sense of urgency and a heightened awareness that is was now or never. We had a lot of good, tough-minded players on that team who refused to succumb to difficult circumstances. We believed in ourselves and we believed in the coaches, and they believed in us.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish just from believing in yourself and by putting the team first. I’m so proud to have been a member of that team because it was special in so many ways.”
Sam Brownlee’s impact
You can’t write about the 2004 season without mentioning the role played by walk-on running back Sam Brownlee.
The Emmetsburg native went from being an afterthought who was buried on the depth chart to Iowa’s featured running back after the position had been depleted by injuries midway through the season.
Brownlee only gained 227 yards on the ground, which is the third lowest total for Iowa’s leading rusher for a season since 1933.
But statistics hard tell the story about Brownlee’s impact.
“Sam was great, his personality and his attitude,” Luebke said. “When he got that position, he didn’t want that position. He was more than willing to step up and take that role. He kind of did what we needed. He gave it his all.”
Schlicher the kicker
The 2004 squad was 5-0 in games decided by seven or fewer points and much of the credit goes to kicker Kyle Schlicher. The Ankeny native in his first year as a starter scored all of his team’s points against Penn State on two field goals and made three clutch field goals that helped to secure a 23-21 victory against Purdue.
“To have field goal kicker step up and do what he did today, that was helpful, needless to say,” Kirk Ferentz said after the Purdue game. “That won us the ballgame, probably.”
Hawkeye fans might say that Iowa's 55-24 victory over Ohio State in 2017 ranks above all the other victories over the Buckeyes. But Iowa would go to finish just 8-5 that season, whereas the 2004 squad finished 10-2 and shared the conference title with Michigan.
The 2004 squad was resilient and gritty, and relentless in its approch to winning.
It probably is safe to say that we’ll never experience another season like the 2004 campaign because the thought of Iowa winning a Big Ten title with hardly any semblance of a running game just doesn’t make sense.
But that is the real beauty of the 2004 squad in that it made the unbelievable believable. The players and coaches stood up to adversity and they stood together when a lot of teams might have splintered under the pressure.
“We just had a bunch of guys that wanted to win and were willing to do whatever took to win,” Luebke said. “I as a defensive guy am always going to toot our horn about how good of a group we were.
“When knew that when we had to step up, we stepped up.”
And now 15 years later, it’s time to say thanks for giving Iowa fans a season to remember forever.