By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On this final day of 2019, I look back at a year that touched the emotions of Hawkeye fans like few years ever have before.
From the joy and jubilation of Megan Gustafson’s incredible rise to dominance to the pain and sadness caused by the deaths of Hayden Fry and Bump Elliott, this past year was filled with milestone and gut-wrenching moments that will forever be a part of Hawkeye legend and lore.
This past year saw a guy named Carson King hold up a sign in Ames of all places asking for beer money, and that sign, thanks to the kindness and generosity of people from all over the country and beyond, evolved into a fundraiser that raised over $3 million for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
This past year saw the Iowa men’s track team win the Big Ten outdoor championship, which under any circumstance, is an extraordinary accomplishment.
But there was more to this title, and that was apparent when Iowa coach Joey Woody crouched down on the UI track after victory had been achieved, buried his head in his chest and then had a quiet moment to himself.
Woody was thrilled to have won such a prestigious championship, but there was also an empty feeling that was caused by the recent death of his friend, mentor and former coach, John Raffensperger, who passed away just weeks before the outdoor championships on April 22 at the age of 78.
“I hadn’t cried up to this point through everything and this was the first time I just let it loose and just said this is obviously for him,” Woody said. “Just to honor him and everything he stood for and did for our program. I know he’s up above us looking down and smiling.
“I know he wanted to be here so bad, and that’s what he was fighting for. But he had the best seat in the house.”
The bond between Woody and Raffensperger dated all the way back to when Woody was a star hurdler for the Iowa City High track team in the early 1990s.
Raffensperger, as head coach, was in the early stages of turning the Little Hawks into a track and field dynasty that lasted throughout the 1990s.
Woody would go on to become an NCAA champion hurdler at Northern Iowa before returning to Iowa City as an assistant coach for the Hawkeyes.
He now runs both the men’s and women’s programs, and did so for years with Raffensperger working at his side.
This past year will be remembered, unfortunately, for Gary Dolphin twice being suspended from his job as Iowa’s radio play-by-play announcer, and for Fran McCaffery being suspended for two games.
Dolphin's first suspension actually came in November of 2018 when he was heard criticizing Iowa’s recruiting, and the play of guard Maishe Dailey, during a commercial break in a game. Dolphin didn’t realize the microphone was live and thought his comments were being made in private.
McCaffery, understandably, was livid, and it led to some awkwardness that became a storyline in 2019.
Dolphin was also suspended for the remainder of the 2018-19 season in late February for comments made during the postgame portion of Iowa’s radio broadcast of the Maryland game that was played on Feb. 19th at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Dolphin referred to Maryland center Bruno Fernando, who is black, as “King Kong,” and that was considered inappropriate.
Iowa fans rallied behind Dolphin, who has been the play-by-play announcer for football and men's basketball since 1996. Some felt that his comment about Fernando was blown out of proportion since it was meant as a compliment.
Dolphin issued a public apology and was eventually reinstated for men's basketball.
McCaffery’s suspension came after he berated an official in the moments after a 90-70 loss against Ohio State on Feb. 26 in Columbus.
Despite all of the distractions, Iowa still came agonizingly close to making the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years, losing to Tennessee 83-77 in overtime in the second round.
The Hawkeyes were left for dead after falling way behind in the first half, but they rallied in the second half and nearly pulled off a March Madness miracle.
This past year saw Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee save his best for last for a second consecutive season as the Pennsylvania native defended his national title at 125 pounds after having failed to win a Big Ten individual title for the second year in a row.
Lee is now halfway to becoming Iowa’s only four-time national champion in wrestling.
This past year saw four Iowa football players declare for the 2019 NFL Draft despite having eligibility remaining.
It’s news when just one Iowa player declares for the NFL Draft. But to have four do it in the same season is extremely rare.
Tight end Noah Fant was the first to announce that he was leaving in late 2018, and was eventually joined by defensive end Anthony Nelson, defensive back Amani Hooker and tight end T.J. Hockenson.
All four players were selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, including Hockenson and Fant in the first round, and they all four just completed their rookie seasons.
Hockenson and Fant, as first-round picks, both received multi-million dollar signing bonuses that should set them up for life, while Nelson and Hooker did okay financially as fourth-round picks.
The trend is likely to continue in 2020 as junior offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs and junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa both are expected to enter the 2020 NFL Draft.
This past year saw the beginning of what could turn out to be one of greatest single-season performances in the history of the Iowa men’s basketball program by junior center Luka Garza.
His 44-point performance at Michigan on Dec. 6 was the third highest single-game scoring total in program history behind only John Johnson’s 49 points against Northwestern in 1970 and John Johnson’s 46 points against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1968.
The 6-foot-11 Garza currently leads the Big Ten in scoring at 21.6 points per game and is averaging a double-double at 10 rebounds per game.
His dominance is one of the biggest reasons why Iowa has exceeded expectations so far with a 10-3 record.
This past year saw the receiver position become one of the biggest strengths on the Iowa football team, thanks to a four-player rotation that combined for 163 catches, 2,189 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns.
One of those receivers, junior Ihmir Smith-Marsette, capped the season in spectacular fashion by scoring three touchdowns during the 49-24 victory over USC in the Holiday Bowl last Friday in San Diego. All three of his touchdowns came in the second quarter, including a 98-yard kick return after USC had evened the score at 14.
This past year saw Tyler Goodson become the first true freshman to lead the Iowa football team in rushing for a single season.
The Georgia native started the season behind three experienced juniors, but was too talented to leave on the bench, so he had a significant role from the beginning.
Goodson’s role would increase as the season progressed until he ultimately became the starter late in the season.
This past year saw Devonte Young recover a fumbled punt that secured Iowa’s 18-17 victory over Iowa State in a game that was stopped for nearly three hours due to weather-related delays on Sept. 14 in Ames.
Young never became a starter at Iowa, but the Maryland native stayed the course and even switched from receiver to defensive back in hopes of getting more playing time. Instead of quitting or pouting, Young embraced his role on special teams and made a key block on Smith-Marsette’s 98-yard kick return for a touchdown in the Holiday Bowl.
Young also touched our hearts on Senior Day for having Kirk and Mary Ferentz represent him during the pre-game ceremony on the field. Tears flowed throughout Kinnick Stadium as Young embraced his head coach on the field.
It was a powerful moment, and a reminder that Kirk Ferentz is more than just a football coach.
Young’s parents had other family obligations that day and chose to attend Iowa’s bowl game instead of Senior Day.
Young was asked who he wanted to represent him on Senior Day and he picked his head coach, who was proud to honor the request.
Mary Ferentz even wore Young’s jersey number 17 during the ceremony.
“They told me beforehand that they were going to come out with the jersey, so I already expected it,” Young said. “But it was pretty nice, though. I really loved it.”
This past year saw the Iowa women’s basketball team win the Big Ten Tournament and advance to the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time under head coach Lisa Bluder.
Gustafson was a dominant force as a 6-3 center, who was named the National Player of Year. But she also had a strong supporting cast that included senior point guard Tania Davis and senior forward Hannah Stewart.
I will always hold this team, and the coaching staff, in the highest regard for what it accomplished on the court, but also for what it stood for off the court.
I suffered a personal loss on Feb. 25th of this past year when my dog, LaKota, was laid to rest due to failing health. LaKota had been my loyal companion for over a decade, so it was devastating to lose him, and Lisa Bluder and her assistants apparently knew that as they sent me a sympathy card.
To say that I was shocked would be an understatement, but maybe I shouldn’t have been because Lisa Bluder has always been such a class act.
The card now sits prominently on a table in my living room and serves as a constant reminder that even through sadness something good can happen.
This past year saw sadness happen near the end as Elliott and Fry both passed away within two weeks of each other in December.
Fry was 90 when he passed away, while Elliott was 94.
It was sort of fitting that they died so close together because they will forever be linked with Elliott having hired Fry as the Iowa head coach shortly after the 1978 season. Elliott already had failed with his first two hires in football at Iowa, so he had to get it right with Fry to save his job, and Elliott got it right in a big way as Fry would go on to lead one of the quickest rebuilds in Big Ten history, with Iowa making the Rose Bowl in year three.
The Iowa football team honored both of their legacies by dismantling USC in the Holiday Bowl, which was Fry's favorite bowl game. It was the perfect ending to a year that was drenched in emotion.