The cold truth: Iowa is once again a contender

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has has a lot to look forward to this season with 15 starters returning. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- You know the thing about Iowa, right?

It’s there. Bedrock. The foundation of Americana.

Iowa football, too, is there -- reliable, steady. Even if you think you know little about the Hawkeyes, you probably know enough to understand their place in the Big Ten and national hierarchy. Iowa is the only FBS program to post identical records in the two decades before last season -- 73-54 from 1995 to 2004 and the same from 2005 to 2014.

But then last season, Iowa strayed from its place. The Hawkeyes weren’t just there. They were 12-0, playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Ultimately routed by Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Iowa still made you take a second look.

Which brings me to Friday in West Des Moines. Iowa takes one spring practice on the road each year to the population center of its state. On a nice day, a few thousand people show up.

At some point Friday night, I checked the temperature. It was 36 degrees. The sun had set behind the west stands of Valley Stadium. The wind gusted at more than 25 mph straight out of the north.

I wore a light jacket on top of a long-sleeve shirt, both covered by a heavier coat. Gloves did little to thaw my fingers. The Hawkeyes ran drills in half-pads.

Quarterback C.J. Beathard, still recovering from January surgery to repair a sports hernia, made crisp throws and looked good in dancing away from the pocket. Sophomores Jay Scheel at receiver, bidding to replace Tevaun Smith, and cornerback Joshua Jackson, limited by injury but playing for Greg Mabin, wowed the brave souls in the bleachers with nice plays downfield.

After an hour or so, I gave up trying to write in my notebook and looked for Kirk Ferentz. Surely, Ferentz, preparing his 18th season as the longest-tenured FBS head coach alongside Oklahoma's Bob Stoops -- incidentally a former Iowa defensive back and graduate assistant -- would wrap this thing soon.

But there was Ferentz at midfield, dressed in a black hoodie with gold lettering and gray sweatpants. Ferentz, 60, did not look cold. Maybe it was just a metaphor induced by my frozen toes, but it hit me that Ferentz is unwavering, unaffected by football climate -- much like his program and the Hawkeyes on this night.

"We’re making strides," Ferentz said later, still standing outside as he referenced Iowa’s spring progress.

After the coach ended the workout with a team huddle, he tasked his players to hold a youth clinic.

"It’s never pretty this time of year," he said. "That's certainly the case right now."

At this time of year, Ferentz hinted, he’s rarely pleased. He noted with the recent assessment of Tom Moore, an ex-Hawkeye and the current assistant head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, who reminded Ferentz that in the spring, "half the coaches are [happy], half are sad, and the head coach, he’s always mad."

Regardless of the piles of work required before Iowa opens Sept. 3 with Miami (Ohio), Ferentz has reason to smile.

Look around the West Division. To Iowa’s west, Nebraska is still building one year after a coaching change. Same goes for Wisconsin to the north, and the Badgers face a brutal schedule next fall. Minnesota is adjusting after upheaval in the wake of Tracy Claeys' promotion to head coach. To the east, Illinois has changed coaches twice since August.

Iowa beat Northwestern by 30 points in Evanston last season.

The Hawkeyes are well-positioned, with 15 starters back. That strong bedrock for which Iowa is known? It’s the best thing going for Ferentz this offseason.

Experienced Iowa players possess an added confidence after the success of last season.

Junior Boone Myers, for instance, shrugs off the challenge of a move to left guard after he played primarily at left tackle last year in his first season as a starter.

"It’s all kind of the same thing," Myers said. "You’re blocking."

Young Hawkeyes are confident, understanding the importance of a foundation firmly in place.

"The expectations are higher, as a defense and as a team," sophomore defensive end Parker Hesse said. "We want to build on what we did last year."

Hesse started eight games last season, learning from the injured Drew Ott and fellow end Nate Meier.

"They went about their business as Hawkeyes should," Hesse said. "They gave it their all every practice, every game. That’s a recipe for success in anything you do."

Not everywhere. But at Iowa, yes. On a cold night in West Des Moines, Iowa offered a reminder: Again in 2016, it will be there -- and ready to contend.