IOWA CITY, Iowa — Central Iowa provides the epicenter for three major events, and they’re all as different as apple pie and a pork tenderloin.
Every four years, the Iowa Caucuses dominate the national political picture. Candidates swarm the state but set up their headquarters in Des Moines. The day after the caucuses, Iowans welcome television ads for seed corn and soybeans while presidential contenders happily fly to New Hampshire and shed the word “ethanol” from their vocabulary, at least for a few months.
The Iowa State Fair boasts butter cows and edible heart-attack accelerators. Thankfully, the butter cows are sculpted and not eaten. The deep-fried chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick, however, clogs arteries like spackle on drywall.
Then there’s the Iowa-Iowa State football rivalry. Des Moines is ground zero for the state’s showcase sporting event, which pits the Hawkeyes and the Cyclones on the second Saturday of every September. Sports shows of all platforms fill up with banter and putdowns during Cy-Hawk week. Consider it a slightly more polite version of The Paul Finebaum Show.
Des Moines sits 30 miles south of Ames and 120 miles west of Iowa City. The state’s largest metro area tilts slightly toward Iowa State, but nowhere else in Iowa could a room fill organically with the same number of Hawkeyes and Cyclones. That’s everywhere from offices and communion lines to high school gymnasiums and holiday cookouts. Fans spar for most of the year but really antagonize one another this week.
In Central Iowa, nothing is bigger than Iowa-Iowa State. That includes the football showcase in September and the men’s basketball game in December. The bragging rights permeate into a year’s worth of conversations. In fact, many fans are less excited about their team winning than they are petrified of losing. Casual Fridays are a mosaic of cardinal red, gold and black the day before the Cy-Hawk game. It’s the most energized week of the year, especially for fair-weather fans.
Two hours east, the rivalry snapshot looks more like a pair of red stoplights at midnight. If Des Moines is a 50-50 split, Cedar Rapids is 80-20 in favor of Iowa fans. So are the other towns in the eastern third of the state. That’s still a significant number of Iowa State fans; they’re just dwarfed by Hawkeyes.
In Eastern Iowa, Cyclones fans stand out at parties and community functions. The discussions contain less banter and more patronization from Iowa fans. In this region, the annual focus tilts hard toward the Big Ten. The Cy-Hawk series matters, but it’s just for one week in September and a few days in December. Then it’s on to other rivalries like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern and Nebraska.
Media outlets reflect the mood. The Des Moines Register calls it “The Big Game.” The Cedar Rapids Gazette devotes no moniker to the rivalry game. Central Iowa television stations flock to both campuses and scrape every rivalry-related soundbite out of each player. There’s far less flocking and even fewer questions about the Heartland Trophy and Floyd of Rosedale from those outlets.
Geography matters in this debate and so does the uneven football history between the programs. Iowa State’s last league title was in 1912, it has reached nine victories in a season only twice and is the only Power 5 school to never play in a January bowl game. The Cyclones have been ranked in the final AP poll just twice — 25th in 2000 and 19th in 1976.
Iowa has played in 15 January bowls, including six Rose Bowls and two Orange Bowls. The Hawkeyes have 22 final AP poll rankings, including 13 in the top 10.
Additionally, the teams didn’t play for a 43-year stretch (1935-1976) before renewing the rivalry in 1977. In that period Iowa had six top-10 finishes, three Big Ten titles, two Rose Bowl titles and a share of the 1958 national title. If familiarity brought Iowa fans a century’s worth of contempt for its Big Ten rivals, it contributed to multi-generational apathy for its instate rival. That’s especially true in Eastern Iowa.
But Iowa fans everywhere recognize this week means bragging rights. The rivalry was restarted 40 years ago and Iowa dominated 15 straight years from 1983 through 1997. Iowa State ended the streak in 1998. In Kirk Ferentz’s 18 years as Iowa’s coach, the series is tied 9-9. It doesn’t matter if Iowa finishes the season ranked in the top 10 like in 2002, the Hawkeyes are capable of losing to the Cyclones. That was never more true that in 2014 when Iowa State upset Iowa 20-17 and finished 2-10.
Cy-Hawk week brings out the interest from every corner of the state. With the exception of 2001, the most recent 40 games were held in September. This early-season matchup puts the season in focus for the players, coaches and fans. No matter the result, Eastern Iowa Hawkeyes fans tend to move beyond the game and eye contests against its traditional Big Ten rivals. But if you live in Central Iowa, where the Cy-Hawk discussion lingers for an entire year, the pain is excruciating.
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