"Please, let's just try to win this game."
That was the guy in the row in front of me at Kinnick Stadium on Friday, half joking and half hoping that for once in his time, Iowa would act like it cared as much as he did.
I never talked to my newfound friend before Friday, and I'm sure I'll never talk to him again. But he cared. He came out the day after Thanksgiving to sit in the freezing cold on metal benches that hadn't been cleared of snow to watch a Nebraska-Iowa game that was meaningless beyond mid-tier bowl positioning and rivalry pride.
Did Iowa care?
Of course, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wanted to win. And Iowa athletic director Gary Barta wants to have a winning program. To deny this would be equivalent to being one of those people who thinks Obama wants America to be weak. Of course the people in charge want to be successful.
But on Friday, it seemed tough for my fellow Iowan to feel that way. The Hawkeyes kept running "Weisman stretch" over and over, despite the fact that it has never worked. They kept punting to a guy who had proven an ability to make big plays. Throwing downfield worked, so they stopped. And when all was said and done, Iowa blew a 24-7 lead to lose, 37-34, in overtime.
Ferentz's answer to the latest disappointment? "That's football."
Over the past three years, Iowa is 10-11 in Kinnick Stadium, a tough place to play because of how close the crowd is to the field. Iowa has 11 losses as double-digit favorites since 2006. The Hawkeyes haven't been nationally relevant since 2009. When Ferentz needed a new offensive coordinator after 2011, he hired the most conservative one he could find, Greg Davis — someone whose style is statistically the wrong way to win games. But it doesn't matter, because Ferentz has a contract through 2020.
So you'll forgive my new friend if he's come to expect maddening complacency.
He will be back, because he loves Iowa football. He's one of the 50,000 or so who will be at every game every year. But as the program has seemed to care less, the fans have too. It showed on Friday, with a half-full student section and an atmosphere that was a shell of what it was in the mid-2000s.
This was the saddest thing for me. I'm a senior at Northwestern, so my Hawkeye allegiance from my youth has dwindled. I'm as proud an Iowan as you'll find, so I'll always want my state's team to do well. But I've learned since going off to college that life goes on even after Iowa and Northwestern lose (which they do far too often).
This was probably my last trip to Kinnick Stadium for a while. At Northwestern, I've met a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds, and I'm thankful for that, but it made me want to hang onto my Iowa-ness. It made me want to tell everyone about that place I grew up in, where you could barely hear yourself talk, and where everyone in Iowa came together to form one of the state's biggest cities every Saturday. I was proud to have a brat and a Busch for breakfast on Friday and felt so immersed in state pride.
But those days are gone. Going to Iowa football isn't a thing you do these days, because people have better things to do. They have better things to do than sit in the cold in a stadium with no cell service, with benches the athletic department hasn't bothered to clear of snow and with a football team that seems content going 7-5 or 8-4. Because despite being 11th nationally in total revenue, it hasn't invested in finding people who can contend for championships.
Iowa is losing the Iowa I grew up with. I sort of came to peace with that on Friday, knowing that I couldn't expect things to ever be what they were. Iowa is losing a generation, and it's about to graduate its second straight class that has sat through mediocrity.
My new friend will be back, and eventually I'll be back. Some people can't stay away. But there are a lot of other people who have stopped coming back.