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'We are not leaving.' Not even a loss could stop Iowa's Rose Bowl celebration

For tens of thousands of people in Pasadena on New Year's Day, what mattered more than anything else was being there.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 70-year-old man in the rainbow pants has every right to be picky with the ticket scalpers. He's waited 26 years to walk back into this stadium.

William Crafts, originally from Davenport, Iowa and now residing in Florida, was here for the previous Hawkeye Rose Bowl. Crafts pulls out a Rose Bowl seating chart and shrugs off the offer from the scalper in front of him.

The last time, he was here with his son, who was then 13. He's brought his best friend this time. There are four hours until kickoff.

It's a buyer's market for this, the 102nd Rose Bowl, the most important game No. 5 Iowa could possibly be playing in.

"Even more than the Playoff," William says.

Even more than the Pla- wait, what? Seriously?

"Of course it is. We were never projected to do anything. We were supposed to be a below-.500 team. For us to make it this far is amazing. We've got two-star players against five-star players in our conference, and we came out 30 seconds away from an undefeated season? That's amazing!"

Five yards away, his friend, Jim, stops haggling with a scalper and yells, "It's better here than playing Alabama."

* * *

"I'd say it's better, yeah."

In a grassy area labeled Lot H, Jacob Bottoms and his friends are selling homemade t-shirts to offset some travel costs. Bottoms, wearing an original 1991 Rose Bowl hat, is an Iowa grad who's lived in the Los Angeles area for six years. He works for a beer distributor, and for the last week, he's watched Iowa fans find each other in traffic around L.A., much to the horror of other commuters.

"You see black and gold and slow down your car to start yelling. People start screaming, 'GO HAWKS,' out of nowhere on the street. It's been pretty awesome to see."

His friends agree that after they saw what happened to Michigan State in the Playoff, today's sunshine, California vista and not-Alabama-ness make the end of the Big Ten Championship feel fortuitous.

"Also, there's probably six or eight inches of snow on the ground at home right now. So, this is pretty amazing for Iowa."

* * *

Blame Chuck Long. The legendary Iowa quarterback was on the coaching staff of Oklahoma the year the Sooners' Rose Bowl bid bumped the Hawkeyes to the Orange. In the 26-year drought, that 2002 season was as close as Iowa came to Pasadena. Iowa lost the Orange Bowl to USC, and OU beat Washington State in Pasadena.

"There were four Hawkeyes on that staff. Bob Stoops, Mike Stoops, me and Jonathan Hayes," Long tells me in Pasadena. "The joke for us was that we couldn't win the Rose Bowl in the Big Ten. We had to go to Oklahoma to do it."

We're standing behind the Big Ten Network's on-site set, where Long's working as an on-air analyst. Long is a fixture at national events for the Big Ten. His alma mater is not.

In every direction, Iowa fans soak the barricades, having just swarmed both the Hawkeyes' arriving team bus and Stanford's.

"The entire state poured out into California," he says, looking at the crowd. "I think we could have 60,000. Something about the Rose Bowl really brings out a lot of state pride. You really pull together as a state. You've got Iowa State fans here, Northern Iowa fans."

All morning, Iowa has celebrated the Rose as an accomplishment exclusive of its coming result. The team made it! We made it here! California! Iowa did it!

ESPN

Long's is my first conversation that shifts away from Pasadena sunshine to the football matters at hand.

"You'd like some icing on the cake after this season. This team will always be remembered for going undefeated, and then to lose the Big Ten Championship on basically a play, this was a great thing to get into.

"It would be great for a win. That would really justify the season, something to show for the effort that went into 12-0 in the regular season.

"But if it doesn't happen, it's great to be here. To have Ohio State and Michigan State as the cream of the crop this year and Iowa to surpass one of those teams in the rankings [by the Playoff committee, which determined the conference's Rose representative], that's monumental."

* * *

A hoarse Tom Arnold is interviewed on the Jumbotron during a television timeout. In the Rose Bowl concourse there are no video monitors, so his voice is initially mistaken as "just some bro" by Iowa passers-by.

"We spotted 'em a few points! We've got 'em right where we want 'em," Arnold is trying to scream.

The Hawkeye fans roar. It carries outside of the stadium, where, without knowing exactly why, more Iowa fans start cheering. Down 35-0, Iowa fans have left their seats by the thousands, but no one is leaving.

"I flew halfway across the fucking country [from Chicago] to see this. I'm not leaving," a fan named Joe says.

Joe and his three friends are each holding two draft beers, standing in a half circle and grimacing. When they're asked the boilerplate Rose Bowl stuff, the response is clipped and cliched, like a coach's.

"Great venue. California. Got a certain vibe about it. Lot of fans. Fun atmosphere."

"You hear Tom Arnold on the jumbotron?" Joe asks. "He got everyone fired up."

Joe's friend, Michael who lives in Washington, D.C., volunteers: "I woke up at 4 a.m. to go the parade."

OK.

"Ask him what time he went to bed last night," a woman next to Michael says.

"Actually, I have not slept. We've been here seven days," Michael says.

OK.

"We are not leaving," Michael says.

"We are not leaving," Joe says.

I spend the next 10 minutes on the phone, trying to track down Arnold, eventually getting the number for his publicist. Surely Iowa superfan Tom Arnold could reconcile whatever merit was left of this day.

"Hi Steven! So sorry, but we had to leave," the publicist texted.

* * *

She was wearing a real Iowa cheerleader's outfit over a pair of black tights. This was easy to miss in the crowd, until, after much goading, she had someone hold her beer. She screamed, "CLASS OF '02!" and performed a sort of cartwheel on the asphalt. She stuck it.

"Honestly I didn't buy tickets for the game. I came to tailgate, and we scalped tickets for good money. It was about the experience. I'm never gonna see this again. It's been 25 years since the last one, so ..."

She gave her real name and her real hometown (in Southwest Iowa), then negotiated out of both for fear of being recognized by former classmates or 2002 Iowa pom squad members. She lives in Texas now.

"Call her Penelope. That's a great fake name," her friend suggests.

"When am I ever gonna be able to do this again, honestly? I mean, when am I ever going to wear a $1,000 cheerleading uniform again?" Penelope says.

College cheerleading uniforms cost $1,000?

"Probably more like $600 for everything, home and away. But yeah, you pay a fee."

Penelope grew up in an Iowa farming community, but not on a farm. She did work at a hog-processing facility in high school, but just to pay for her car.

"You would have to cut off the tails and their nuts. Oh God, please don't report that."

The fans outside have stopped checking the score. The audience for Penelope's first cartwheel is demanding an encore. She demurs.

"We're in L.A. County, where they love to sue people. And my foot does not need to be the center of a lawsuit."

* * *

This is what a fake Rose Bowl ticket looks like. When your girlfriend is from Iowa and living in Southern California and this Iowa Rose Bowl thing happens for the second time in 26 football seasons, you want to go big and get great seats. You wanna be the great boyfriend.

When a guy who knows a guy says he can get you "really good seats close to the sideline," you get two, plus you talk five other friends into going in, and you spend $800 total.

"And then we walk up here to the gate and they're like, 'Nope. No, sorry,'" says Chris, the new Iowa-fan-via-his-girlfriend.

"Not even close. The real tickets don't look anything like that."

He's right. Real game tickets are big, glossy vertical prints with embossed logos.

Since you've been tailgating all morning, your courage and impulse are running high. Iowa is in the Rose Bowl. You and your girlfriend and your friends are going to be in that Rose Bowl too, dammit.

"Yeah so, we hung around outside for a while and bought seats off of a scalper and got here in the second quarter."

But since you've been tailgating all morning, it never crosses your mind to check the score.

"Yeah, we had no idea," he says.

So you and your friends spend $500 on top of the $800 you already spent to walk into a game down 35 points.

"Well, when you put it that way it's really kind of depressing. But we're here," Chris' girlfriend says.

* * *

There is a sizeable Bronx cheer when Marshall Koehn scores the first Hawkeye points of the day, a 39-yard field goal to cut Iowa's deficit to 35 in the third quarter. There is genuine exultation, though, when C.J. Beathard throws the first of his two fourth-quarter touchdown passes.

The crowd roars as if it was a scoreless opening period. For the remaining minutes, fans cheer Iowa for ... well, being Iowa at the Rose Bowl, it seems.

The crowd, with four minutes left, when Iowa was down by 29 points:

"I saw that when I was looking back at the end of the game and trying to soak it in," Iowa linebacker Joey Jewell said after the game.

"We have the greatest fans in the nation. They stayed there even though we were getting our butts really kicked. You know you always have that in the background when you’re playing here."

"We talked about it [on the sideline]. We noticed it," running back Jordan Canzeri said. "And it’s something we’ve talked about before [during games]. Our fans have been like that for every single game no matter the position we’re in. We’re really grateful for that."

If anything, the Iowa locker room feels more functionless than distraught after the game. This is a 12-0 team that lost a title game on the last drive. It never had a chance against Stanford, and it had gone the season without that kind of predicament.

Beathard stands in the corner, being asked endless versions of the same question: what was 2015 Iowa?

"Well ... I know we were undefeated this season. I know we worked hard for that. I hope people can remember that," he says, followed by a long silence.

* * *

That's Nick on the left and Heath on the right, Iowans who coordinated the Hayden Fry costumes only because they were coming to Pasadena.

"We're not treating this like another bowl game. We don't put on these outfits if it's another bowl game. This is the culmination of a supreme effort. Making the Rose Bowl is the ultimate prize," Heath says.

The game is almost over by the time I reach them. Iowa was minutes away from its second straight loss, having slid from an undefeated Playoff contender to Rose Bowl participant, a title without ignominy even down five scores.

"We'd been yearning to be here for so long that when we were faced with the option of the Playoff or the Rose Bowl, it was like, 'Eh, that's a pretty good consolation,'" Nick said.

"Obviously you want to be in the Playoff if you can be. People are telling you they'd rather be here than a Playoff because they're here right now," Heath said.

A few feet away of us are bowl officials in all-white suits and red ties, gathering to take pictures. Chairmen, presidents, old rich men. It's another beautiful day in Pasadena, so the game's score is arbitrary.

The fact that the Rose and Sugar bowls and their conferences forced ESPN to move the Playoff semis to meager ratings on New Year's Eve is of no mind here. The blowout score inside hasn't even thinned the crowd. If anything, the gold and black sections are thicker than cardinal this late in the day.

"The Rose Bowl should always always be on the first [of January]," Nick says, shrugging when I mention TV ratings.

"They're in charge. The Rose Bowl is the bowl season. They deserve that 4 p.m. slot where no one else is competing with you. It's an entire event," Heath says.

Twice I ask Heath if he works in public relations for the bowl or for the city of Pasadena or some other third party. His responses are so elegant and emphatic, they might be unsettling for a college football fan outside of this game's historical footprint to reconcile.

"How do I describe the Rose Bowl? I'd describe it as a community and a stadium that exists to host the biggest and most fabulous bowl game of the entire season. And they have for over 100 years. They are the legendary ones. They're never going to be backed down. They're always going to stay on top. The elite, the best of the best, play in the Rose Bowl."