Missed opportunity

The Webster County I-Club banquet is conspicuously absent from this year’s spring sports schedule, abruptly bringing an end to a tradition four full decades strong.

Fort Dodge isn’t the revamped tour schedule’s lone casualty. Nine of the 21 I-Club stops from a year ago were cut from the 2016 slate, and only two locations – Des Moines and Cedar Rapids – will repeat as hosts next spring. That means all of the other sites will rotate and now welcome the new ”Hawkeye State Tour” on a biennial basis only.

So yes, the event will technically return in 2017. But in what capacity?

University of Iowa athletic coaches and personalities have been making the rounds on the I-Club circuit since the mid-1970s. Hundreds of Hawkeye supporters young and old have faithfully gathered in Fort Dodge every single year – without fail – just to have the chance to shake the hands of the basketball coach, take a picture with a football personality, or get an autograph with a leader of the wrestling program. Shoulder rubbing and glad handing aside, I-Club events also served fundraising purposes, and area board members have devoted immeasurable amounts of sweat equity to ensure a Grade-A presentation.

Matt Henderson, Iowa’s senior associate athletics director, said in a statement, ”over the past 40 years, we have been pleased to be able to make over 25 stops annually across the Hawkeye state from the Mississippi to the Missouri, and can’t thank our volunteers enough for the help and coordination they have provided – along with the wonderful support from our fans.

”Over this same period, there have been significant changes in the way our fans receive information about our Hawkeye teams (social media and the internet to name a couple), time demands and calendar changes as it relates to recruiting, increase in additional activities/time demands for families in the local communities, along with the challenges associated to maintaining such a large outreach calendar in a small window of time. Taking all this into consideration, we made the decision to rotate locations and re-brand the Hawkeye State Tour.”

Look, I understand the motivation to ”right-size” the I-Club circuit from a convenience standpoint. Logically speaking, it’s always been a bit of a stretch to ask Iowa coaches to visit two dozen locations over a six-week period of time.

Notice I said a stretch. Not a burden.

I’m trying to decide now, as the Best Western Startlite Village banquet room sits empty, if Fran McCaffery truly meant it when he said last May, ”this is my seventh (state-wide tour), and every stop is just awesome. It’s always fun to be able to go to different parts of the state and say thanks to our fans, who have been with us every step of the way.” Or better yet, was it lip service when Kirk Ferentz told me during a stop two years ago, ”(Former athletic director) Bump Elliott explained to me a long time ago just how big this is for our fans, and how much it should also mean to the coaching family here at Iowa. His advice always stuck with me. We have supporters who spend a lot of money and drive great distances to watch us play. It’s an honor for us to give something back and meet our Hawkeye family face-to-face.”

I don’t know where the idea originated in the chain of command, or who made the final decision to pare the tour for 2016. It may have been done in good faith. This could simply be the inevitable conclusion to what the university’s athletic department deems a long-overdue schedule adjustment.

I will say this: after discussing the changes with many fans and I-Club board members, Hawkeye supporters are anywhere from frustrated to disappointed to hurt. Their relationship with the university’s athletic department, always considered a two-way street, suddenly feels very cold and business-like. Trust had been a given; now, it’s a concern moving forward.

Webster County representatives understand they aren’t being singled out, but that’s a big part of the problem. Eight other traditional I-Club stops – including Waterloo and Council Bluffs – were vacated in 2016. Next year, places like Davenport, Sioux City, Mason City and Dubuque will rotate off the tour.

Not exactly podunk communities.

Henderson added, ”we understand that this change impacts a number of great Hawkeye fans, but we hope they recognize the need for change and realize we truly appreciate their support as we have the best fans in the nation. We will continue to evaluate each of our Hawkeye State Tour stops, and these changes allow us flexibility in future locations and dates. We know we have Hawkeye fans in every town across the state.”

The athletic department may ”know” it, but are they showing it?

The ”Hawkeye State Tour” format is a classic example of the school not seeing the forest through the trees. It may be suitable on paper to free the coaches from the frequency of these community visits, but it’s not socially responsible. And if coaches like McCaffery or Ferentz were to ever challenge that notion, you know who would be worth quoting as a retort?

McCaffery and Ferentz.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net