It was late in the second half of the Iowa State vs. Iowa basketball game in Hilton Coliseum last week when I realized this was the only way an in-state rivalry should be played.
With less than eight minutes remaining, Iowa cut the Cyclone lead to three points in what was becoming yet another shootout in the hotly-contested CyHawk rivalry. But this iteration of the series was unlike any in recent years. Neither Iowa nor Iowa State is having a particularly good season, and the hype leading up to the game, well… it didn’t exist.
Yet, when Donovan Jackson and Lindell Wigginton hit back-to-back three pointers to push the lead to nine points and forced an Iowa timeout, Hilton erupted as if Naz Long had hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in a top-25 matchup. It was a beautiful representation of everything a rivalry should be, making an otherwise low-stakes game feel like a late-season death match.
That’s when I came to my realization that this is the only way these games should be played—the visiting team at the mercy of the home crowd. After all, six of the last seven CyHawk wins have gone to the home team in the series. And just as this realization hit, Iowa State’s schedule flashed on the screen, showing this weekend’s neutral-site game against Northern Iowa.
“Ugh,” I thought.
It’s not the opponent I dread, although Northern Iowa always gives Iowa State fits and this year looks to be no different. Unlike in football, a loss to the Panthers is rarely a hit to the team’s resume. But in Des Moines? In the early afternoon? With no discernible home court advantage?
The HyVee Classic
The Big Four Classic was started in 2012 as a two-game showcase event in Des Moines, as Iowa and Iowa State took on Northern Iowa and Drake in alternating years. Later renamed the HyVee Classic, the event was created after years of the Hawkeyes and Cyclones playing home-and-home series with the Panthers and Bulldogs. Why? Well, it’s pretty simple—Iowa State and Iowa weren’t very good at basketball at the time and UNI and Drake were beating them when they played at home.
So when it was suggested games be played exclusively at Hilton Coliseum and Carver-Hawkeye Arena, that didn’t go over well with UNI and Drake. What about the teams playing Drake at Wells Fargo Arena instead of their home Knapp Center when it was Drake’s turn to host? They weren’t falling for that. So a compromise was reached and the
Big Four HyVee Classic was born.
By this point, my feelings are clear about the neutral site for in-state rivalries, but the HyVee Classic has issues far deeper than location. From tournament format, to date and time, to exposure, almost nothing about the event inspires excitement.
First, the format is terrible. There’s nothing “classic” about rotating two of the four opponents every year. It results in matchups like in 2014, when a top-15 Iowa State team pummeled a Drake squad that would end up winning only nine games. Sure, Iowa and UNI were more evenly matched that season, but why not make it a two-day event and have both major schools play both mid-majors? UNI and Drake already play in the conference season and the CyHawk rivalry certainly doesn’t need altered from its current state, so why not determine a true “state champion” and play the round-robin schedule the teams had always played prior to 2012? Play the first two games on Saturday and the next two on Sunday and give fans a good deal on a two-day pass to maximize the value.
That brings me to the next issue—timing. I understand fitting two games into one day at one venue isn’t logistically as simple as it sounds, but 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. games this year? Not only is this smack-dab in the middle of the day when I’m trying to get other things accomplished, but it leaves my evening open for thinking about how much I dislike the HyVee Classic format. More than anything, the game couldn’t be played at a worse time of year to be a premiere event.
Scheduled for the third weekend in December, it always falls on finals week for the state schools and December commencement ceremonies happen the day of the games. Even worse, bowl season starts that weekend, taking away what little interest and attention any non-Iowans may have in the event. Without college students or casual fans in the equation, you’re left with a somewhat awkward mix of old and young fans of four different teams scattered throughout Wells Fargo Arena, trying to enjoy an undeniably odd rivalry setting.
In addition, it’s all tied to exposure. As I said above, football and finals week make for a weird combination of disinterest from your usual set of fans, but it’s the utter failure of TV exposure that has made the event difficult for even Iowans to watch at times. You’ll be lucky to have Mediacom as your TV provider, as many games have been aired on their local Mediacom 22 channel, but not as lucky if you have Mediacom’s traditional cable package, which doesn’t include ESPNU—another channel the games have been aired on in the past. If fans in Iowa struggle to get the games, it makes it nearly impossible for the event to mean anything to outsiders.
You can adjust the format. You can change the date. You can find a more lucrative TV deal. But in the end, you’re only putting a coat of paint over a rusty car. The only real solution is to bring the rivalry back to the teams’ home arenas.
A big part of moving the games away from the home-and-home format was because, well, Iowa and Iowa State sucked at basketball for a long time. From 2006 to 2011 (the year before the Big Four Classic was established,) UNI and Drake had taken six-straight “state championships” as Greg McDermott and Todd Lickliter
destroyed coached the state’s flagship programs. That’s no longer the case. The Cyclones and Hawkeyes are now competing at the top of their conferences instead of hiding in the proverbial cellar, and the programs no longer need the exposure in Des Moines like they did when their programs hardly had a pulse.
“Well there’s no way the schools will agree to going back to the home-and-home series, Alex. The money is too good for UNI and Drake in Des Moines and Iowa and Iowa State aren’t going to agree to playing on the road against either Drake or UNI on alternating years!”
Maybe not. But why not make it a 2-for-1 series? Give the Cyclones and Hawkeyes two home games every three years against both schools and stagger them so UNI and Drake play home/away, away/home, and away/away the third year. The deal might not be as rich as the HyVee Classic, but I’m sure the Hawkeyes and Cyclones can throw some change at both schools to compensate for the extra away game.
And there’s no excuse to shy away from this deal if you’re Iowa or Iowa State. Northern Iowa’s McLeod Center has hosted the likes of No. 1 North Carolina, UNLV, and a scheduled meeting with current No. 10 Xavier, all in the past three seasons. Niko Medved and his Drake team have already taken big steps in their rebuild as the Bulldogs are 3-0 at home this season, upset Wake Forest at a neutral site, and nearly knocked off Minnesota in Minneapolis just days ago. The Knapp Center may not be a destination site, but you can’t deny its role in the rivalry, like when a Royce White-led Cyclone squad was run out of the building in the final minutes as Drake seemingly made every shot to close the game. For better or for worse, home court gives the rivalry purpose and the only way to fix the HyVee Classic is to take it away from Wells Fargo Arena.
“But the event gives Des Moines-area Hawkeye and UNI fans an opportunity to watch their team play in central Iowa. Why take away an event that has sold out almost every single year?”
Keep the event, but give it a new purpose! Make it a showcase event for all the Iowa teams—it doesn’t matter if they are playing Maryland Eastern Shore, or Duke. Pick a game on each team’s schedule that otherwise wouldn’t sell out at their home arenas and take it to Wells Fargo Arena for a full day of basketball. You wouldn’t even have to move the date—make it a “holiday break” game so student tickets aren’t affected. Start your games at 11 a.m. and focus the event on the fans with giveaways, mini-games, and collaborative promotions between the schools. Schedule the games in order of prestige and give the biggest game of the day a 7 p.m. time slot. Instead of an in-state rivalry, make it an event that Iowans come together to cheer for each other… or not.
Until then, we’ll have to enjoy the event as it is, since the contract runs through 2019. But until the “Big Four Classic” features games between all four teams, you won’t be watching any classic games. For now, I just hope you get the right channel to see it at all.