The University of Northern Iowa is different.
When I was looking for a college, it was on my list. Iowa and Iowa State were too big. It was Northern Iowa or Simpson. I visited each. Simpson was close to home, and Northern Iowa felt like home. The minute I stepped on campus on a freezing day that was windy as heck, I just liked it. I felt I could see myself here. Eventually, they gave me a piece of paper and told me to be on my way but for 5 years, it was home.
It’s been home for many coaches over the years. 27 years of golf for John Bermel, 24 years and still dominating volleyball with Bobbi Peterson, 17 years for Tanya Warren with an often-overlooked women’s basketball, 22 years for Mark Farley and the football program we’ll get back to in a minute, 17 years plus 5 as an assistant for Ben Jacobson, 14 years for Dave Paulsen in many forms of running, track, and cross country, and 9 years for Doug Schwab whose brought the wrestling team into the Big 12. They all came and stayed. Sure, they had “better” opportunities but they weren’t taken. There is something different at Northern Iowa. Something different in the Cedar Valley.Embed from Getty Images
Cedar Falls may not be for everyone but those who get it, get it. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why you would choose it over a bigger school with more options for all sorts of entertainment in Iowa City or Ames. Bigger conferences, bigger stadiums, bigger budgets. But still, there’s something about UNI, when it gets in your blood, you don’t want to let it go.
But as Mark Farley has stated, times are tough. Under Farley, UNI has been an annual contender for substantial postseason success, and until recently they’ve been a contender for postseason appearances. They went from hosting annual home playoff games to hoping to make the playoffs despite the same amount of success in-conference. This year they were third in a Missouri Valley Football Conference that sent 6 other teams into the playoffs. UNI was stuck at home. No playoffs, due to not enough wins due to having to schedule games to get money to help the entire athletic department. Though the FCS playoffs typically fall on Thanksgiving weekend, a home game for the playoff teams meant more revenue. Revenue that is sorely needed in a small school where every dollar is a necessity.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. UNI fans, staff, and students were sold a bill of goods that never arrived. The connection from UNI to Tulane that nobody knew existed solved that, or helped at least it going. Harris left UNI for Tulane like Troy Dannen left UNI for Tulane. But Harris left UNI with a mess. Over-promised, greatly under-delivered. Look at the Dome renovation, the five-year plan, and a Big 12 Wrestling program that has been in the top 25 and even the top 10 without a practice facility on campus. Apparently, he wasn’t very popular with anyone. Leaving an apathetic fanbase and a crippling budget at a time when the landscape is changing quickly. The rich are getting richer by the second.
Northern Iowa is a tough place for an athletic director and has been since before the days of NIL. But UNI Basketball was one of five teams to not lose a SINGLE player in the transfer portal. A school behind the eight ball before NIL and now even further behind it with the NIL in effect, didn’t lose a single player. Not one. Once again, maybe there’s something about this place.Embed from Getty Images
For an athletic director to succeed at UNI, you have to care. You have to bleed purple and gold. You have to be 100% invested in the school, community, and all that comes with it. For comparison’s sake, few people exemplify that more than Jamie Pollard at Iowa State. He got criticized and laughed at for some of the things he did. But you know what…. they worked. He said he was going to bowl in the open side of Jack Trice. People were mad the hill was going to go away. Jamie Pollard over-promised and over-delivered. Being an athletic director at UNI is a similar seemingly impossible uphill battle. But it can be done. It’s been done before. Rick Hartzell is probably the best example. Brought UNI into prominence while also working as a NCAA basketball referee. He had to wear many hats. Athletic directors have to wear numerous hats. They have to deal with the coaches, staff, their employees. They have to deal with donors and fans. The kind of people that are rabid and unreasonable at times but that’s not a bad thing even if it makes the job more difficult. So once again, it has to be more than a job. More than an end to means, you have to be invested and you have to be available. To the fans and for the fans you have to be the spokesperson for the university. Once again, Jamie Pollard did this as perfectly, just as Gary Barta did not. You have to be likable. You’re a salesman as much as you are an administrator. You have to care about the school, the fans can tell when you don’t. And they will show that with their pocketbook.
Troy Dannen did a fantastic job of this. He was a man of the people, talking to fans, talking to students, and being there for the athletes, coaches, and staff. He was there for every minute of Arch Madness. He was never too big for any fan. Troy made you feel heard. He made you feel necessary. He made you feel like you mattered. That’s what makes a great athletic director. You’re one of the people while being clearly above the people. When he left UNI, it felt like the air was being left out of the building. UNI was never a destination job for Troy but he was fully invested when he was in Cedar Falls. In fact, back when I used to write for the Iowa Sports Monster (RIP Gant) I had an interview on the phone scheduled with Troy. I called and interrupted his meeting. He had just signed Doug Schwab to be the new wrestling coach at UNI. Troy gave me a gift of a scoop and I didn’t realize it at the time but that was a pivotal moment for UNI athletics. UNI wrestling went from an afterthought in the state of Iowa to competing with Iowa and Iowa State, perennial powerhouses in collegiate wrestling. But he left for Tulane before getting a job at Washington. You can’t blame a guy for going from Cedar Falls to New Orleans to the Pacific Northwest. His departure left an opening that was filled by his predecessor. A man who served under Jamie Pollard but apparently wasn’t cut from the same cloth or didn’t apply what he learned from him.
That leaves UNI with an opening. The discussions between fans and alumni are something like: “We need a guy who bleeds purple and gold.” Mark Farley HAD filled in as an interim athletic director before and did a fine job. Perhaps he’s tired of coaching, tired of the lack of funding, and wanting to move to a more administrative role, some fans discussed (though there was no proof of this actually happening). This would have made a ton of sense from a UNI standpoint. If you want a poster child for someone who loves UNI, it’s Mark Farley. His passion comes across in every interview and even in his demeanor, he freaking LOVES UNI and people love him for that. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Bob Bowlsby. Famous for being the Big 12 commissioner but was the athletic director at UNI before. So, a guy who bled purple and gold. A guy who understood the job better than almost anyone else not named Hartzell or Dannen though arguably even more so. Bob also knows how to clean up someone else’s mess. He knows how to handle the fans, the donors, the staff, the administration, the student-athletes and everything that comes with it. He knows it’s an uphill battle but he gets it.Embed from Getty Images
From the UNI fan perspective, it feels like Bob is coming home. He cut his teeth here and he was liked. When he left for greener pastures, it was understood that it wasn’t personal. But his coming back to UNI seems like a godsend. Like Joe Maddon getting hired by the Cubs, you didn’t see it coming but when it happened, you felt like you won the lottery. It’s a perfect fit. It didn’t seem possible but it makes perfect sense. It’s a match made in heaven.
Bob is not the permanent solution, and that’s totally fine. The college landscape has always been tough for places like Northern Iowa. NIL just made the landscape tougher for the programs that had it made. If THEY had it easy before and UNI had it tough, can you imagine what it’s like now? Once again, UNI basketball didn’t lose a single player to the transfer portal. That’s rare. UNI is rare. It’s obviously a special place. So, it’s in good hands. Not sure for how long but Bowlsby can steer UNI into the proper future. Dannen found Doug Schwab, Bowlsby can find the same in the next athletic director. Leaving a place better than it was when you got there is a major thing. Bowlsby has done it before and he’s going to do it again.
The state of Iowa is different. No pro teams, a fly-over state. But we’re proud. Proud to be Iowans, proud of the fact that we ARE Iowans. Proud of and loyal to our universities. It’s not the SEC, but tell me fan bases that travel better than Iowa or Iowa State. If a town has to stock up on Busch Light because a certain fan base is coming to town, that’s something. And now Iowa has three incredible athletic directors. Beth in Iowa City is a long overdue breath of fresh air replacing a very unpopular AD just like at UNI, Jamie Pollard is still firmly entrenched in Ames, and now Bob Bowlsby will be back in Cedar Falls. This state loves their sports, so having people in charge who reflect that, will only make things better.
Everyone associated with UNI right now is more invigorated than they have been recently. The fans are excited, the alumni are excited, and the staff is excited. The moxie is back. The moxie that hasn’t been in the Cedar Valley is finally back. The buzz is back. In order for Northern Iowa to succeed, you need fans in the stands and people willing to donate. Bowlsby brings that more than anyone could have ever imagined even 24 hours ago. It’s not going to be an overnight fix. It’s going to take a while. But with Bowlsby, that’s fine. You have the trust of the fan base and the full support as well.
Welcome home Bob, takes as much time as you need.