DAVENPORT, Iowa - We’re into the summer doldrums as far as Hawkeyes news is concerned. With no Prime Time League to hype up the Hawks cagers, it’s been a quiet few weeks in eastern Iowa -- other than the bizarre Sam Stoll story.
That will change beginning when Hawkeye Headquarters travels to Big Ten Football Media Days on July 23 and 24, but for the time being, let’s have some fun.
Let’s take the five most prominent coaches at Iowa and pair each one of them with the grocery store they’d be if they were … grocery stores.
Rick Heller – Aldi
At first, you were probably skeptical. Having to remember a quarter just to use a cart or bring your own bags to carry out your grocery haul.
At first, you were probably skeptical. A baseball coach whose highest level of experience was two tenures at Missouri Valley Conference schools – a league not exactly known for baseball dominance.
Then you realized the egg prices are the best around. Or that milk is always under $2 for a gallon. Or that the discount chain’s off-brand cereals tasted exactly the same as the brand names.
Then you realized Rick Heller has won at every stop and every level he’s coached. Or that the foundation of his team is always pitching and defense – which is usually a winning formula. Or that he eats, sleeps and breathes the game of baseball.
Sure, Aldi might not have the fresh poblanos you wanted for your new chiles rellenos recipe, or the 90/10 ground beef that’s the best for grilling burgers (don’t @ me). But the bill at Aldi is usually less than $40, and you never feel like you were cheated on price.
Sure, Heller might not have EVERYTHING he needs to win a College World Series because it’s tough as hell to recruit at a northern school. But the Hawkeyes are usually winning 30 or more games, and you feel like they’ll be a Big Ten contender as long as Heller is leading the program.
Lisa Bluder - Fareway
Everyone – cashiers, shoppers, butchers -- seems to be smiling at every turn when you go to Fareway. The atmosphere and vibe of the entire store is welcoming, which was the goal of the original owners at the first store in Boone, Iowa.
There’s still high school and college kids there to bag and carry out your items just like there used to be at small-town grocers – much to the delight of my mom and I’m sure countless other customers.
Lisa Bluder runs her women’s basketball program a lot like a Fareway store – optimistic, upbeat, and always willing to help. She’s easily the most accessible coach on this list, while also being refreshingly honest about her players and her program.
The vibe around the Bluder and the Hawkeyes remains unchanged from where it was 18 years ago when she came to Iowa City. That consistency, at least partly, can be attributed to Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald – two coaches who’ve been with her almost the entire time.
They’re also both Iowa natives and former women’s basketball stars like Bluder – making her staff second to none, just like that Fareway meat department.
Tom Brands - Dahl’s/Price Chopper
Dahl’s was a cutting-edge grocer in many ways throughout the 20th century. They debuted a store with a pharmacy and bakery in the 1950s in Des Moines. They didn’t advertise, at least not on a weekly basis like most other places, instead opting to put more money into other things that benefited the customer. They were the first place that groceries were purchased in the entire world using a debit card in 1981.
And by the end of 2014, Dahl’s was bankrupt. Most of its locations and the assets were either closed or purchased and rebranded as Price Chopper or Cash Saver food stores. In other words, they’re back…kind of, but nowhere near the heyday.
Tom Brands was part of a cutting-edge program under Dan Gable. With Gable in Iowa City as either an assistant or head coach, the Hawks won 20 NCAA titles in 25 years from 1975-2000.
And in the 18 years since, they’ve only won three championships.
Tom Brands has the program on the right track, but there still hasn’t been a national title since 2010. Brands has also re-branded the program the past couple of years, after the program was perceived, correctly or incorrectly, to turn the wrestlers into robots who don’t have any fun.
With guys like Spencer Lee and Michael Kemerer injecting new energy into Brands and the program, the Hawks are back…kind of, but nowhere near the heyday.
Fran McCaffery - Costco
This one’s especially appropriate for the folks in Davenport who are stoked about the new Costco.
Don’t get me wrong, Costco is a great place for non-food items. Buying stuff like paper towels, toilet paper and giant bottles of shampoo is totally worth it. As are $1.50 hot dogs at the café.
But unless you go through enough mayonnaise to justify buying a six-gallon bucket worth, or have two chest freezers in your basement to store the side of beef you must buy to get a great price, what’s the point of getting perishable items? Half the time you end up throwing that other loaf of bread or block of cheese in the garbage anyway, negating any savings you had from buying in bulk.
Which makes Fran McCaffery the perfect comparison.
McCaffery’s done a nice job getting the program back to respectability after the Lickliter debacle. The excitement created by three NCAA tournament appearances and five, .500 or better Big Ten records in eight seasons was tangible.
But then last year came, which exposed many of the defensive warts that have always been there with his coaching style. Then came word of his somewhat-secret contract extension that more than doubled the initial buyout of his contact.
Like a new Costco, the luster started to wear away. Whether it returns with McCaffery’s program depends if you focus on the essentials of how you won earlier this decade or gamble again with the perishables of the past two seasons.
Kirk Ferentz – Hy-Vee
This one was too obvious: Kirk Ferentz is Hy-Vee. Hy-Vee is Kirk Ferentz.
A spot you never regret going to grocery shop, but while you’re there you question if it’s the best place to buy certain products, not to mention why Mark Wahlberg has his own section of the joint.
A coach you love having as the leader of your team, even if you question a lot of his decision making multiple times every season, while also wondering why the Hawks keep running Power on seemingly every short-yardage situation or can’t figure out their punter situation.
Hy-Vee is easily the highest-profile grocery store in Iowa. It’s slightly upscale, but not to the point where modest Midwesterners believe it’s too high-end. Some products are outrageously priced compared to the other stores around, but the sales on popular products keep you coming back for more (10 homemade brats for $10 anyone?).
Kirk Ferentz is easily the highest-profile person in Iowa. He’s modest, well-spoken and even-keeled, but not to the point where modest Midwesterners question his intensity. He commands a large salary because of his longevity and his success with the Black-and-Gold. And upset wins and BCS qualifying seasons will keep you coming back for more (55-24 anyone?) until Kirk decides to hang it up.