IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz was called in his video room. So was Dan McCarney. Both coaches, locked in Tuesday preparation for the annual CyHawk rivalry game, immediately re-calibrated their weeks and their lives when they saw terrorists attack the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I remember like it was yesterday, being called into the video room: Matt Engelbert called me in to watch some of the footage,” said Iowa’s Ferentz, who then was in his third season as head coach. “I mean, how could you even … at that time, couldn’t fathom that, and just unraveled from there.”
“(Video coordinator Mike Motl) said ‘Mac come here. You’ve got to see this,’ ” said McCarney, who then led Iowa State. “I stuck my head in the video room and the first plane had crashed into the towers. So we just stood there in shock watching it.”
For disciplined, regimented football coaches, there’s no blueprint for how to handle a terrorist attack. Not in 2001. Sure, there had been the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and President John Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. But those world-changing events happened when football was just a sport, not an extension of life.
In Iowa, the annual CyHawk game ranks at the top of must-see events, and such was the case in 2001. Yet no game at any level compared with terrorist-stolen aircraft diving into the Pentagon, crashing into the World Trade Center and falling from the sky during a passenger uprising in southwest Pennsylvania. Both Ferentz and McCarney knew that then, and they know that now.
But the interim was murky. What would the Big Ten do? What about the Big 12? Would President George W. Bush order games canceled to mourn the victims or want the games to continue? So Ferentz and McCarney, former assistants under Hayden Fry and longtime friends, stayed in contact daily but prepared their teams for Saturday.
“Trying to act like it was a normal week with what was happening to our country was impossible,” McCarney said.
Ferentz pulled his team from practice and canceled his scheduled Tuesday media conference. McCarney’s squad practiced methodically with little enthusiasm.
“We didn’t act like it didn’t happen,” said McCarney, the son of an Iowa City police chief. “It was an emotional time for all of us. We made sure professional help was available for anybody who wanted to talk. We’re all Americans. But until we got the official word, we had to continue to prepare. It was one of the toughest things we’d all ever been through.”
By Wednesday, the teams had agreed to play that Saturday in Ames. Unlike for most Division I programs, the logistics were easy. The distance between the schools is about 120 miles, one of the few bus trips for either program. Iowa already had hotel reservations scheduled in the Des Moines area. Ferentz and McCarney continued to discuss the game, which was set to air to a national audience on ABC, as were pregame tributes.
The NCAA agreed to kick the decision to the conferences and schools, but the directive remained ambiguous. By Thursday afternoon, Ferentz held a news conference which became almost a monotone discussion. Within minutes of Ferentz leaving his auditorium, the Big 12 announced all games would be postponed for that weekend.
“It’s just a perfectly logical decision,” Ferentz said. “I can’t remember why it took that long to get there, but it was the right decision certainly.”
“It was a relief, there’s no question,” McCarney said. “The energy, the enthusiasm and the spirit with which you are speaking, a lot of that was gone when that happened. We’re not robots, we’re human beings. Trying to put your focus and preparation on a football game when that was happening to our country … it was a relief.”
The teams postponed their rivalry until Nov. 24, 2001, two days after Thanksgiving. Both teams qualified for bowls that season. Iowa State won for the fourth straight year, this time 17-14.
Last weekend, McCarney returned to Iowa City as the honorary team captain. He and Ferentz reflected on their days as assistants when Ferentz led the offensive line and McCarney guided the defensive line. They also spoke of that hectic, tragic week in 2001.
“(McCarney) was in my office looking at pictures, myself and (high school coach) Joe Moore, and he asked when that was taken,” Ferentz said. “It was actually the Friday night post 9/11 because our game got canceled. I flew back to Pittsburgh and watched the high school game, and so we were just talking about that event and just memories from that week, etc.
“You know, it was just really a unique time in our history, I guess probably the only comparative would be when JFK was assassinated, I guess in ’63 it would have been. Those are those moments that I think all of us remember where we were and what we were doing. Way beyond football, just the impact it’s had on all of our lives since that time.”