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Harty: Vandenberg handles struggles with poise

[ 0 ] November 14, 2012 |

Perhaps the worst thing about this Iowa football season — besides the 1-yard pass routes on fourth-and-3 — is seeing good people struggle.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his senior quarterback James Vandenberg are good people. The strain of losing four consecutive games has made Ferentz a little grumpy, but everybody has their breaking point don’t they?

Well, everybody it seems except Vandenberg.

Say what you will about his senior season, which continues Saturday at Michigan, because it’s been a disaster for him individually. The way Vandenberg has handled it off the field speaks glowingly about him as a person.

Vandenberg attends every press function with a smile on his face and politely and patiently answers every question posed to him. Those questions have become more uncomfortable, more critical and more redundant with the Hawks and Vandenberg struggling. But Vandenberg hasn’t flinched. Not once has the Keokuk native come close to losing his composure despite the constant glare of the spotlight.

I asked him why Tuesday because it’s rare for somebody in Vandenberg’s position to always be so nice and courteous and make it seem genuine.

Vandenberg answered by saying it comes with the territory as the starting quarterback and by praising all the influential people around him. He started with his parents and went down the line, mentioning Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis, veteran strength coach Chris Doyle and his teammates.

“I think it certainly stems from how I was raised, but also how I’m coached by coach Ferentz and coach Davis and coach Doyle,” Vandenberg said. “I think they’ve certainly had an effect on me. I think you could talk to a lot of my teammates and you’d probably hear a lot of that.

“We’ve got a lot of high character guys on this team who aren’t going to let what other people on the outside think effect us. We know what we’re doing. We’re working hard. The bottom line is we’re not getting it done right now.”

I’ve covered too many Iowa football players to count over the past two decades and besides quarterback Brad Banks, none have conducted themselves with more class, restraint and dignity than Vandenberg.

But with Banks, the circumstances were different because he was out of the spotlight as a junior backup in 2001, His senior season in 2002 was a historical journey that saw Banks finish second for the Heisman Trophy and Iowa finish undefeated in the Big Ten for the first time in 80 years.

It was mostly a celebration in the fall of 2002 and the few times when the party was crashed, Banks handled it masterfully.

Vandenberg, on the other hand, has been at the center of an unyielding storm with his senior season on the verge of collapse. It’s been an unproductive and agonizing grind in Davis’ system, although, you’d never get Vandenberg to say that he’s suffering because of his new offensive coordinator.

Vandenberg’s statistical decline has been startling, sad and destructive to the team. The fact that he’s only thrown five touchdown passes in 10 games after throwing 25 last season perhaps best illustrates his and the team’s misery from a statistical standpoint more than anything else.

Vandenberg is without question a different quarterback compared to last season, but as a person nothing has changed. He’s still the same polite and respectful young man he was last season and probably has been for all his life.

Playing in the NFL might be a long shot for Vandenberg, but somebody with his intelligence, personality and background should find a way to thrive after college.

“Certainly, when you play sports and when you’re on teams there are going to be some bumps in the road,” Vandenberg said. “But it’s not the bumps that define you. It’s how you react and how you handle those situations. That’s what defines you not only as a player, but as a team and as a person.”

Some of you might roll your eyes and say who cares about having a nice guy playing quarterback. It won’t mean diddly against Michigan or against Nebraska on Nov. 23 in the regular-season finale.

And while that’s true, it does matter.

The only thing worse than having a quarterback in a season-long slump is one who turns into a jerk when it happens. It’s easy to embrace the media and the fans during good times, but the strain of losing for an extended period wears on a person.

Vandenberg is no different. He just always finds a way to mask his frustration and treat people the right way.

He also does a good job of shielding himself from the criticism by living his life away from the Internet and, I regret to say, by not reading newspapers. Vandenberg has enough to stay busy just by keeping up with football, school and his well publicized passion for hunting.

I’ve written a couple articles this season that harshly criticized Vandenberg for his play. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he hasn’t read them or anything else written about him this season, including the fans clamoring for another quarterback to play.

“Some guys kind of get a kick out of the whole Internet thing and the whole paper thing,” Vandenberg said. “I don’t really read the paper or get on the Internet at least the Hawkeye report sites or the blogs.

“Yeah, you can hide yourself from it.”

A lot of fans probably already have given up on Vandenberg and his cohorts because things do look grim with Iowa needing victories over Michigan and Nebraska in the last two games just to meet the six-victory minimum bowl requirement.

It’s hardly been the senior season that Vandenberg envisioned, but the losing hasn’t caused him to sacrifice perhaps the most important principle, which is treating people the right way.

That’ll mean more in the long run than any statistic or victory.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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