The cough, Kirk Ferentz said, wasn’t unusual.
It was the end of the season, after all, and the Iowa football coach said that’s usually the time he gets the “hack.”
But in a season in the middle of a pandemic, a cough isn’t just a cough.
And when Ferentz found out last week that he had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, it wasn’t that usual brought-on-by-weeks-of-practices-and-games clearing of the throat.
The cough was still there on Sunday, when Ferentz met with the media via video conference to talk about the Hawkeyes going to the Music City Bowl after a 6-2 season.
Going to Nashville for the Dec. 30 game against Missouri isn’t going to be like other bowl trips. No visits to see the sights, or banquets, or whatever bowl week festivities can occupy the team.
No, this is like a road game — “Get in, get out,” Ferentz said.
A business trip, he said.
Business in 2020 is a little different.
The Hawkeyes made it through a season in which anything could have gone wrong at any time. They played their 8-game regular-season schedule, then a ninth game against Michigan scheduled for Saturday at Kinnick Stadium during the Big Ten’s Champions Week was canceled because of COVID-19 issues with the Wolverines.
It hasn’t been easy. There wasn’t going to be a season at first — the Big Ten was content to push everything to a spring season until the conference’s presidents and chancellors changed their minds. Then it was an eight-game sprint through October, November and December, and the Hawkeyes got to the finish.
That’s not to say, Ferentz said, there weren’t “bumps in the road” within his program, but nothing to shut down a game.
Now, they get a bowl game, the prize for the commitment to make it to this point.
“I hope for the next 10 days, we can do the same,” Ferentz said. “That was our agreement. That was our understanding. That was our desire as a team. We’ve enjoyed every chance to compete.
That’s what it’s all about — the opportunity to do that. It’s been a scary world out there since March — that’s nothing new. We all made this decision. We’re committed to it. We’re going to stay the course.”
Other Big Ten teams opted out of playing in a bowl. The Hawkeyes, and four other teams from the conference, want to keep going.
“When we started out, back in September, I think the agreement for all of us was — and this goes on before September — we want to play college football,” Ferentz said. “I heard a lot of people yelling about that — how bad the players want to play, coaches wanted to coach. Well, no kidding — that’s what we love doing.”
It has been a grind for the players and coaches since September, when the conference decided to play. They’ve had to undergo daily testing, and they’ve had to adhere to strict protocols to do everything possible not to catch the virus.
No plan is perfect.
“I really feel fortunate there, because a lot of people haven’t been so lucky,” Ferentz said. “I consider myself extremely lucky. I hope I stay that way the rest of the way.”
Once the game against Michigan was canceled, Ferentz gave his team the rest of the week off. Players could go home if they wanted, as long as they were back for Monday’s meetings and Tuesday’s practice.
“Unless we’re in a perfect bubble, a perfect bubble like the NBA, there’s no way to control this,” Ferentz said. “There’s no way to do it. I think you have to be fair to your players, fair to people.”
The Hawkeyes won’t be home for Christmas — they haven’t been since the 2012 season.
“I talk to our players all of the time — when you play college football, or coach college football, chances are you aren’t going to be sitting in front of the fireplace at Christmas,” Ferentz said. “It just is the way it is. If you do it too often, you’re not going to be at that school much longer.”
Ferentz is expected to be cleared to be back with the team next weekend.
“I plan on being there,” he said, before joking, “I could be hit by a truck, and if you’re driving it, I’m going to be mad at you.”
So the plans are, as they always have been in all of these Decembers — practice, play in the game, then the Hawkeyes will get some time off.
But, this year, nothing is the same.
Ferentz’s cough was proof of that.
“I’m not sitting here predicting we’re not going to have any bumps in the road moving forward, either. It’s already been seen,” Ferentz said. “It can happen anywhere, any time. Anything can shut down.
“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get through the next 10 days.”
John Bohnenkamp is an award-winning sports writer and contributes to Pen City Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.