OMAHA, Neb. -- As the Iowa State Cyclone tailgate crossed the Missouri River into Nebraska, the irony wasn’t lost on anyone aboard the bus.
“Bet things are a little busy here,’’ John Walters, the longtime Cyclones announcer quipped. And a little unsettling.
In a bitter twist, Iowa State’s fate is in the hands of its Nebraska rivals. The Cornhuskers’ pending decision to bolt the Big 12 for the Big Ten -- and Colorado's decision to move to the Pac-10 -- was the first tremor in what could be a seismic shift of the college landscape, an earthquake that threatens to swallow up the Cyclones.
As the Cyclones rolled across the state and border on Monday, ESPN ran on a continuous loop on the televisions aboard the bus. From "SportsCenter" to "Around the Horn" to "Pardon the Interruption," conference realignment was bisected and dissected -- but Iowa State barely got a mention, except as one of the schools likely to be discarded.
Regardless, every time a segment aired, the coaches and athletics administrators on board stopped what they were doing and listened.
“Yeah, we’re concerned,’’ athletic director Jamie Pollard said. “Everybody is concerned.’’
That was abundantly clear as the Cyclone tailgate stumped across the state. The tailgate tour is designed to rev up the fan base for the pending season with intimate meet-and-greets.
This year, though, there were more tough questions than cheerleading.
At the Omaha Zoo, where Iowa State hosted an evening reception, an old lady sidled up to new basketball coach Fred Hoiberg and without introduction, put her hands on her hips and asked: “So are we gonna be in a league?’’
From the Harlan Country Club to the Kenworth Trucking dealership in Council Bluffs, everyone asked the same question.
Pollard and his coaches tried to put on a good face. Pollard’s constant message at three different stops was a simple, honest one: “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know that the sun will come up and our coaches and student-athletes will continue to work and compete.’’
But Iowa State will almost certainly be on the outside looking in.
According to the most recent figures in the Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics study, Iowa State’s athletics department produced $27.8 million in total revenue for men's sports. Only two Big 12 schools -- Baylor ($21.3 million) and Kansas State ($27.5 million) -- produced less. Not coincidentally, neither of those are in the expansion talks, either.
And in a decision process driven by the almighty dollar, ISU doesn’t have the bank account to play.
“It’s obviously money driven,’’ football coach Paul Rhoads said. “If you sit back and think about it logically -- a 16-team league with scheduling, trying to figure out who plays in the BCS Championship because you know everyone is going to have one loss -- it’s chaos. But it doesn’t matter what I think or anyone else. The landscape is going to change.’’
That this is happening now is almost like an extra kick in the pants to Iowa State. Last season, the Cyclones won at Nebraska in football for the first time in 32 years, and with a win against Minnesota in the Insight Bowl, finished with a winning record for the first time in four years.
On the basketball side, Hoiberg -- arguably the most popular player in program history -- was hired a month ago, a move that generated immediate goodwill and excitement.
And now this.
“It’s out of my control and there’s nothing I can do about it,’’ Hoiberg said. “I think all I can do, all any of us can do, is to focus on our jobs and the task at hand. I still think we have a lot to offer, whatever happens. But we can’t worry about what we can’t control.’’