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Explaining ¡El Assico!, the greatest Iowa-Iowa State rivalry of all

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It’s going to be bad, and you’re going to have a great time.

Iowa vs. Iowa State football rivalry Banner Society illustration.

Q: What is ¡El Assico!?

A: Only the best football game between Iowa State and Iowa all year long.

Q: Isn't there only one game involving Iowa State and Iowa?

A: Maybe, but that is beside the point. The point is that Week 2 or Week 3 is usually so sparsely populated with games of interest that ¡El Assico! easily stands out as one of the top five games of its weekend each year, based on nothing other than state pride.

But if you're going to watch ¡El Assico! in any given year, you'll need to know a few things about what you've signed yourself up for and what you can expect. Which is pain.

Q: Why pain?

A: Because ¡El Assico! brings out the worst in both teams. The state of Iowa is usually a punt-based economy anyway, and having its schools meet for an emotional game in mid-September (this is the rare arch-rivalry played months before Rivalry Weekend) only amplifies the struggle.

They fumble. They punt. They punt some more. They play down to each other and under each other and sometimes rent heavy equipment and begin tunneling under the very surface of the earth to submarine even your lowest expectations. They do not score.

¡El Assico! hears your order for a steak and returns to the table with a charred hamburger patty. You ordered this steak medium-rare, btw. ¡El Assico! is so bad at this and refuses to buy a meat thermometer or apologize.

Q: For example? The pain, that is?

A: We can start with 2014. Iowa State won ¡El Assico!, 20-17, on a last-minute field goal. The kicker had already missed it in a previous attempt, but Kirk Ferentz called a timeout that allowed Iowa State an ultimately successful shot. This came after Iowa blew a halftime lead to an Iowa State that would go 2-10.

Q: This is a pattern?

A: No, this is beyond that. This is tradition.

  • The series began with four shutouts, two by each team, within its first five games. Not that unusual for the 1890s. Now let’s skip ahead a century or so.
  • From 2006 to 2010, Iowa State went 17 quarters without scoring a touchdown against Iowa.
  • The 2007 ¡El Assico! featured Cyclones who’d opened by losing to Northern Iowa and Kent State, so of course they beat Iowa, 15-13.
  • In 2013, Iowa won, 27-21, but still had to put away a 3-9 team by recovering an onside kick and ending a comeback bid by a gimpy quarterback.
  • In 2012's ¡El Assico!, it was worse. Iowa State led 9-3 at halftime, Iowa State scored zero points after the half, and Iowa needed just ONE SINGLE MERCIFUL TOUCHDOWN to win. The Hawkeyes got nothing and lost, 9-6, in a game so ghastly it came full circle to "strangely compelling."
  • In 2018, Las Vegas figured ¡El Assico! would likely feature 47 points, a low number. ¡El Assico! featured 16 points and 13 punts.

It isn’t always like this, just usually. In 2011 and 2017, Iowa and Iowa State combined for astonishing (for this cheap-ass, points-pinching rivalry) totals of 85 points, though that’s something ¡El Assico! could only achieve by playing overtime in each game.

Q: Who dominates this rivalry?

A: Besides sudden onset mediocrity? Usually Iowa.

That should be mentioned alongside another weird fact. Three straight Iowa State coaches — Dan McCarney, Gene Chizik, and Paul Rhoads — had worse than .400 win percentages overall, yet were each within a game of .500 or better against Kirk Ferentz, one of Iowa’s two best coaches ever. Iowa State is the neighborhood speed bump everyone else speeds through. Ferentz breaks an axle on it every other time.

Meanwhile, Matt Campbell is Iowa State’s best coach since the 1970s, yet is 0-3 against Iowa. The disease goes both ways.

Q: Why does ¡El Assico! have to happen?

A: Rivalry?

¡El Assico! tried to warn everyone by posting the lowest possible score in football: 2-0 in a 1906 Iowa State victory.

To be fair, Iowans appear to have made a good-faith effort to kill ¡El Assico!, skipping the game entirely after 1920 and not remembering to play it until 1933. That revival lasted two games; after 1934, Iowa and Iowa State dropped it for four peaceful, ¡El Assico!-free decades.

Q: WHY DID THEY BRING IT BACK?

A: Because politicians are bad and have bad ideas. Under pressure from the governor and the state legislature, Iowa and Iowa State thawed out the prehistoric corpse of ¡El Assico! in 1977. To commemorate the event and motivate players, Iowa State's Earle Bruce had his team wear special jerseys with "BEAT IOWA" across the chest. The Cyclones lost a 12-10 horror show in which neither team scored in the second half.

Like we said: ¡El Assico! tried to warn you, Iowa, and to this day you refuse to listen.

Q: Is there an ¡El Assico! trophy?

A: There are several, including one you may find in a Des Moines pawn shop. The old Cy-Hawk Trophy depicted a football player refusing to look at a football, symbolizing most sane reactions to ¡El Assico!

A new trophy sponsored by corn farmers emerged in 2011. It appeared to depict a family worshipping corn, was universally reviled, and earned this quote from legendary Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry:

The farmer, family and corn is all wonderful, but I don't really get the relationship to a football game.

Now a new, nondescript ¡El Assico! trophy is in use. It resembles an elaborate agricultural paperweight of some sort.

Q: Why call it ¡El Assico!?

A: Because:

  • Like El Clasico, this pits two passionate rivals in an annual contest.
  • It's kind of an assy game, even if one team is pretty good at the time.
  • This game is built on a hellmouth of mediocrity and rarely fails to live down to its fiery foundations.
  • It's fun to fill up your lungs, place both hands up in a praise position, and bellow, ¡EL ASSSICOOOOOOOOO!
  • Because branding a game between two hordes of Cornfield Jimmies with a butt joke based on an immortal international sports rivalry's nickname makes the whole thing seem way more festive than it should be.
  • Despite all our ridicule, it's a dysfunctional classic.

Q: Is ¡El Assico! ever important outside of the state’s borders?

A: Oh, rarely. National expectations for Iowa and Iowa State typically trend toward “they’ll make a bowl,” and for Iowa State, even that is often a pipe dream. This is not a conference game, nor a game that seems to have any connection to how either team performs for the rest of the season.

Someone will fumble at the worst imaginable time and the opponent will fail to capitalize. Getting to 30 points is always an effort, and everyone watching — including the people in the stands — will be confused and angry. Watching ¡El Assico! will be like watching via webcam as novice boaters get lost in the Bermuda Triangle, and it's like that EVERY SINGLE YEAR.

Q: Should I watch it?

A: Oh hell yes.