Leistikow: Character clearly counted when Ferentz made new hires
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As Kelton Copeland answered media questions Thursday for the first time since being named Iowa’s wide receivers coach, I took a peek at the ole head coach standing against the wall at the side of the room.
“I can tell you,” Copeland said as he spoke of Kirk Ferentz, who at that moment looked to be struck with an emotional arrow, “our values, our core beliefs are parallel.”
As you probably know, Ferentz is known to get choked up at times.
When his team wins a big game that wasn’t expected. When one of his sons meets him at midfield of Kinnick Stadium for a Senior Day embrace. When he speaks about his coaching mentor, the late Joe Moore.
The common thread, I think, in Ferentz’s subtle displays of emotion is him reflecting on a journey he’s shared with people closest to him.
So it was notable that Ferentz, 61, seemed to be touched by words that consistently came up from Copeland and new offensive line coach Tim Polasek on Thursday.
Honesty. Loyalty. Character.
Those three qualities were prioritized pre-requisites for Ferentz as he went about filling three vacancies on his coaching staff.
And he clearly feels like he got the right fit in Copeland, Polasek and longtime trusted partner Ken O’Keefe as quarterbacks coach.
That Polasek is the new offensive line coach despite having never coached offensive line before is not an issue to Ferentz.
How Polasek resonates as a person and teacher is what matters.
“Certainly knowledge and expertise are important. I’m not minimizing that,” Ferentz said. “But I think it’s more important to get the right person. The person’s that going to be a great teacher, a great mentor. That’s a big part of college football.”
Personally, I enjoyed Greg Davis, Bobby Kennedy and Chris White every time I interviewed them. They were smart, funny and engaging.
But I wouldn’t say any of those departed assistants — two from Texas, one from New England — seemed to fit the Hawkeye culture like Copeland and Polasek already do.
Copeland, who spent the past four years at Northern Illinois, spoke of one of his core values being honesty. His belief is: “If you're honest with me and loyal and we’re working toward the same goal, we'll always have a great relationship. If at any time that trust gets broken, then we'll have an issue.”
Regarding a question of how he’ll coach wide receivers — a position group that was quite maligned during Iowa’s 8-5 season in 2016 — he stayed on the character theme.
“My philosophy is simple: Be straight up, be honest, have a plan and let them know I'm going to do everything I can in my power to help you along the way,” Copeland, 36, said. “Not only to make you a good football player, but (to) help you become a good man.”
That may not be the “we’re going to get guys open downfield and make big plays this team desperately needs” answer you were looking for. But it was exactly the type of thing that Ferentz was comforted to hear during a rigorous interview process.
Polasek’s message Thursday was similar to Copeland’s — except maybe more intense.
The Wisconsin-grown, former North Dakota State offensive coordinator said one the highlights of his interview was sitting across a table from longtime Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle for a few hours. That should tell you something.
Doyle has been the bedrock of the Hawkeye program for all of Ferentz’s 18-plus years, a pillar of consistency and work ethic in Iowa’s “Break the Rock” mantra.
Polasek, 37, gave me the impression of a younger Doyle, except with slightly more hair and a goatee.
“We're going to have an uncommon finish about what we're doing,” Polasek said about his coaching philosophy. “Schematically, schematics are schematics. It really comes down to hitting people, moving the point of attack. We definitely want to displace the line of scrimmage.”
Since Davis retired and Kennedy and White were fired in early January, it was thought that Ferentz would go out and hire some candidates with direct Hawkeye ties.
Instead, he found guys that fit the Hawkeye culture.
And, naturally, this all comes back to Moore.
Ferentz told a story Thursday about Moore’s coaching path. In March 1980, Moore was Pittsburgh’s running backs coach when then-offensive line coach Joe Pendry took a job at Michigan State.
The next day, Pitt’s Jackie Sherrill made Moore his new offensive line coach.
And that opened the door for Ferentz to become a graduate assistant at Pitt, under Moore, for whom an offensive line trophy would one day be named. Ferentz would be hired at Iowa a year later.
“Joe, for my money, he was the best line coach that ever lived,” Ferentz said. “You know, I think both guys mentioned it: None of us were prepared for any of the jobs we've had. That's part of growth. It's part of moving forward. So, to me, it gets back to good coaches can coach.”
Time will tell about whether Polasek’s front five can move the line of scrimmage effectively and whether Copeland’s receivers get separation on defensive backs.
But certainly, in Ferentz’s mind and based on their first Thursday impressions, these guys are a splendid Hawkeye culture fit.
And that is a reassuring start.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.