Leistikow: History lessons and laughs with Ken O'Keefe

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Ken O’Keefe blended a New England accent with a dry sense of humor as he reflected Wednesday on four decades as an educator and football coach.

“I can tell you the two scariest jobs I ever had,” the new Iowa quarterbacks coach said during his stay on our Hawk Central radio show. “Teaching junior high and coaching receivers in the NFL.”

O’Keefe spent the 30-minute interview soliciting laughs with a steady diet of one-liners, telling 1970s tales about Kirk Ferentz and analyzing one of the most pressing questions surrounding 2017 Hawkeye football: Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers at quarterback?

A common theme was clear throughout the conversation, though.

Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe visits with Nathan Stanley, left, during Iowa's open practice April 7 at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines.

A native of Milford, Conn., O’Keefe, 63, feels at home in Iowa City. It was here he spent 13 years as offensive coordinator under Ferentz before a five-year venture with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins as an assistant coach then analyst.

“It’s all great. We hit the ground running,” O’Keefe said. “We have a house full of boxes if you guys want to stop by.”

The jokes kept coming about he and wife Joanne’s departure from southern Florida.

“We were having a lot of trouble with the palm trees in our backyard — 120 coconuts down every year,” he said. “The pineapples weren’t really coming in quite the way we wanted them to. I think Joanne was unhappy with the pool guy.”

On that note, he quipped that finding a house in the Iowa City area was a sensitive topic. With the help of local realtor Tom Lepic, O’Keefe landed on a place — sight unseen for Joanne.

He compared his wife’s trepidation of heading to the front door to that of being walked down the aisle on their wedding day.

“Probably the greatest test of our 37 years of marriage,” O’Keefe said. “… There was no turning back at that point.”

In all seriousness, 3½ months into a three-year coaching contract that’ll pay O’Keefe more than $1.6 million, things are going well. His favorite part of returning is the Iowa hospitality and friendliness.

And, when it comes to O’Keefe’s relationship with Ferentz, it’s been quite a full-circle journey.

He recalled his first interactions in 1978 with Ferentz, the man now entering his 19th year as Iowa’s head coach and eight wins short of tying Hayden Fry as the school’s all-time leader.

They were in their early 20s when they first met at the Worcester (Mass.) Academy. O’Keefe was the head varsity football coach. Ferentz was the offensive line coach, thrust into that role after the previous coach died suddenly. Mike Sherman, who would one day become lead the Green Bay Packers, was also a young up-and-comer on the staff.

“We barely knew what we were doing,” O’Keefe said. “We had about a dozen different jobs each. We all coached two sports, ran dormitories, taught classes. Kirk and Sherm taught English; I taught U.S. history to foreign students and a little (P.E.) on the side. And I ran the dining hall.”

At Worcester, O’Keefe doubled as a baseball coach.

And, who knew, Ferentz coached girls’ basketball.

“He was great at it,” O’Keefe said. “(He’s) not any different now. Just a very poised, businesslike guy. … You could see he was a great teacher and had a great way with people from the very beginning.”

Over 40 years, O’Keefe’s job focus has narrowed from his wide-ranging duties at Worcester to now being tasked to develop the four scholarship quarterbacks in his room — Stanley, Wiegers, Ryan Boyle and incoming freshman Peyton Mansell.

Yuks aside, this is serious business for Iowa football. It’s the first time Ferentz has employed a full-time quarterbacks coach.

And, if you’ve been following along, you know Iowa has yet to identify a 2017 quarterback.

To see if there should be a post-spring leader in the QB derby between true sophomore Stanley (nine career pass attempts) and redshirt junior Wiegers (four), O’Keefe spent time recently comparing their spring film to that of three-year Hawkeye starters he coached in Drew Tate (2004-06) and Ricky Stanzi (2008-10).

What he discovered: Stanley vs. Wiegers remains a coin flip, just as Ferentz said it was following the April 21 spring game.

“I’m glad we did it. It’ll help us immensely when we hit preseason,” O’Keefe said. “I didn’t expect them to be where those guys were, by any means.

“Their differences are not vast. Nate’s got a little stronger arm and can put a little more zip on it; Tyler’s got a little more touch.”

A decision will wait; but one will be made.

O’Keefe recalled the uncertainty of 2008. Iowa had a rock-solid defense that season but suffered from an inconsistent offense as they rotated quarterbacks Jake Christensen and Ricky Stanzi on the way to a 3-3 start.

“I don’t know that it worked out real well,” O’Keefe said. “I would hesitate to do something along those lines.”

The last time there was a wide-open QB race, in 2013, Jake Rudock was announced as the starter in late August.

And, no matter what the decision, Iowa will have a first-time starter Sept. 2 against Wyoming. Of course, the 2002, 2003 and 2004 seasons also began with a first-time starter — Brad Banks, then Nathan Chandler, then Tate.

Iowa went 31-7 in that stretch with three straight national top 10 finishes.

O’Keefe was here then. So was Ferentz.

The old gang’s back together. But much like 1978, they’re charging into the unknown.

“What do you really know about those guys until they get into games and start going?” O’Keefe said. “That was the nice part about being in the NFL. You had those four, five preseason games … to really find out how guys would operate under pressure. Even when we do name a starter, it’s going to be without the knowledge of having full-game starting experience.”

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.