Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz's consistent message serves Hawkeyes well in week of distractions
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As talk in the sports world seems to be swirling with divisiveness amid a warming climate of protests and opinions, the message from the Iowa football program is — as you would expect from a Kirk Ferentz-coached team — consistent.
The message is winning football games. The goal is bringing home a Big Ten Conference championship.
Just like always.
And while the rest of the football-playing country seems to be debating how to act during national anthems, the Hawkeyes are unified in their stance to keep politics outside of team activities.
No symbolic anthem protest is planned. Just hand over hearts, like usual.
That doesn’t mean Ferentz, 62, is being stodgy or robotic as the 19-year head of the program.
Ferentz isn't turning a blind eye on the issue of racial inequality. Quite the opposite.
When asked about the topic Tuesday at his weekly news conference, Ferentz made a point to say that he isn’t a fan of a lot of things. Social injustice is on the list. So is cancer.
He asked rhetorically: Who would be?
“I can't imagine there is anybody in favor of dumb stuff,” he said. “So go do something that could really make a difference. Do community service. Go to an activist rally. Go listen to candidates talk when it's political season. … Go listen and find out what candidates are really about. And then go vote. Go vote.
“If you really want to do something, then do something. But some things are just way too easy. I think in a lot of cases, people just kind of follow the crowd.”
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If there’s one thing Ferentz’s Hawkeyes are known to do, it’s follow their tried-and-true formula.
The program often recruits players other don’t. A lot of times, that means turning away from more promising athletes who might not fit the mindset of what Iowa football is about.
In fact, the Hawkeyes view what takes place inside the Iowa Football Performance Center each week as refreshingly special.
“To me, the beauty of football is being able to pull large groups of people from all kinds of backgrounds … and we're all here to do one thing together,” Ferentz said. “And that's pretty neat, I think.”
Iowa’s 120 scholarship and walk-on players come from 19 states.
About a third of them are black.
If one guy out of 11 fails at his job on any play, the group either falls short, or one of his teammates tries to pick him up. And they all work together again, trying to do better the next time.
To Ferentz and his players, that’s not a novel concept.
It’s just how humans are supposed to act.
Why bring the possibility of political divisiveness into that culture for those practices or games or team meetings?
“We’re all just focused on what can I do; what’s my role to help?” defensive lineman Parker Hesse said. “And how can I help the guy next to me do his (job) better or make it easier on him?”
Before you start crying "double standard" because a handful of Hawkeye players supported Donald Trump at a rally before last year's Iowa Caucuses, remind yourself that's in line with what Ferentz preaches to his players: Get involved, but do it on your own time.
The sanctuary of football on football's watch is how Iowa goes about its business, and from a wins and losses perspective, it has served the Hawkeyes well. They're 23-8 over the last two-plus seasons.
They’re not prone to distraction. Ferentz's Twitter ban (which seems well-reasoned this week, doesn't it?) helps keep everyone in line.
That kind of unified, laser-like focus is especially necessary this week. The Hawkeyes head to Michigan State, fresh off an emotional 21-19 loss to No. 4 Penn State on the game’s final play. The Spartans are favored by 3½ points.
For the 3-1 Hawkeyes' goals, this game is practically a must-win. A 0-2 conference start would already make winning the Big Ten West division a long shot.
Of all the weeks to block the outside noise, this is the one.
And that’s the Iowa program’s specialty. Keep the blinders on. Avoid any and all distractions.
Play together as one.
And fight together ... until the game is won.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.