Leistikow: Iowa Football Media Day 2018 turns into a culture conversation
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In his first media day at Iowa, Tristan Wirfs probably would’ve loved to be talking exclusively about football — about how last fall he became the first true freshman to start at offensive tackle under Kirk Ferentz.
Instead, he was answering questions about his OWI arrest last month that’ll keep him out of the Hawkeyes’ Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois.
But maybe that was the point: He was answering the questions.
So did the three other Hawkeyes who are suspended for Week 1.
Offensive tackle Alaric Jackson, violation of team policy: “It was a bad thing I did. Team policy, move on from the situation.”
Defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore, violation of team policy: “You feel like you let (the team) down.”
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- Opportunity knocks along the offensive line for season opener
- Mekhi Sargent almost chose Louisville. The Hawkeyes are glad he didn't.
Defensive tackle Brady Reiff, public intoxication arrest last month: “I deserve it, obviously. Now I’m trying to move on from it. I embarrassed my family, embarrassed this program.”
And Wirfs: “It’s that trust thing and I felt like with the mistake I made, I broke that trust. I’ve got to keep grinding, keep working to get that trust back.”
Iowa Football Media Day 2018 was a lot about facing the music ... and moving on.
And as I went around to ask various team leaders about the list of team transgressions, a common theme emerged.
Fifth-year senior Parker Hesse said, of course, you don’t want a rash of suspensions that could compromise Iowa’s ability to beat Northern Illinois. But much more importantly, you don’t want it to chip away long-term at the culture in the building.
Man for man, there didn’t seem to be major concerns about what was going on.
“As a leadership group and as a team, we’re trying to use it as an opportunity to grow closer — to lay out in black and white who we are,” Hesse said, “and what our standard of operation (is) going forward throughout this season.
“Obviously, it’s not a positive. But I think the way we’ve handled it as a team has been positive.”
Fifth-year senior center Keegan Render echoed those comments, saying "the chemistry’s been real good going back to January."
When head coach Kirk Ferentz goes to the podium to make remarks, he usually has a list of talking points he wants to emphasize. And he’s a pro at it. As he joked in his opening statement, “As many of you may know, this is my 20th year.”
He went out of his way Friday to praise the behaviors of those in the 12-player leadership group, which has six seniors, five juniors and a sophomore — a nod to what's been happening off the field.
“It's really important that those guys continue on and show the other guys how to practice, how to meet,” Ferentz said, “how to do things away from the building, how to study, how to be involved with community service, all those kinds of things.”
Are you listening, young Hawkeyes?
Ferentz further articulated that in light of the suspensions (and maybe some recent roster attrition), he's seeing a tighter bond forming with the remaining 2018 Hawkeyes.
You can choose to believe that or not, but Ferentz pointed to historical evidence that offseason trouble can turn into a positive.
“When guys come forward and are unified with a message, that's really an encouraging thing,” Ferentz said. “A lot of times it can really galvanize football teams. I can think of two specific examples I could give you — but I'm not going to — that I think were really pivotal moments in good teams that we've had, their development.”
Though Ferentz didn’t mention them, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the examples in his mind was the 2002 season.
You remember that one for the 11-2 record, the Big Ten Conference co-championship, Brad Banks being the Heisman Trophy runner-up and the Orange Bowl bid.
What you might not remember is that before the season, that team endured a spate of arrests and the dismissal of top cornerback Benny Sapp.
One of the best sources about Iowa’s team culture is strength and conditioning coach (and director of football) Chris Doyle. He’s been here for all 20 years with Ferentz, and he’s probably got a better feel than anyone about the team’s chemistry and culture.
His response to what’s been going on lately?
First, he aligned with Ferentz’s belief that with the four suspended guys in particular, these are blips on the radar.
“We have 110 guys in camp. And if you take 110 college-aged kids, we have a few that are dealing with some issues right now,” Doyle said. “And I think that’s probably pretty typical.”
Second, as you might imagine, Doyle pointed to the opportunity for each player to experience personal and football growth.
“We’ve had some real success stories in the past of guys who have come in and needed to clean up their lifestyle and did, and then experienced quite a bit of success,” Doyle said. “… Now these guys are going to have to walk that same path. They’re going to have to learn from this and make changes.
"If they do, they’ll be successful. If they don’t, it’s not going to work here.”
These players are hurting, remorseful.
Instead of lining up to do what he trains 365 days to do — attack the line of scrimmage — Reiff will have a remote control in hand in Week 1.
“It’ll be hard,” Reiff said. “I’ll probably be sitting at home, watching the game on TV."
Wirfs seemed to be taking it the hardest. He said the worst part was calling his mother, not the football part.
“I felt like I let her down,” Wirfs said. “She did everything she could to get me where I am today. Making that phone call was kind of tough.”
Out in front of the cameras, Iowa's suspended players spoke honestly and openly about what happened. Good for them.
Behind the scenes, Wirfs said he’s been telling his teammates this won’t happen again, and that he’s sorry he won’t be out there Sept. 1.
“I went around and have been making apologies,” he said, “and telling them, ‘I’m going to do my best to get your trust back and come back better than ever.’”
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.