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Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz has power, voice to bring more than football wins to Iowa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Kirk Ferentz publicly repeated a message Wednesday that he privately shared with his Iowa football players two days earlier.

That he’s a 64-year-old white football coach.

And that he’s still learning about the reality of racism and inequities in our country.

More importantly, Ferentz has expressed to players and media this week that is he willing to listen. Willing to learn. Willing to change. Willing to act.

Protests against police violence and racism were something Ferentz, the current dean of college football coaches, remembers as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It rattled him this week, in the wake of George Floyd’s chilling death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, that  there hasn’t been as much progress as he hoped.

In Iowa, Ferentz’s voice carries immense weight. Even to those who have never met him, Ferentz has been a part of their lives for more than two decades as the head coach of the state’s most popular sports team. His voice has regional heft, too. Only three men — Amos Alonzo Stagg, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler — have more wins than Ferentz (162, tied with Joe Paterno) as a Big Ten Conference football coach.

On Wednesday, we heard his voice on a Zoom call. And even though this was originally scheduled to be a football-heavy news conference, with many players returning this week to the University of Iowa campus, the events of the past week were too weighty for the normally risk-averse Ferentz to sidestep.

“Change is really needed right now,” Ferentz said boldly during opening remarks. "And it’s in our hands to try to do something with it.”

He was speaking about himself, his coaches, his players and yes, he noted, Hawkeye fans.

In other words, everyone.

Kirk Ferentz (shown amid ANF logos in October 2019) showed an awareness of racial injustices Wednesday and a willingness to learn more.

As Ferentz articulated, he can be solution-oriented for those in his world. We should all do the same in our respective worlds.

And it's not too late to change.

Ferentz shared two instances in the past week that affected him.

He was watching TV on Sunday morning and saw three older black gentlemen — two journalists, one U.S. senator — share experiences about how they’ve been treated by police. The senator, age 54, mentioned he had been pulled over seven times alone in Washington, D.C.

“That’s pretty sobering, to think that’s possible,” Ferentz said. “Here’s a very prominent member of our government being stopped.

“It took things to a different level for me, personally.”

Another story was about one of Iowa’s black position coaches calling a Zoom meeting for players. The coach instructed two players — one black, one white — to explain what their parents taught them about how to behave when they’re approached by a police officer.

“There were two very different perspectives on that, as you might well imagine,” Ferentz said. “But it was a really good exercise for all of our players to realize there are a couple different sets of rules. And that takes me back to what I heard Sunday morning.

"And there’s something inherently wrong about that.”

It was during the 2016 season that Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem before NFL games served as a protest against the country's treatment of racial minorities ... and started a national conversation. Or, maybe more accurately, national shouting matches.

Ferentz, in 2017, was dismissive of players using the football field as a platform for social justice. He was adamant that all Iowa players stand for the anthem, and they did.

“Use a platform where maybe it could make a difference,” he said then.

The Kaepernick topic was brought up again Wednesday, and while still staying on past themes, Ferentz at least seemed willing to change his hard-line perspective.

“Whether it’s appropriate or not in a sports venue, that’s a discussion to be had. And when we come back, we’ll talk about that as a team as well,” Ferentz said. “My goal or hopes as a coach is whatever we decide to do, I’d just like to see our team be together. Everybody’s taking a knee; or everybody’s at attention.”

Ferentz admitted Wednesday that some of his current players expressed displeasure in the lag time it took him to address the issues surrounding Floyd’s death. He said Wednesday he would have spoken out sooner if he could do it over again.

Listening is great.

But ... how much can a football coach activate real change? Well, a lot.

Look no further than Ferentz’s Iowa predecessor. Prominent in Hayden Fry’s obituary in December was how he helped Jerry LeVias break the color barrier in the old Southwest Conference. Fry once said he was more proud of giving LeVias a scholarship to SMU in 1966 than any game he would win as a coach.

Hayden Fry: a white man from west Texas who stood up for an oppressed population.

Kirk Ferentz has a huge opportunity here.

To his credit, he said he plans to hold a town hall of sorts, whenever players can be in the same room again, where black players can share life experiences and start a dialogue.

That’s a great start.

If the farming crisis of the 1980s called for an ANF sticker, how about a place on the Hawkeye helmet to recognize this social crisis and promote better race relations?

How about kneeling at the end of the first quarter of every game — home and away — to not only honor the patients of the UI Children’s Hospital, but to protest injustice against the black population?

Those would be small steps.

Ferentz earns $5 million a year to lead a Hawkeye football team to victories. He has always seen his job as more than that, though. In his final comments of his Zoom call, he revealed the big-picture mindset that made him a positive difference-maker for 21 years running at Iowa … and how can continue to be going forward.

“The core of any good team, any organization is for everybody in the room to be respectful of each other,” Ferentz said. “That’s to me the key in life, really. Football is such a great model for how life ought to be. A hundred-plus guys. Certainly, we’re not all going to be best friends. Certainly, we come from different backgrounds, different beliefs.

“But we all agree on something, and we all agree to work together and have respect for each other. I think that’s kind of the essence of any relationship in life."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.