Leistikow: Reviewing Kirk Ferentz's changes in Iowa football, 6 weeks after racial-bias allegations
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s now been six weeks since the barrage of allegations from former Iowa football players outlined years of racial disparities, unchecked power and mistreatment inside the walls of the Hawkeye program.
Reflecting on that first weekend in June, it seemed those walls — sometimes dubbed “Fort Kinnick” — were crumbling fast. It was unclear then what turn this story was about to take as Kirk Ferentz held his first news conference on the topic, two days after the tidal wave of complaints began rolling in through social media.
On Thursday of this week, the 22nd-year Iowa head coach stood inside Kinnick Stadium to conduct his third news conference that was largely focused on how his program was trying to become more inclusive without sacrificing high performance standards. There will be no bigger story in Iowa football in 2020, with the outcome helping shape not only Ferentz’s legacy but how minorities are treated in the Iowa City community and our state and possibly beyond.
It's unquestionably important to hear from Ferentz regularly and evaluate what progress has been made.
Overall? There has been positive change in six weeks, but Ferentz can do better in some areas, too.
No. 1: Let’s start by looking at known, specific changes Ferentz has made since his June 7 news conference.
Chris Doyle was removed from the program. The $1.1 million separation agreement with the program’s 21-year strength and conditioning coach came quickly and was announced June 15. Four Black players interviewed since have described a more inclusive feeling and a weight lifted (so to speak) inside the building.
The long-standing Twitter ban was removed. Ferentz also indicated Thursday he was strongly considering lifting the ban on true freshmen speaking to media. Both measures would increase the voice given to all players, especially those new to the program.
The team’s leadership group was expanded to 21 players, including 12 who are Black (57%). By comparison, there were only five Black players out of 19 in the 2019 leadership group (26%). In 2018, the ratio was four Black, eight white (33%). In 2017, there were only two Black players and 14 white (12.5%). In 2016, it was four Black and 12 white (25%). Also in a philosophy change, more younger voices (three freshmen, six sophomores) were included in this year's group — a positive response to giving all players (not just proven veterans who comply with the "Iowa Way") a greater voice.
A 10-player advisory group, now led by former offensive lineman David Porter, was created. Ferentz reported the group has had weekly meetings with the idea of discussing ways the program can improve inclusiveness and approach.
There are open discussions about race and a possible national-anthem protest. Ferentz was staunchly against his team taking a knee back in 2016 and 2017 as a response to police violence against minorities, but the team recently held an hour-long meeting devoted exclusively to that topic.
“There was a lot of listening going on, a lot of good discussion,” Ferentz said Thursday, “but most definitely a lot of good respect for each other.
“That’s part of the problem with our country now, quite frankly. What I witnessed in that hour was what you’re looking for. A foundation of a good team is (players) that honor each other’s opinions and beliefs and do so with respect.”
No. 2: The testimonies from Black players have helped affirm positive change.
Iowa has made six current players available for podium interviews since what has been described as raw and powerful team meetings June 8-9; four of those players are Black. That list included running back Ivory Kelly-Martin and safety Kaevon Merriweather in June; and linebacker Djimon Colbert and wide receiver Brandon Smith on Thursday.
It’s important to note these four players were picked by Iowa to speak. All four have described an environment over the last six weeks in which Black players feel more comfortable being themselves. A primary criticism, including from recent former players James Daniels and Toren Young, was that Black players felt forced to comply to a white culture, particularly in Doyle's weight room.
Said Colbert: "Before all of this started … a lot of guys said you felt like you were walking on eggshells and stuff like that. It’s not like that anymore now. It’s a very open space, a very open discussion, very open to honest feelings and honest opinions."
Noted Smith: “If you come to the University of Iowa, your voice will be heard. And you will be considered a valuable person to the team.”
Colbert, who is from Kansas City, has participated in downtown Iowa City protests and said he had been tear-gassed by police but felt honored to have the opportunity to stand up for his Black ancestors. Smith spoke about the joy he felt in seeing his home state of Mississippi remove the Confederate battle emblem from its state flag.
Hearing them talk about those things was impactful and undeniably positive.
“In a nutshell, I just want to say I’m really proud of the people in our program," Ferentz said. "Our coaching staff, our support staff, but mostly our players, the way they’ve handled things.”
No. 3: Ferentz still needs to show more openness, vulnerability and strong anti-racism words and actions.
Through three news conferences, Ferentz’s words have leaned on generalities (instead of clear specifics) and privacy (instead of sharing impactful behind-the-scenes moments). In other words: That's Ferentz being Ferentz, which in itself is not a criticism. His down-to-earth, reserved approach can be a welcome contrast in the Big Ten Conference to other arrogant current and former coaches.
But in this case, Ferentz would do a great service to the program and his players by speaking more forcefully against racial injustices and letting his guard down about ways he's been convicted internally. He also said he was planning to look into racial-bias training for his staff, but why hasn’t that happened already?
For now, he seems focused on letting current players speak for themselves — a great and needed measure — and lifting some regulations (like Twitter) that he on Thursday called “frivolous.” But as the dean of college football coaches and with a spotlight on the allegations surrounding his program, Ferentz can carry a powerful voice nationally.
That opportunity isn’t gone, but it's in danger of being missed. Ferentz could very well be waiting for the results of the outside investigation by law firm Husch Blackwell to formulate a strong action plan going forward.
Ferentz’s most reflective moment Thursday was admitting that he dropped the ball on not providing enough follow-up to the university’s diversity task force to address low graduation rates among Black athletes (particularly in football). After an August 2019 players meeting, Ferentz said he felt satisfied with issues that were addressed — like allowing hats and earrings to be worn inside the football facility. But he failed on his promise to circle back with the players during the team’s bye week or bowl period.
“That was the big lesson coming out of the task force for me,” Ferentz said. “We addressed it in August, put it on the shelf … and that was it. I thought we had a pretty good culture in March and in December. But clearly, what we learned in June, was there are more things we need to talk about.”
No. 4: Kirk 4.0 has become his most important program reboot, this time with off-field results being the priority.
Ferentz referenced Thursday his 1999 arrival and saying that back then, he felt more restrictions were needed on players — a reference to the moribund state of the program that persisted (on the field) until late in the 2000 season. The revival that led to two Big Ten championships and three national top-eight finishes from 2002 to 2004 marked Kirk 1.0.
The program’s 2008 through 2010 surge (2.0) came after a bowl-less 2007 season marred by player arrests and scandal. That 2008 offseason was when Doyle introduced what is now known as the Hawkeye Championship.
Kirk 3.0 (aka “New Kirk”) started with the unlikely 12-0 regular season of 2015, after a downturn that included the January 2011 rhabdomyolysis outbreak and the 2014 season disappointment. Changes included an overhaul of the team’s practice schedules and Ferentz embracing analytics and risk-taking in game management; Iowa’s record is 47-19 over the past five seasons.
And now, 4.0 begins. Recovering well from widespread racial-bias allegations (including against his son) will be the ultimate test of Ferentz’s legacy. Rather than riding comfortably into the sunset of his career, Ferentz (two weeks shy of his 65th birthday) aims to thread the needle of marrying a revived and inclusive culture to the toughness, hard work and togetherness that produced previous runs of program success.
But just as he made the move to morning practices by observing and stepping out of his football comfort zone, Ferentz now can become a leader in college football by promoting not only an inclusive program but an anti-racist one.
How does Ferentz plan to be accountable to being on the right track?
“A very wise member of the advisory committee, who happens to be a coaching veteran,” Ferentz answered, “said that Kirk’s team will tell him what the problems are.”
Given what we’ve heard so far from players that speaking up about racial issues and mistreatment is encouraged, it’s clear that Ferentz — while there’s more work to be done — has laid six weeks of positive groundwork for that scenario to play out.
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.