Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz stakes legacy on being his own solution to racial bias problems
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nearly two months after James Daniels first tweeted about the need for culture change in the Iowa football program …
More than six weeks after Chris Doyle was removed from his 21-year role as strength and conditioning coach …
And after 113 interviews by the Husch Blackwell law firm, along with findings that were summarized with a 28-page public report Thursday morning …
There were two primary conclusions drawn from Thursday afternoon’s news conference to address the issue of racial bias and mistreatment that the investigation concluded has been occurring for years inside the Hawkeye program.
Further staff changes aren’t needed.
And Kirk Ferentz will fix it.
The latter is a daunting challenge that college football’s active dean of FBS coaches is willing to attack.
The former is largely his call, one that ultimately could define his legacy. He and Iowa athletic director Gary Barta are in lockstep that keeping multiple assistants on staff who contributed to a corrosive culture (the report identified three unnamed coaches, one presumably being Doyle, who "abused their power and verbally abused and bullied players") is the best call. Ferentz is confident that those assistants can change their behaviors.
"This has certainly been a moment of truth for me as a leader, and for the program,” Ferentz said during his opening remarks. “The release of this independent review will not be the end of this conversation. Really, it's just the beginning of our next chapter in the program's history.”
After reading the findings of the independent investigation, it’s clear that this is a major ask for one man — especially considering Ferentz has fallen short before when told of possible racial issues.
One section of the report interviewed an unnamed current assistant coach, who said he raised concerns of player mistreatment with Ferentz multiple times over the past four years — dating to 2016 — but no action was taken.
Ferentz, you’ll recall, also recently confessed he dropped the ball in not circling back with Black players (as he promised) about surface-area changes implemented following the findings of the UI athletics department’s 2018 diversity task force.
Barta continues to give Ferentz a vote of confidence, one he expressed was shared by UI President Bruce Harreld.
“I have had a chance to work with Kirk now for 15 years, so that's a starting point,” Barta said. “I've watched him make changes when he's needed to make changes during my time. I've listened, and we've had several conversations about his desire to change.
“And … I believed this would be the case, but I was very pleased to see that the conversations with former and current players confirmed what I believed, that Kirk is a leader that can move forward with this program.”
Positive change from inside the Hansen Football Performance Center has been reported by four Black current players (Kaevon Merriweather, Ivory Kelly-Martin, Djimon Colbert and Brandon Smith) in the past six weeks. That's been a much-needed, good start.
In the Husch Blackwell report, some current players (45 in total were interviewed) “expressed skepticism and cautioned that it is hard to truly change culture and that for change to be permanent, it must come from Ferentz and go ‘down the line.'"
Further, the report said other players “worried that the changes are not genuine, and the coaches are just covering their tracks.”
One more current player had concern that the changes wouldn't last because (the report said) "players have raised concerns with Ferentz in the past and, because he did not do anything at the time, the program may be waiting for things to blow over before they revert back” to past tendencies.
Again, these are current players talking. Possibly the same ones who have been reporting positive change to date.
That section stuck out to Ferentz, too, as he read the hard truths about what had been happening under his nose and ways he has fallen short in the past.
“To me, that's a synopsis of the whole review in my mind,” Ferentz said. “… I think we've had two great months, really significant months in this program's history. That's all for naught if we don't have follow-through.
“I've encouraged our players, call me out. And same thing with the advisory committee (of 10 former players created by Ferentz after June 7).”
As reflected in the report, his players have been watching the behavior in the program for years but felt they had to keep their mouths shut.
They’re still watching, and will be watching, his every move going forward, with the freedom to speak up.
If an assistant coach tells a player he is “s--- for brains” or a “dumb mother-----” (as is described in the report), Ferentz must step in and take assertive action.
If he doesn't ...
His players are watching.
Yet as much as Barta and many former players and Ferentz himself articulate that he alone can lead the change, he’s going to need a lot of help.
It’s been proven with Doyle's ascent to unchecked power just how difficult it can be for the head coach to lose focus and see everything that goes on in the program.
So ... can Kirk fix it?
Kirk must fix it.
But it'll still take everyone in the Hawkeye program — Black, white, coaches, players — to help bring lasting, positive change.
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.