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Leistikow: 4 perplexing paragraphs in Iowa football investigation report

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Although the book is closed on the outside investigation into the Iowa football program’s treatment of players, the story continues.

In reviewing coverage of Thursday’s 28-page Husch Blackwell report, the primary takeaways were:

  • Black players were punished more harshly than white players for perceived rules violations, a conclusion drawn by investigators and current and former players of all races.
  • Three coaches were identified, but not named publicly, by the law firm as having verbally abused and bullied players. The rest of the staff — including head coach Kirk Ferentz — received overwhelmingly positive reviews.
  • According to Ferentz and athletics director Gary Barta in a news conference, personnel changes beyond the June 15 separation with 21-year strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle were not needed.
  • And current and former players expressed optimism (about an improved football culture over the past eight weeks) and skepticism (that the change would be lasting).

But one topic that didn’t get as much attention Thursday centered on four perplexing paragraphs in the report that addressed Iowa coaches’ interactions with NFL scouts. This was not something investigators set out to find; this is something that was brought to their attention and they thought deserved inclusion. 

And, according to the report, “numerous” former players alleged that one coach “was able to make or break their professional careers.”

Although Doyle wasn’t specifically named in the section, he has long been the program’s primary conduit to National Football League scouts and directs workouts at Iowa in the pre-draft process. Doyle’s central role in developing NFL-ready players has been a source of pride for the Hawkeye program. Iowa’s 75 draft picks in the 21-year Ferentz era is a primary selling point in recruiting. 

The first paragraph continued.

“Numerous former players alleged that the coach used his influence with NFL scouts to ‘blackball’ players, mostly Black players, whom he did not like,” the report said. “The allegation that the coach would ‘blackball’ players was repeated by one coach, who did not address whether race influenced this; he said that the coach tried to ‘blackball’ players with the NFL or negatively impact their prospects.”

As that reads, an Iowa coach reported to investigators that the coach in question intentionally damaged certain players’ NFL prospects. Further in the section, several former players described an implicit requirement to train at Iowa ahead of the NFL Combine and pro days — rather than seeking out sports-performance facilities — out of fear that negative feedback would be provided to scouts.

Two unnamed current NFL players, one Black and one white, were highlighted in the report. One of the players (it was not clear which) said his current NFL team informed him that an Iowa coach told scouts he was a “toxic player” who would “ruin their team.” That same player reported to investigators that an Iowa coach “characterized him as undraftable” at his pro-day workouts, according to an on-site scout.

Pause button here.

It's fair to interject that coaches should speak candidly to scouts; if a player has poor work habits or is a bad teammate, that's important information the NFL can't evaluate on film.

But that’s not what is being alleged here. The feeling from numerous players was that one coach provided misleading information and (as the report said) "wielded complete control over which players could speak with NFL scouts."

The NFL is the lifelong dream for most players that step into a Power Five Division I program. If what investigators reported is even partially true, that a coach assisted in sabotaging those dreams, that’s really disappointing. Especially when the average NFL career lasts 3.3 years, a stat that makes the value of that rookie contract (which hinges on where you’re drafted) financially integral.

For example, 2019 first-round tight end T.J. Hockenson was paid $12.9 million by the Detroit Lions for his rookie season; 2017 fifth-round tight end George Kittle (more on him later) has averaged $654,429 in annual income from the San Francisco 49ers in his first three seasons.

George Kittle is viewed as perhaps the best tight end in the NFL entering his fourth year with the San Francisco 49ers.

In allowing 45-plus minutes of media questions Thursday (mostly on player treatment, personnel decisions and racial-bias responses), Barta and Ferentz were not asked about the NFL topic. It certainly deserves future follow-up, although Ferentz was cited by the report as communicating “that it would be counterintuitive for a coach to say negative things about players” to NFL scouts. Ferentz added that scouts draw their own conclusions and that he wasn't aware of any coach using the word “undraftable” about any Hawkeye.

For a program that prides itself on NFL tradition (and has trumpeted three first-round picks in the past two years), it is hard to imagine Iowa "blackballing" certain players on the way to the next level. Yet that's a major concern that the Husch Blackwell report raised. It was a reminder of a story written by The Athletic that quoted a scout as saying Iowa coaches “crushed” the football character of Kittle, now an NFL superstar, who had a fantastic 2017 Combine then surprisingly saw eight tight ends get drafted before him. That story also quoted an NFL executive as saying, “Iowa didn’t exactly sell him as a legit dude.”

That same draft year, future all-pro cornerback Desmond King was expected to be a Day 2 pick but tumbled all the way to the fifth round. Was his choice to train at Exos in Pensacola, Florida, a contributing factor? Was Kittle's zest for fun outside of football used against him? The report does make one think about other past Hawkeyes who fell further than expected in the draft ... and why they fell.

Doyle's removal from the Iowa program may help alleviate concerns of future NFL Hawkeyes. But on the recruiting trail and within his building, Ferentz will need to address the topic of tainted assessments for NFL scouts.

Its inclusion in the Husch Blackwell report made sure of that.

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.