Iowa coach Brian Ferentz's season of progress starts off the field: 'I am deeply sorry'
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Actions will ultimately speak louder than words, but the words on Thursday coming from Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz were still important for us and dozens of former Hawkeye football players to hear.
Conducting his first news conference in 9½ months, the son of Iowa’s head coach opened with several contrite minutes about the role he played in the racial-bias allegations that rocked the football program this summer.
“For any player who had a negative experience in our program, for any player that did not feel valued or respected on a human level, I am deeply sorry,” Ferentz said. “And I offer a sincere apology.”
“My personal goal as a coach is to have a positive impact on young people,” Ferentz said. “And it’s painful to learn that I may have fallen short in that department. But I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow. And to improve.”
None of the other 10 coaches speaking Thursday had such an opening statement, which in itself was an unofficial admission that he was one of the three unnamed coaches singled out for exhibiting abusive or bullying behavior toward former and/or current players in the 28-page report of the Husch Blackwell investigation.
Knowing how passionate Ferentz is about the success of Hawkeye football, hearing those things should cut deep.
Ferentz was born across the street from Kinnick Stadium in the UI Hospitals in 1983 while his father was an assistant coach under Hayden Fry. He returned here in 1999 when Kirk Ferentz was hired to be Fry’s successor and attended Iowa City High. He spent five years as a Hawkeye player (2001-05) then returned again in 2012 after four years on staff with the New England Patriots to become Iowa’s offensive line coach. He hasn't left since.
When dozens of former players shared their stories of mistreatment in early June, longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle became the primary target. Doyle was not retained. But Brian Ferentz, who had the second-most mentions, was given votes of confidence by his father and athletics director Gary Barta.
But for a time, Brian Ferentz surely wondered if his Iowa days were numbered. And he even told the team and staff as such, in an unvarnished June 8 team meeting.
“What I tried to share was how much I love this place, and how much I care and feel strongly about this place,” Ferentz relayed. “… I did tell the football team that if I’m not a part of the solution, if I’m ever not part of pushing this place forward and making it better, then I have no interest in being a part of it. And I will be happy to walk away. Because this place is that important to me.”
Ferentz said Thursday he did not recall using racist language toward players. But he did reveal that at least one former player told him that he was too abrasive. What Brian Ferentz might think are smart-alecky wisecracks can be hurtful.
“When I hear something like that, it's disappointing. I'm disappointed in myself, (knowing) that I could be more empathetic,” Ferentz said. “That I couldn't understand how I was being perceived by that player.
“It’s not so much, ‘What did I say?’ It’s more about asking the question, ‘What did you hear?’”
Those are comments that offer encouragement that Brian Ferentz, 37, is learning and can make positive change.
Kirk Ferentz said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen from not only his oldest son but his entire staff. Every coach asked about the latest culture Thursday reported a much tighter-knit team than it was 3-4 months ago.
It’s also important to report what some current players said this week about their offensive coordinator.
“I respect Brian in every single way. He hasn't done anything to me,” third-year wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. said. “He hasn't said anything bad to me. So, the remarks that (were) said about him (were) very shocking. But we did have our personal moment. I went in and talked to him. We’re on board and just going straight ahead.”
Added running back Mekhi Sargent, in his third year in the program: “Honestly, Coach Brian is a great man, a great coach. … He’s going to continue being very supportive of all the players here.”
If players don’t buy into Brian Ferentz in this upcoming season, it’ll eventually be revealed … either on the field or off it.
Signs are good that some progress has been made. It should be a good thing for the program that football games are back on, and the Oct. 23 or 24 opener at Purdue is coming fast. Football gives coaches and players more time together. There will be adversity ahead … and more opportunities to grow.
“You need to hear from our players, a year from now, that things are better,” Brian Ferentz said, “and that it’s a more welcoming environment (and) a more inclusive environment where the players are more comfortable.
“We all want to feel safe. And we all want to feel a part of something. That’s what we're all seeking. And that's what I'd like to think we're trying to do at the University of Iowa.”
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.