Leistikow: How Kirk Ferentz navigated a difficult year and has Hawkeye football in a better place

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — After one of the most challenging years of his football-coaching career — heck, his life — Iowa's Kirk Ferentz feels like he’s arriving on the doorstep of his 66th birthday in a happy and refreshed place.

Just don’t ask him to line up in a 40-yard dash.

“I’m not going to win any races, I know that,” college football's longest-tenured coach quipped. “But I feel really good physically. I feel really good mentally.

“I know I’m not 42 anymore, but I feel good. I’ve never been more eager for a season. I feel great."

The COVID-19 pandemic, the exhausting cancellation and resumption of what would become an abbreviated season in front of empty bleachers and cardboard cutouts, contracting COVID-19 himself, a canceled bowl game … all on top of the racial-bias upheaval (and eventual lawsuit) that rocked the program last summer … and Ferentz has seemingly emerged on the other side with a team and culture that's moving in a productive direction.

Kirk Ferentz said he has had some dark moments over the past 12 months, but he feels good about where the Iowa football program is headed under his direction.

Ferentz, hired in December 1998 at age 43 to take over for the late Hayden Fry, has long indicated that he didn’t envision being Iowa’s head coach past age 70. His current contract runs through the 2025 season, when he would be 70.

But as he sits in his outer office with a view of Kinnick Stadium, which will again be packed with fans this fall, he is hedging a bit on that 70 number. He's seen Alabama head coach Nick Saban recently sign an extension that would take him through age 77. He's listened to an interview recently with Pete Carroll, who at 69 signed a five-year extension with the Seattle Seahawks.

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Carroll talks about football coaching in five-year blocks. That clicked with Ferentz, who thinks and talks the same way. Why put a ceiling on a career now?

"I don’t know what I’ll feel like at 70 or 72. If I feel like this, I’ll keep going for a while,” said Ferentz, whose 168 wins as a Big Ten coach are No. 4 in league history behind Amos Alonzo Stagg (232), Woody Hayes (205) and Bo Schembechler (194). "I will say this, I’m not going to do this at age 78."

How did Ferentz arrive at this juncture? A conversation this week with the Des Moines Register dove into the events of one year ago and how Ferentz has taken a measured approach to work through it.

Say the word “June” around Hawkeye football, and no further context is needed.

We are here talking in June of 2021, a notable checkpoint to what took place in the program in June of 2020.

This is the first time Ferentz has been in a one-on-one setting with the Register since late 2019. He knows that June is going to be brought up, and he’s ready to talk about it head-on — as he's been doing with high school prospects and their parents during a busy recruiting month.

It was June 5, 2020, to be exact, that a Friday-evening tweet from Chicago Bears offensive lineman James Daniels alleging “racial disparities in the Iowa football program” triggered a social-media outcry from dozens of Black former players. They shared their negative experiences as Hawkeyes. Bullying, mistreatment and racism were among the claims.

One night later, June 6, Ferentz delivered a statement that would ultimately begin the next phase of his Iowa coaching legacy.  The press release was 409 words, but perhaps the last 15 mattered the most.

“I told the team that change begins with us. But truly, change begins with me.”

That was a message that was repeated by (anonymous) current and former players in the subsequent outside investigation into the program by law firm Husch Blackwell. That true culture change at Iowa "must start with Coach Ferentz and go down the line." The Husch Blackwell report cited players being skeptical that change would last "after the headlines go away." It’s easier in a time of crisis to say the right things in a press release; the true test is in actions, over time.

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One year plus a few weeks since the events of last June, Ferentz admitted he experienced "some dark moments" along the way. But he remains seated in the head coach’s chair at Iowa for the 23rd straight offseason. He’s encouraged by the way players have responded to changes that he’s helped institute.

“I think our program’s in a good position,” Ferentz said, “but I also fully realize our work’s not done. … I think we’ve moved into a pretty good place, but now the challenge is can we keep it there?"

A text message that changed Ferentz's perspective, made a big difference.

This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some notable changes that have taken place in the last 54 weeks:

  • Longtime strength coach Chris Doyle was removed from the program, a decision that prominent former Hawkeye captain Jordan Lomax said last July was “the biggest piece that needed to be changed.” Doyle was replaced by Raimond Braithwaite.
  • The team's longtime ban on tweeting was lifted.
  • More than two dozen Hawkeye players knelt during the playing of the national anthem as a protest against racial injustices in the U.S.; that was something Ferentz previously didn’t allow and stemmed from more forums to have open discussions about race relations.
  • Players are no longer required to wear sleep monitors, a previous staple under Doyle. The Husch Blackwell report highlighted a system that “over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety.”
  • An advisory committee, led by former Hawkeye offensive lineman David Porter, was created. Ferentz said he continues to meet with the committee once a month. The all-volunteer committee (which now selects its own members) has one mission: to support the players. They don’t work for Ferentz, and they challenge his views. “It’s getting more opinions and perspective brought to the table,” Ferentz said.

Ferentz shared a story about getting a text message from a former advisory committee member on the Tuesday that the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was expected. That former player expressed to Ferentz that he was experiencing anxiety about whether Chauvin would be found guilty in the murder of George Floyd.

“He said chances are, your players are, (too),” Ferentz said. “It was a good tip.”

Chauvin was found guilty on all counts that afternoon. Ferentz cleared time the next morning for players and coaches to discuss the verdict and emotions they were feeling. Ferentz admitted he wasn’t thinking about George Floyd when he came off the practice field that day. But he said that text message “hit me in the face,” and he took action with a previously unscheduled meeting that by next-day accounts was well received by everyone involved.

“There are a lot of people that care about our program, care about our players, even if they played here 30 years ago,” Ferentz said. “I think that’s one of the beauties of this program.”

More:Jury trial date set for 2023 in Iowa football discrimination lawsuit

Going back to June of 2020, a consistent message from most former players that spoke out was that they were doing so to improve the Hawkeye program, not tear it down. Ferentz understands that changing the culture is still in the first quarter, and that what he does speaks more loudly than what he says.

“You can ask me, and I’ll tell you I think the world’s great. The people to talk to are our players,” Ferentz said. “We give them the opportunity to talk to you and let them fire away. Let them tell you how things are going. Was it real? Was it lasting?

“We’re not going anywhere, and I don’t think you are either. Just keep asking. That’s fine.”

Here's what the players are saying ...

About four hours after Ferentz’s Register interview came Iowa’s first summer media availability. Junior defensive back Dane Belton said he’s seen more interaction of white and Black players (at meals, for example) than when he first arrived.

Fourth-year wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. said boldly, "The open-door policy is the best decision the coaching staff has made."

And by “open door” he meant … an open door without judgment, without fear of losing playing time or being viewed in a negative light by coaches (two themes that were raised in the Husch Blackwell report).

"He said it was open door (previously). But it was very scary, I guess you could say, just to go to talk to Coach Ferentz,” Tracy said. “Right now, he’s made it very clear that you can actually come in there and talk to him. You don’t have to be nervous, anxious, anything. You can just go in there and have a conversation, and he won’t judge you, he won’t look at you sideways or anything. He talks to you like a man, and he’ll give you advice."

More:Court denies University of Iowa motion to dismiss $20 million racial discrimination lawsuit against its football program

The option to kneel during the national anthem was a big deal for Tracy, who has been outspoken about racial injustices on a national level. The Indianapolis native gave Ferentz credit for what he’s done so far. But Tracy also reiterated that Ferentz needs to stay the course on what he views as positive changes.

Tracy was asked: Can a culture be changed in one year?

Short answer? “No.”

Long answer?

“I think change is recurring. You have to direct the change. He said he was going to change, and he did it. Now, you have to be consistent over time,” Tracy said. “Over time, over time. He’s been consistent over the past year. That’s OK. But you told me you was going to do that. Now you’ve got to be consistent when I’m not here in four years or in 10 years.

“Now, if it’s like that in 10 years, that’s how you change the culture.”

During this past month, Iowa football has been allowed to host high school prospects for the first time in 15 months. Parents of potential future Hawkeyes, in particular, want to hear from current players about the racial climate in the program. Tracy said he's been honest with them about his viewpoint.

“Their parents are worried about it. They don’t want to send their son into an environment that’s not what they want it to be, racially,” Tracy said. “… I definitely reassured them, because it’s really not like that. It really has changed. A lot of people might just say it’s changed, but it really has changed.”

Tracy comes back to that open-door policy, that athletes are encouraged to speak up if they see anything amiss. Ferentz has admitted previously that he had a “blind spot” as it pertained to Doyle, who Lomax said during an interview last summer was given a lot of power by Ferentz and “abused that power.”

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“Coach Ferentz takes it way more seriously than he did before, just because he didn’t know how serious it was before,” Tracy said. “Now, even if it’s little, he’ll take that head on and go talk to whoever he needs to talk to.”

Ferentz has been encouraged by the responses he’s seen from players to the changes. Perhaps that is one of the reasons he is so energized as the 2021 season approaches. He said their work habits have been terrific since they returned to campus in January, and that the team has a good vibe.

“Guys are just operating like they should be, and that’s good to see,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got to keep pushing forward. It’s just a start."

Time to take things to the field … can Iowa rule the Big Ten West?

It’s now been six years since Iowa has won its division. For a program that's won 27 of its last 36 games (a 75% success rate), that can be a little frustrating. Blowing a 17-0 home lead vs. Northwestern last season in Week 2 ultimately cost Iowa the West by a half-game. 

After an 0-2 start, Iowa impressively won its last six games to finish with a No. 15 national ranking. It beat Michigan State by 42, Minnesota by 28, Penn State by 20 and nemesis Wisconsin by 21. The Hawkeyes bring back eight starters from a top-10 national defense and have star power on offense led by center Tyler Linderbaum and running back Tyler Goodson.

ESPN's post-spring power rankings have Iowa ranked No. 14 nationally. As splashy hires like Minnesota's P.J. Fleck and Nebraska's Scott Frost (and now Illinois' Bret Bielema) continue to find their place in the Big Ten West, could Ferentz be quietly and methodically positioned to get the Hawkeyes back on top?

“That’s the goal every year. It’s simple. We want to get to Indianapolis, and we want to win," Ferentz said. "It’s easy to talk about, as a lot of people do. I’ve seen a lot of coaches come into this conference and talk about it. To end up at the top is really challenging. Ohio State’s done it better than anybody, but it’s challenging for them, too.”

Something Lomax and others brought up last summer: That if Ferentz could instill a productive off-field culture shift, individuals would flourish and on-field results would get even better. That's the hope and the plan in Iowa City. That Ferentz, at age 66 and after navigating a turbulent year to say the least, will have the Hawkeyes playing on Dec. 4 in Lucas Oil Stadium in the Big Ten championship game.

Like Ferentz said, don't put an end point or ceiling on his career just yet. There's still work to be done.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.