Leistikow: A pandemic brought them together. Now Iowa football parents want to leave a positive mark

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — As a world of isolation became necessary and commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, the parents of Iowa football players found themselves coming closer together.

And now, they have launched a more organized initiative to make sure the tight bonds they’ve developed in unusual times can be experienced by future Hawkeyes and their families.

The Iowa Football Family Organization (IFFO) is less than three months old, officially. The group will adopt bylaws during the Hawkeyes’ upcoming bye week. But the “night and day” change (as one parent put it) in how Iowa football families interact began in August 2020 when many of them joined forces via Zoom calls to fight the Big Ten Conference’s decision to cancel the season.

Suddenly, parents from different regions of the country who had never spoken to one another were getting to know each other. It was during one of those Zoom calls that Mark Moss, an elementary-school principal in Ankeny and the father of Iowa senior defensive back Riley Moss, casually mentioned that the increasingly tightknit group of parents might someday benefit from more organization.

That day is here. The group ran its framework by head football coach Kirk Ferentz, who gave his enthusiastic approval. There is a board of directors, with two parental representatives from each recruiting class. Moss, the IFFO’s first president, said the leadership is an intentionally diverse mix of race, gender and geography.

More:Leistikow's Iowa football vs. Penn State prediction: 5 reasons Hawkeyes' offense is equipped for top-five matchup

“We wanted to keep the momentum of those relationships going,” Moss said. “Our mission statement is to make sure we’re welcoming new families, developing relationships and keeping lines of communication effective.”

What exactly does the IFFO do?

While thousands of tried-and-true Hawkeye fans have established gameday routines, that’s not the case for most parents of Iowa football players. Basics like finding a place to stay, parking and tailgating can be points of stress — particularly for out-of-state families who may have never been to Kinnick Stadium before.

During one of the Zoom calls, one freshman parent asked a simple question: “Where can I tailgate?”

As a response, the parents communicated and developed a list of about a dozen spots around Kinnick Stadium where families could show up and be welcomed with open arms (and, surely, food and drink).

“It definitely makes it easy, especially when you’re coming from afar,” said Lanesha Bracy, who is the IFFO’s vice president. Her son, Reggie, is a second-year safety from Alabama. “When you get there, you feel like you know somebody. You can talk and you can meet up. It makes it more comfortable and it makes it more fun, too.”

More:What channel is the Iowa-Penn State football game on? How to watch on TV, stream, listen

Another thing that helped the relationships of Iowa parents grow was last year’s abbreviated football season without fans amid the global pandemic. The only non-essential personnel allowed inside Big Ten stadiums last fall were the families of players. Seeing each other in the stands on Saturdays was something that became more normal ... and unifying.

This season, as the fans have returned, more families are getting together before the games, not just casually in the stands. Some get-togethers are now planned on Friday nights. 

A group of Iowa football parents are shown before this year's game at Iowa State. Their closeness began developing in 2020 after the Big Ten initially canceled the football season.

“We’re much tighter as parents than we were Riley’s freshman and sophomore years,” Moss said. “Just because we know each other better and we’ve made a conscious effort to do things together.”

Parents helped bring in more information to the football program’s annual tailgate at the August “Kids Day at Kinnick” scrimmage. Speakers were brought in to help on compliance issues (especially with NIL opportunities a new thing since July), accessing tickets and more. But most of all, the day was about bonding.

“Typically, when those things are over, people scatter," Hawkeye parent Gail Koerner said. "People stayed and kept talking. It was really great for everybody to have that fellowship.”

Recruiting benefits are showing up as IFFO looks to the future.

Gary and Gail Koerner are in their final year as Hawkeye parents. Their son, Jack, is a fifth-year senior safety. One of their thoughts in supporting the IFFO’s organizational efforts is to mimic one of the mantras of the football program: To leave the jersey in a better place.

In other words: To leave the program in a better position than when you arrived.

One area where parents feel they can help the football team is in recruiting.

“I think about recruiting and the role parents have in those decisions,” Gail Koerner said. “I think about how great it would be if parents knew that, ‘OK, I’m also going to have a support system. The team is going to take care of my son, but then I also have some (parental) resources that I can rely on.'”

More:Here are 23 notable football recruiting targets visiting Iowa for the Penn State game

An example of that has already shown up in an organic way.

James Pittman’s son, Jeremiah, is a first-year defensive lineman from Chicago-area Palatine High School. James was thankful to have parents of more established Hawkeye players welcome his family into the program and provide open lines of communication.

James understandably had a lot of questions about the Hawkeye program in light of the summer 2020 removal of strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and the ensuing racial-bias investigation. As it turned out, so did the father of a Palatine wide-receiver prospect named Jacob Bostick.

“He said, ‘Be honest with me. What’s going on?’” James Pittman relayed. “I told him, ‘Jeremiah loves it. .. He said that stuff they’re talking about, he hasn’t seen any of it.'

“So, they came (to Iowa) and they loved it.”

Bostick is now committed to the Hawkeyes’ 2022 class. Pittman’s hope is that a continued network of Hawkeye parents can help answer questions for future prospects.

During the fight to save Big Ten football in 2020, Iowa parents learned that Ohio State has an incredibly structured parents group that even filed as a non-profit organization. Iowa parents see fund-raising as a future possibility, as well as helping families with weekend accommodations or hotel-room block discounts.

More:Inside Iowa football's challenge of appreciating the moment — and beating Penn State

But their main hope is to set up a support system that can be in place for years to come. Next year, Bracy will step into the role of president; Moss will stay on in a "past president" role to help. 

“This isn’t really for us,” Gail Koerner said, “because we are going to be leaving soon.

“I think about the new families, new people coming in. I think, ‘Wow, this is going to help them so much.’ When we first came into the program, we didn’t know anything.”

Moss said this year’s freshman families, in particular, have been appreciative of the parental organization.

It’s neat to see what we’ve observed from the third-ranked Hawkeyes on and off the field this season — a unified group that openly talks about cheering for each other’s successes — is being reflected by their parents.

As Pittman put it: “The culture of the football team is really what we hoped it would be. The parents’ thing just adds to it."

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.