Leistikow: The $12 paperback book that is inspiring Iowa football
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Last fall, a personal-development book called “The Slight Edge” provided a window into how Iowa changed its football culture.
The Hawkeyes’ latest required reading, “Legacy,” outlines how they plan to maintain it.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s review?
Though the 207-page book, authored by James Kerr, details years of principles instilled by the world’s most successful rugby team, the All Blacks of New Zealand, it speaks profoundly to the current state of Hawkeye football.
“It was really interesting,” Ferentz said, “the timeliness of it.”
In preparation to write this column, I read the book and interviewed a half-dozen Hawkeye players.
I wanted to learn what steps the 2016 Hawkeyes are taking to make sure 2015 sticks. After all, that’s THE question surrounding Iowa football: Can 2015's record-setting success be sustained?
As strength coach Chris Doyle told me last year, “Revolutions start with language.”
If “The Slight Edge” started one, “Legacy” is building on it.
The book delivers 15 lessons, but I picked five that seem to apply best for the 2016 Hawkeyes.
Pass the Ball
By creating a devolved management structure, leaders create ownership, autonomy and initiative. (Page 56)
Like the Hawkeyes did with “The Slight Edge,” veteran players were tasked to present key lessons from “Legacy” to their teammates. That in itself is something developed by the All Blacks, who like Ferentz’s Hawkeyes, have a Leadership Group made of veteran, high-character players who make decisions and set team goals.
“We had to grow more collaborative,” one All Blacks player said, “so that together we grow. Together, we advance.”
Though Ferentz’s Hawkeye teams have named a Leadership Group instead of captains, there was no better illustration of its importance than 2015. That’s when Iowa took a roster that saw just one of 21 seniors get picked in the NFL Draft – center Austin Blythe, five selections from the end of the last round – to a school-record 12 wins, the Big Ten Conference championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Togetherness wins. Accountability to one another is an essential offseason priority.
“We remind each other, ‘Remember this from the book?’” sophomore linebacker Aaron Mends said. “It’s a constant reminder of how to live and how to be a successful team.”
Sweep the Sheds
A collection of talented individuals without personal discipline will ultimately and inevitably fail. Character triumphs over talent. (Page 7)
Iowa’s culture went from weak in 2014 to strong in 2015. Where will it go in 2016?
When I spoke with Ferentz on May 31, he thought Iowa's culture was on the right track. I asked him how he knew.
One of his indicators? “How the locker room looks when we walk through.”
Without proper context, the answer may sound silly. But I understood immediately: Guys are sweeping the sheds.
The shed in rugby is what the locker room is to football. Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King spoke on this topic to his teammates. On the All Blacks, the star players pick up brooms and begin cleaning up the shed after celebrating a big win. It’s not left to rookies, or anyone else.
Discipline starts at the top. Examples need to be set by senior stars like King.
“It was the captains that were the ones showing the way everything should be handled,” King said. “That’s what my chapter was about, showing humility and leadership.”
Invent Your Own Language
First we shape our values; then our values shape us. (Page 148)
This is an important crossroads for the Hawkeye program. It strives for seasons like the last one (12-2 and a top-10 final ranking), not the previous five (34-30 and mediocrity).
In the 2000s, the vaunted All Blacks lost their edge, which led to soul-searching and culture change. They turned it around and won the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
Then, they repeated the title in 2015. Today, the All Blacks are ranked No. 1 in the world.
Now that something’s clicked inside the Iowa Football Performance Center’s walls, finding a way to continue it is the next step. The All Blacks stress the importance of words.
If you repeat them enough, they become ingrained. They become standards for what is expected.
“If you go into our weight room, we have a bunch of words, phrases (displayed): Break The Rock, Build An Edge, The Iowa Edge,” senior tight end George Kittle said. “That’s just the foundation of Iowa football. You build on a legacy.”
You build on 2015.
Keep a Blue Head
If a centipede had to think about moving all its legs in the right order, it would freeze, the task too complex and daunting. (Page 113)
Obviously, locker-room culture is vital to a program like Iowa’s that doesn’t feed off top-10 recruiting classes. But it’s not everything. The pressure that emerges on Saturdays can attack and unravel the closest-knit group.
The All Blacks found that out in the 2007 World Cup. In the quarterfinals, they were dominating France at halftime. But they lost the match, and it ended their World Cup. They choked, Kerr wrote.
There are two responses to pressure, the All Blacks say. You can be Red-Headed (tight, inhibited, results-oriented, desperate) or Blue-Headed (loose, expressive, in the moment, on task).
When things go haywire -- like they did for Iowa early in the 45-16 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford -- players need to be Blue-Headed. Hayden Fry, the master psychologist and Ferentz’s predecessor from 1979 to 1998, would love this one.
“There was a couple times out there (in 2015) I would get a little Red-Headed when I felt like I was getting picked on,” senior cornerback Greg Mabin said. “But the book says you just need to find things that bring you back to your center.”
The All Blacks stress positive visual images, not negative ones, in times of pressure. This might be the most important on-field lesson for the Hawkeyes to perfect in 2016.
There’s going to be adversity.
Be a Good Ancestor
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. (Page 171)
Whatever won-loss record the Hawkeyes assemble in 2016, there’s something bigger at stake.
“It’s your job to continue the legacy,” a former All Blacks coach said, “and add to it when you get your opportunity.”
Understanding this might be the key to avoiding what happened after Iowa’s 2009 season that ended with an 11-2 record and Orange Bowl win. A stacked team in 2010 started strong but limped to a 7-5 regular-season finish.
What the 2015 Hawkeye seniors like Blythe, Jordan Canzeri and Jordan Lomax did for this program can be undone quickly. As “Legacy” points out, “Momentum swings faster than we think. One moment we’re on top of the world, the next falling off the other side.”
“The guys before us, they’re not playing anymore. They left their jerseys in a better place,” Kittle said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
That, in essence, captures the book's finishing message: "It's time to leave a legacy. Your legacy. It's your time."
Can a $12 paperback book lead Iowa back to Indianapolis for another shot at a Big Ten title?
To be determined. But at least there's a road map.
“The commitment to culture is more important than any type of strategy or talent you have,” sophomore defensive end Parker Hesse said. “The mindset of a team, of a group, can be the most powerful force.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.