From the archives: Ken O'Keefe opens up about life as Iowa assistant
Note to readers: Ken O’Keefe, who spent 13 years as Kirk Ferentz’s first offensive coordinator at Iowa, is returning to the Hawkeye coaching staff. O’Keefe left Iowa after the 2011 season to become the Miami Dolphins’ receivers coach. This story originally published in the Des Moines Register on Oct. 21, 2008.
Iowa City, Ia. — Say what you want about Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe - and that hasn't been a problem for some diehard Hawkeye football fans over the years - just don't question his persistence.
From fans' perceptions of predictable play-calling, to hitting a double off Youngstown State and eventual big-league pitcher Dave Dravecky after striking out in four previous at-bats, O'Keefe stays at it until he gets it right.
On the field, and off.
"How many times did I propose to my wife before she finally said yes?" O'Keefe said. "Three.
"I must have worn her out with the same question over and over and over again."
That's O'Keefe, everyone's best friend when the Hawkeyes post a big win, like Saturday against Wisconsin when a rare pitch sweep resulted in a Shonn Greene touchdown, and everyone's Internet lightning rod when the team is losing three games in a row.
"Internet? Never read it," O'Keefe said. "I hurt for the players when I hear people criticize, but when they criticize me - I can take it."
During a wide-ranging interview 48 hours before the Hawkeyes' Oct. 4 loss at Michigan State, O'Keefe declined to answer strategy questions, but talked about his five trips to Russia.
He would not talk about questionable third- or fourth-down play calls, but spoke fondly of his college coach.
What happened to the once-successful bubble screen?
"I'm doing the best job I can," said O'Keefe, who will discuss strategy and other topics with reporters during a press conference in Iowa City on Friday. "I'm really just a pretty normal guy."
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O'Keefe is a Kirk Ferentz original, coming to the Hawkeyes before the 1999 season after head coaching stints at a high school in Fort Worth, Texas; at Worcester (Mass.) Academy; Allegheny College; and Fordham University.
He has been a target for criticism during the past three seasons, getting a majority of the blame when plays fail. O'Keefe calls the plays, but Ferentz maintains veto power.
"Ken's the same guy that was coordinator in '03, '04 and '02," Ferentz said of the heyday during his regime. "He's coaching pretty much the same way, kind of like I am.
"When you win, everything's fine. When you lose, everything's wrong."
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O'Keefe, 55, says he's still having fun, a trait he learned from his Pop Warner coach back in Milford, Conn. He learned toughness from his high school coach.
"And I learned to love my players from my college coach," he said.
That would be Jerry Schweickert, who coached O'Keefe at Division III John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, from 1972-74.
"Ken wasn't a great player, but there wasn't a better person," Schweickert said. "He was a receiver for us, and it couldn't have been fun being a receiver for a team that ran the wishbone, but Ken was persistent. He stuck with it, even calling himself a wide blocker."
Schweickert, now retired, struggles to recall recruiting O'Keefe.
"The best I can remember is that he just showed up one day," Schweickert said, "and when he came to our school, we ran that Houston veer offense that today they call the spread.
"We switched to the wishbone because our quarterback graduated, and we had some pretty good running backs and offensive linemen, so that pretty much left the receiver out of plays."
"I don't remember who we were playing, but we got the ball back on a turnover with 20 seconds to play in the first half," Schweickert said. "We needed a quick score, so we decided to run a reverse, and I was sure that it wasn't going to work, but by golly, Kenny took it 45 yards for a touchdown."
Schweickert also recalls what ended up being O'Keefe's final play - the one on which he suffered a career-ending knee injury - while blocking, of course.
"My son (John) was our water boy at the time," Schweickert said. "Kenny got hurt right in front of our sidelines, and my son looked up to me and said, 'Dad, it's a good thing it wasn't one of our good players that got hurt.' "
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O'Keefe went on to coach at Worcester Academy, where Ferentz was one of his assistants. Another was Mike Sherman, the former Packers coach now at Texas A&M.
"How's that for a staff?" O'Keefe cracked.
Ferentz remembered his roots when assembling his staff at Iowa. He defends his longtime friend amid the criticism.
Asked directly if he ever considered a staff shakeup earlier this season that included the coordinators, Ferentz said:
"I don't know how you build anything substantial when you operate that way. I've always been a stability guy."
Ferentz is a guy who craves differing opinions, too.
"I think our staff is very diverse during the course of the week when opinions get voiced and discussions result," he said. "I never want to work with people that think just like I do. I like a little diversity when it comes to opinions."
Speaking of diversity, O'Keefe coached college all-stars in exhibition games in Moscow, Russia, in the early 1990s. He later helped form an organization that brought amateur teams from Moscow to the U.S.
"Been to Russia five times on football trips, and loved every minute of it," O'Keefe said. "After we took the guys to play exhibition games there, the mayor of Northern Moscow called and asked if we could come over and teach younger kids to play football, so we ran camps over there for two years.
"The mayor thought that instead of the kids hanging out on the streets with their new freedom, football was the best way to get involved."
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O'Keefe worked his way through college by painting houses and working nights at a frozen-food warehouse.
"That's how we paid tuition, room, board and books back then," said Mike Soeder, who shared a house with O'Keefe during college. "Occasionally, when we'd get a little extra money, we'd buy a hot dog and a beer."
And gas for the two-seat purple Spitfire convertible O'Keefe drove around campus.
"You look back on those days today, and maybe they weren't as bad as they seemed sometimes at the time," O'Keefe said. "Gas was a lot cheaper back then. Everything was a lot less complicated."
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One of the first people he met in Iowa City was Randy Reiners, the backup quarterback during Ferentz's first season.
"What I noticed first off was how much we were able to get done in what seemed like a short amount of time," Reiners said. "The quarterbacks - we were used to sticking around in meetings sometimes after 1 in the morning when coach (Hayden) Fry was the coach.
"We got just as much done under coach O'Keefe, but we never hung around until all hours of the morning."
Reiners was a senior during O'Keefe's rookie Iowa season.
"He's got a great sense of humor, but it's very dry," Reiners said. "He'd say something funny, but he never laughed, so you didn't know whether he meant it to be funny or not."
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Reiners got to know O'Keefe's family - wife Joanne, daughter Meghan and son Brendan - from the one night each week that coaches' families spent time at the football complex.
Meghan is a junior soccer player at John Carroll. Brendan, 24, lives in Iowa City.
Joanne hosted out-of-town guests at the house last weekend - 29 years after Ken avoided another fourth-down decision with her third-down "yes, I'll marry you."
"Ken had goals, and I had just gotten out of college," Joanne said. "I wasn't ready. I needed a little more time, but thank goodness he was persistent."