New Iowa football assistants have paid their dues
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Being an assistant football coach at Iowa may not seem like a career pinnacle, but consider where Tim Polasek and Kelton Copeland have been.
The two newest members of Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes staff met reporters Thursday, their first official day on the payroll. Both spoke of a passion for their profession forged at some of the bottom rungs of the sport.
Polasek, Iowa’s new offensive line coach, once sold a prized golf club in order to pay for the gas it took to transport him from Wisconsin to North Dakota for a $6,000-a-year job that meant sleeping on the office floor.
Copeland, who will tutor Hawkeye wide receivers, once toiled at a junior college in Kansas, where he was equal parts equipment manager, facility supervisor, strength coach, position coach and even health teacher.
“They've both earned their way every step along their career,” Ferentz said in introducing his new coaches.
“It’s not a requisite, but I think it speaks a lot when people start at the beginning and just kind of work up the ladder.”
For Polasek, a 37-year-old native of Wisconsin, his big break came after a cold day of logging back home. Craig Bohl, then the coach of North Dakota State, called about a job interview. Polasek was an assistant coach at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, alternating three days a week of recruiting with three spent wrangling timber.
He drove the eight hours to Fargo, N.D., for the interview, but after accepting the job found he didn’t have enough money for another long trek west.
“I had the means to get a really good (golf) driver the summer before, and so I sold it to get enough gas,” Polasek said. “The really cool part of that story … the guy that purchased that driver mailed it back right away. … He would have given me that money regardless.”
Polasek worked his way up to offensive coordinator at NDSU, a perennial FCS power that came into Kinnick Stadium in September and handed the Hawkeyes a 23-21 loss. He said he read about Iowa’s two coaching vacancies in January — after Bobby Kennedy and Chris White were fired — and called Hawkeyes linebackers coach Seth Wallace, an old friend from the recruiting trail in Wisconsin.
Polasek submitted his application on the day of the deadline, and interviewed on campus last Thursday, the final one of six Ferentz conducted. Polasek played quarterback at tiny Concordia University in Wisconsin and has coached running backs and tight ends in his career. But never offensive line.
Ferentz, a former line coach himself, isn’t worried about that. He promoted son Brian from that spot to offensive coordinator last month.
“There’s a real myth out there about offensive line play. Believe me, OK, it’s not like being a Ph.D in nuclear physics being a line coach. I think that position gets overstated sometimes,” Ferentz said. “To me it gets down to coaching, understanding fundamentals and schemes.”
Polasek, who will be paid $325,000 on a one-year contract, said he’s looking forward to the challenge and will lean on a veteran offensive line that returns five players who started at least seven games a season ago.
“I’ve always been of the mindset that I’m going to try to create uncomfortable situations for the players, and so why would that be any different for a coach that’s trying to move forward and do great things?” Polasek said.
“Everybody in that room that gives great effort, I don’t care if they’re experienced or not, will be coached the same. And the expectation level will be the same.”
Copeland is a 36-year-old native of Miami. He came north to play quarterback at Division II Emporia (Kan.) State and stayed on after graduation to start coaching. From there, he went to Northwood and then four years at Coffeyville Community College, where he did every job imaginable.
“I learned the value of hard work. I learned the value of trusting other people,” Copeland said. “Because when you have that many hats, you have to trust somebody to help you out. So you have to be able to delegate.”
Stops at South Dakota and Northern Illinois followed. Copeland coached wide receivers this season and was intrigued when he saw the Iowa opening. He had his former college coach, Jerry Kill, put in a good word with Ferentz. That got the ball rolling.
“My immediate career goal was to get this job. I knew if I ever got a realistic opportunity at this, I was going to do everything in my power to fully take it up,” said Copeland, who will be paid $225,000 on his one-year, renewable contract.
“This is a place where you can be here a long time and be successful and be comfortable.”
Iowa’s wide receivers underachieved for much of last season, producing only seven touchdowns. Copeland has seen the film. He knows the challenge.
“Everybody gets a clean slate,” he said. “The biggest thing moving forward when I walk into that room is, ‘How can we help Iowa be better?’”
Copeland said he’s eager to learn exactly what he’s working with when spring practices begin next month.
“There is a big thing about potential versus production. A lot of people have potential, but when the lights come on, you have to produce. That's when you're going to find out what's true and what's not,” he said.
What’s true for Copeland and Polasek now is that they’re a long way from sleeping on floors and teaching health at community colleges.
“You paid your dues. And that’s one of the reasons why you’re up here today. Sleeping on the floor wasn’t as bad as it seems, to be honest. At that time, I was totally committed to working 12-, 14-hour days and just learning football,” Polasek said of his early days.
“It’s just part of hopefully a pretty neat story that’s only half-written.”