Kirk Ferentz, the latest in disgraced Big Ten football coaches, is lucky to have a second chance to change legacy
For all of Kirk Ferentz’s accomplishments, this scandal involving the racial disparities in his Iowa football program is a near-indelible stain on his legacy. No matter what he does from this point forward, it will always be part of the Ferentz conversation. The entire conversation? I don’t think that’s fair. But we do have to acknowledge the neglect from the man in charge.
Make no mistake, Ferentz is fortunate. That’s my biggest takeaway after the Husch Blackwell law firm’s investigation into racial bias within the Iowa football program, featuring interviews from 45 current players, 29 former players and 36 current and former employees.
The Big Ten has had an alarming number of prominent football coaches go down in disgrace and tarnish once-sterling reputations. From Jim Tressell, to Joe Paterno, to Urban Meyer, to Mark Dantonio, it’s been a rocky decade. And what do all of those coaches have in common? Their fall from grace didn’t come with a redemption story (though the door isn’t closed on Meyer yet). But Ferentz can be different.
The longest-tenured coach in FBS, Ferentz is under contract through 2025. That’s another 5 years for the 65-year-old. What can he accomplish in 5 years? It’s not a ton of time, but it’s also not nothing, either.
It all starts with cleaning up a program that we now know was plagued by inappropriate behavior from strength coach Tim Doyle. There are certain things that athletes have to tolerate from coaches that the general public probably doesn’t understand — motivational tactics that wouldn’t be used by university professors or bosses at your typical 9-5 job. But Doyle, as you’ve surely read by now, crossed that line.
For Ferentz to suggest that he had no indication this sort of behavior took place in his program is far-fetched. Either he knew and didn’t stop it, or he’s not doing his job by being so disconnected from what is going on inside his program. For these numerous Iowa players to not feel comfortable sharing these experiences until now is an indictment on the culture of the Iowa program.
Ferentz has built up so much goodwill over the years that it’s fair to wonder if a lesser coach would be able to survive this. That’s part of the unique dynamic in college towns where the football coach (and in rare exceptions, the basketball coach) is often the most prominent member of the community. They make more money than university presidents and are more famous than the mayor.
And that power comes with responsibility. Ferentz is tasked with leading 100 young men each year, and he fell short of the standard for a college football coach.
“While we’ve always prided ourselves in running a program based on discipline and accountability, based on my former player conversations and this review, it’s shown that many of our Black players felt like our program did more than that,” Ferentz said in a news conference after the report was released Thursday. “I want to apologize to those players for any pain, any frustration that they felt at a time when I was trusted to help develop them as a better player, better person.”
Parents drop their kids off in Iowa City with the expectation that they are going to have every chance to grow and reach their potential while being treated with respect. On the field, there’s no debating that Ferentz has been a terrific coach and his program has developed players as good as any in the country. Part of Iowa’s charm is the way it takes overlooked recruits like Chad Greenway, Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders, Marshal Yanda and Brandon Scherff (to name a few) — and most recently, Desmond King and George Kittle — and turns them into highly productive NFL players.
But college coaches are different from their professional counterparts. Pro athletes have agents, PR teams and a union to support them. College athletes are supposed to have their support team within the program. For that aspect of the college athlete experience to be lacking to this degree is inexcusable for Ferentz.
The biggest question now is what is being done moving forward? Is this something that is actually changing? Or is Ferentz merely getting past this scandal in hopes of preserving his legacy?
Ferentz should still be on thin ice. If one year from now things haven’t changed, then Iowa seriously needs to consider moving in another direction.
In the short term, Ferentz appears to have made the necessary changes to get the Hawkeyes on the right track. The players have already spoken positively about the changes, but I take that with a grain of salt. They might feel pressure to say certain things (or not say certain things, which is why the flurry of tweets just came out in June). After all, their playing time is on the line.
The best indicator came from former players who are able to speak more freely. James Daniels is the former player who started all this in June with his posts on Twitter, and that was followed by numerous other former players speaking out. But Daniels seems to like the progress within the program.
Daniels, who is now in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, tweeted on Friday: “So much positive change within the Iowa football program and athletic department! It is amazing to see! #GoHawks”
So much positive change within the Iowa football program and athletic department! It is amazing to see! #GoHawks
— James Daniels (@jamsdans) July 31, 2020
Jaleel Johnson, now with the Minnesota Vikings, was also among the first former players to tweet in June. He tweeted Thursday: “I believe Iowa is heading in the right direction. I’m excited. #Hawks”
I believe Iowa is heading in the right direction. I’m excited. #Hawks
— Jaleel Johnson (@leellxvii) July 30, 2020
This all reinforces the notion that it’s good to see transparency and coaches held accountable for neglect.
It would be even better to see the necessary change made by the Iowa football program and Kirk Ferentz. He has a chance to make this right, and as his fellow former Big Ten coaches who have experienced a fall from grace can attest, next time he won’t be so lucky.