By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Djimon Colbert probably didn't know it at the time, but he met one of his biggest fans on Monday at the Iowa Football Complex.
The sophomore linebacker crossed paths with former Iowa assistant coach Don Patterson as they both were leaving the complex and they would go on to have a brief conversation.
Patterson has praised Colbert on the AllHawkeyes radio show and podcast throughout the season for his consistency and versatility, but they hadn’t met until Monday.
“It’s special in that I literally just met him yesterday,” Colbert said at Iowa’s weekly press conference on Tuesday. “I always see him around, but I had never really sat down and talked to him before.
“We were both leaving the building and it was kind of just like how are you, and we're just talking for a second and he was like I’m Don Patterson, and I’ve heard that name before. So he kind of told me who he was and that he has a podcast and stuff like that.”
Patterson considers the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Colbert one of Iowa’s most consistent players and best tacklers in space.
“If you can’t bring it every weekend, in baseball if you go three for ten, that’s okay, but in football, if you’re tackling people it better be a hell of a lot better than that,” Patterson said.
Colbert has 36 tackles, which ranks third on the team, heading into Saturday’s game at Northwestern. The former high school defensive back from Shawnee Mission, Kan., also has one interception and three pass breakups.
“The thing I like about him is he’s a pretty physical player, and he’s a pretty consistent open-field tackler,” Patterson said of Colbert. “And that’s not always easy to do in the open field.”
Colbert was recruited to play safety at Iowa, but switched to linebacker prior to the start of spring practice in 2018. He was redshirted as a true freshman in 2017.
Colbert's body was more suited for linebacker as he quickly started to gain weight and strength after joining the Iowa program.
He has made the position switch look easy, starting 10 games last season at weakside linebacker as a redshirt freshman and is now firmly entrenched as the starter at that position.
“I thought he built a good foundation last year,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “He’s improving with every opportunity.”
Patterson has praised Colbert for his ability to defend the run and the pass.
Colbert credits his success this season, partly to having played so much last season, and learning along the way.
He was better equipped to handle Purdue’s diverse passing attack this season compared to a year ago because he sort of knew what to expect.
“Watching the game from last year, they kind of got me on some out routes and stuff like that, which I knew that going into the game (this year) that they would probably do that to me, so I was kind of better prepared when put in those situations,” Colbert said. “I think going off my freshman year, it’s kind of that foundation that I have developed, and that my coaches helped me develop, and then this year is just trying to improve off of that.”
Based on Patterson’s assessment, Colbert has continued to steadily improve.
Patterson does analytics for several college teams, including Iowa, and he sometimes attends Iowa’s practices.
He coached at Iowa throughout Hayden Fry’s 20-year reign as head coach from 1979 to 1998, and was a Hawkeye assistant coach alongside Kirk Ferentz for nine seasons from 1981-89 when Ferentz coached the offensive line.
Patterson also was the head coach for Western Illinois from 1999 to 2009 and an assistant at Buffalo and Connecticut before retiring after the 2015 season.
He has lived in the Iowa City area since retiring and still has a special bond with the Iowa program, and with Kirk Ferentz and the assistant coaches and players.
So it means a lot to Patterson when the current players take time to acknowledge his presence.
“It’s gratifying to me because when I’m standing there after practice and the kids are streaming by going off the field, the vast majority of them have a greeting, and they may not even know who the hell I am other than they think I’m a coach because they always say, ‘hey coach,”’ Patterson said. “So I feel good about that. I’m glad those kids appreciate my support. I certainly feel like they do.”
The 68-year old Patterson is a bridge between the now and then of Hawkeye football.
He played a key role in helping to rebuild the program under Fry and takes great pride in knowing that Iowa has sustained a level of success for 40 years.
Patterson is allowed to attend Iowa’s closed practices, given his credentials, and he enjoys the interaction he has with the players.
The conversations are always brief, but special to Patterson, including one he had with true freshman linebacker and Cedar Falls native Jack Campbell on Wednesday.
Campbell is now playing a significant role at middle linebacker with senior starter Kristian Welch out with an undisclosed injury. Campbell has rotated with redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle at middle linebacker in the last two games and Patterson wanted to congratulate him for his early success.
”Just yesterday, for the first time I talked to Jack Campbell, and I said, Jack, you don’t know who I am, but I used to coach here with coach Fry years ago and I know a little bit about football and I just want to congratulate you, you’re playing really well at the start of your career,” Patterson said. “So I want you to feel good about your progress.
“And he said, `coach that means so much to me.’”
Patterson then asked Campbell if he had heard of former Iowa tight end Mike Flagg, who played at Iowa from 1984-87, and is also from Cedar Falls.
“I said, have you heard of Mike Flagg before? And he said, yeah,” Patterson said. “And I said, well, you should have. He’s only the best player Cedar Falls ever had unless it’s going to be you.
“And he laughed.”
Coaches, after they retire, often say what they miss the most is the relationships with the players, the day-to-day interactions that build trust and respect.
Patterson certainly misses that part of the profession, but he also gets to relive it to a point with the current Iowa players.
Patterson feels connected to them because he is connected to them as a former Iowa coach and now as a loyal supporter.
His words of encouragement mean a lot to the players because they are taught to respect the past.
And for Patterson, his interaction with the players is something he will cherish forever because it’s the part of coaching that he misses the most.