By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For Kirk Ferentz, it’ll never be like it was before James Daniels posted his tweet that was heard around the college football world.
It just feels different as the 64-year old Ferentz deals not only with a global pandemic that shows no signs of letting up, but also with the fallout from Daniels’ tweet in which the former Iowa center accused the Iowa program of racial disparities.
In the time it takes to hit the tweet button, Ferentz’s once stable world in which he ruled with humility and grace, but also with little resistance, sweeping powers and a life-time of security, was turned upside down.
His current players are trying to decide if they should stand or kneel for the National Anthem, and whatever they decide, Ferentz has no choice but to accept it, or so it seems.
Imagine saying that before George Floyd died on May 25th in Minneapolis.
Imagine thinking that the players would have the final say about something as serious, and as divisive, as whether to stand or kneel for the National Anthem.
That just shows how much things have changed in less than two months.
The nation watched in horror as Floyd died with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressed against his neck, and with Floyd saying that he couldn’t breathe and pleading for mercy.
That police officer has since been fired and charged with murder, and the fallout from Floyd’s death continues, and part of the fallout is how Kirk Ferentz is now perceived.
Fair or not, the accusations of racial disparities and bullying within his program will forever be a part of Ferentz’s legacy.
The challenge for Ferentz is to make sure this controversy doesn’t lead to his demise, or define him.
But with Ferentz about to turn 65 years old on Aug. 1st, time isn’t on his side because there is no quick fix to what ails the Iowa culture right now.
Several of the current black players have addressed the media and spoke enthusiastically about the changes that already have occurred. They now feel more empowered and more respected, so that’s a start.
It seems that cutting ties with former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle has had a positive effect from a cultural standpoint based on what some of the current black players have said to the media.
Nobody has mentioned Doyle’s name specifically, but it’s pretty easy to connect the dots in this case.
Doyle agreed to a $1.3 million separation and has left the program where he had ruled in the weight room for 21 years, making only a statement on Twitter in which he denied the accusations.
Since his departure, the culture has gone through a dramatic change for the better, at least, that is the message being pushed by the Iowa players.
A team meeting in early June, which has been described as powerful, raw, emotional, and heated at times, appears to be when change really started to occur.
“You could just see a different type of perspective from each member of the team and it was a meeting that definitely needed to happen,” senior receiver Brandon Smith said at a press conference this past Thursday. “And I feel like the outcome of it is nothing but positive.”
The very fact that the meeting needed to happen, according to Smith, is a blemish on Kirk Ferentz’s record because the buck stops with him.
It’s his his team, his program and his culture.
Doyle, as powerful and influential as he supposedly was for a long time, worked for Kirk Ferentz and took orders from Kirk Ferentz.
Brian Ferentz also works for Kirk Ferentz, and being his son, and the Iowa offensive coordinator, sets them both up for scrutiny and suspicion when adversity strikes.
Some of the accusations have been directed at Brian Ferentz, and now an independent review of the football program is being conducted by a Kansas City law firm in response to the multiple accusations of racial disparities and bullying.
Kirk Ferentz told the media this past Thursday that he believes that over 100 interviews have been conducted as part of the investigation.
Ferentz seems optimistic, and as determined as ever to learn from the controversy, and to make the necessary changes during a surreal time.
The pandemic has made practically everything associated with college football uncertain at this point.
Nonconference games have been eliminated. And it’s most likely that stadiums will be nearly empty for games this fall, assuming there are games this fall, which at this point, is a big assumption.
Iowa looks pretty good on paper and is coming off a stretch in which it won 47 games over five seasons. That is the most wins over a five-year stretch in program history, and Kirk Ferentz made a point of mentioning that to the media in a press conference several weeks after the 2019 season.
But that was then, and this is now, the new normal for Iowa football in which the players are now on Twitter and the black players are not afraid to express themselves.
This controversy might have been avoided, even with Floyd’s death, if Iowa officials had reacted more strongly to its own diversity task force report in which black student-athletes aired their grievances more than a year ago.
Kirk Ferentz said he has read over the report, and he also said a meeting was held with players last August to discuss what changes should be made in response to the report.
“And we made some changes on that, and they appeared in my mind to be significant,” Kirk Ferentz said without being specific. “And I think the players were happy with the changes we made.”
Ferentz, however, admitted to the media that he didn’t follow through with another meeting with the players on this issue because he felt that the environment within his program was solid, and even more so after Iowa crushed the University of Southern California 48-24 in the Holiday Bowl this past Dec. 27th in San Diego to cap a 10-3 season.
“I felt we had a pretty healthy environment, a pretty healthy culture coming off the field last December in California,” Kirk Ferentz said of the Holiday Bowl. “Coming off the field, I felt pretty good about things. And when we left here on March 13th I felt pretty good about our positioning getting ready to start spring practice.
“So a lot of things in the world have changed since then, which obviously, a good reason to go back and read that report a couple times and review the recommendations.”
Ferentz and other UI officials mistakenly assumed that the black athletes were satisfied and encouraged with the response to the diversity task force report, and their complacency finally backfired in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“Looking at things in our society right now, it’s probably been a little different since Memorial Day,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I think a lot of people probably have a different lens on maybe some of the things I certainly heard last August. I’ll put it that way, reference it that way.
“So what it has done is really prompted and motivated more conversation, more direct conversation, and I think, really constructive conversation. We wanted to hear what the players were thinking and what they were saying and what they were feeling.”
My hope, not that it matters, but I’ll say it anyway, is that Kirk Ferentz figures a way to rise above the current crisis within his program because it would show that he can evolve, and that he can do what’s right, which I believe is Kirk Ferentz’s main motivation, to do what is right.
Some might say that calling it a crisis is blowing the situation out of proportion, but I don’t think so, not with multiple former black players having said publicly that they were mistreated at Iowa, and not with Chris Doyle having lost his job.
Some might have tried to hijack the message for personal gain, but that doesn’t make the message from James Daniels any less credible.
I’ll reserve judgment until after Iowa reacts to whatever is recommended by the independent review. But it’s clear that there is a problem from a culture standpoint that has to be addressed, and Kirk Ferentz is trying to address it.
I don’t believe that Kirk Ferentz is a racist, or a bully.
But I do believe that he became too comfortable, too controlling, too stubborn and too trusting of a few people, and those flaws finally caught up with him.
And now Ferentz faces the biggest challenge in his coaching career.
He lost 18 of his first 20 games as the Iowa head coach, and the situation looked bleak, and to some, hopeless.
But Ferentz stayed the course and was ultimately rewarded for his persistence and resolve by becoming Iowa’s all-time winnignest football coach.
This current challenge is much bigger than football, though.
Ferentz’s culture, the one he worked for years to build, is under attack, and justifiably so based on the number of black players who have spoken out.
But I’m not ready to give up on Kirk Ferentz, the person or the coach.
He’s earned the right to fix things, and there is a lot that needs fixed.
Ferentz’s current staff is half black, his interim strength coach is black and former player Broderick Binns, who is also black, was just named Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for UI Athletics.
Iowa also just picked its Leadership Group for the 2020 season and more than half of the players selected are black.
So those are all positive signs that Kirk Ferentz now fully understands that the circumstances will never be as they were before George Floyd passed away.