By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – With back-to-back victories over Minnesota and Michigan State by a combined 70 points, the Iowa football team has managed to shift the narrative.
Even with the emotional strain and distractions from the racial unrest that has rocked the program, and brought both shame and disappointment to Kirk Ferentz’s once-proud legacy, Hawkeye fans woke up on Saturday feeling energized, optimistic and proud of their football team, and rightfully so.
They feel that way because the team that manhandled Minnesota during Friday’s 35-7 drubbing in Minneapolis showed great poise, focus, determination, and most important under the unique circumstances, unity.
Any thoughts of Kirk Ferentz’s demise due to the multiple accusations of racial disparities by former Iowa black players is premature.
That doesn’t minimize or dismiss the accusations, or suggest that the 65-year old Kirk Ferentz has been treated unfairly because too many black players have said they were mistreated as Hawkeyes for some of it not be true.
It seems obvious that Iowa has problems within its culture because there is just too much damning evidence from the multiple accusations to the 2019 Diversity Task Force Report to the recent Husch Blackwell investigation to say otherwise.
Kirk Ferentz’s world has been turned upside down since the accusations surfaced in early June.
He lost his right-hand man for two decades when former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle reached a separation agreement in June.
He lost the respect of some, undoubtedly.
And Ferentz probably has lost some power and control during these polarizing times, evident by having approximately 30 members of his team now kneeling during the National Anthem.
But it also seems clear based on Iowa’s performance in the last two games that Kirk Ferentz hasn’t lost the locker room, or his ability to communicate, inspire and lead his players.
His team was prepared for Friday’s game, it seems in every facet.
Iowa dominated the line of scrimmage and was solid from a fundamental standpoint.
And that’s Hawkeye football under Kirk Ferentz, or at least, how it’s supposed to be.
“A lot of good efforts out there,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Most importantly, it was a good collective, team effort. I’m proud of our football team.”
The current players have been saying since the summer that the team is more unified in the wake of the accusations.
Iowa’s 21-player Leadership Group now consists of more black players than white players for the first time under Ferentz, and multiple black players have said they no longer feel as if they have to conform to the old Iowa Way, and that they can be themselves.
A culture certainly doesn’t change in just a few months, but the changes have to start somewhere.
How a team performs on the field is often a good measure for how the players and coaches relate to each other off the field.
You can bet that if Iowa were 0-4, or even 1-3, that some would perceive that as the beginning stages of Kirk Ferentz’s demise.
They would assume that the problems were beyond his repair, and that Ferentz had lost the respect and trust of his players.
But at 2-2, and with both losses to Purdue and Northwestern, both of whom were undefeated heading into this weekend’s games, Iowa is showing signs of being a pretty good football team.
Next Saturday’s game at 0-4 Penn State suddenly looks very winnable with the Iowa running game starting to click behind Tyler Goodson and a veteran offensive line, and with the Iowa defense and special teams both performing well.
“This team and this defense can be as good as they want to be,” junior safety Jack Koerner said after Friday’s victory. “Internally we know what we’re capable of. We have good players and it will take a little meshing and we will get better every time. That is starting to come to fruition.”
A Big Ten West Division title is almost beyond Iowa’s reach with Northwestern and Purdue both having the tiebreaker advantage over Iowa.
But just to be able to play, and to win, during a global pandemic, and in the wake of the accusations, is enough of a reward.
Winning won’t cure all of Iowa’s ills, but it makes dealing with a delicate situation that much easier, and shows that the foundation still is strong in some ways.
Friday’s victory came during a week in which with 13 former Iowa black players filed a civil lawsuit, claiming they were mistreated as Hawkeyes due to their race.
It’s a horrible look for Kirk Ferentz, and for the Iowa program, and for the University of Iowa.
But it didn’t seem to impact Iowa’s performance on Friday, or maybe it helped to inspire the players because they sure seemed to be inspired.
Iowa has now won six games in a row against Minnesota, its longest winning streak in the series.
Floyd of Rosedale, the bronze statue of a pig that goes to the winning team in this rivalry, has called the Iowa trophy case his home since 2015.
Iowa is also the only Big Ten West team that Minnesota hasn’t defeated under head coach P.J. Fleck.
Fleck’s biggest concern at the end of Friday’s game was to avoid being shutout by Iowa for the third time since 2008.
In fact, he was so concerned about not being held scoreless that he called a timeout before the Gophers finally scored a touchdown with 14 seconds remaining.
Fleck’s decision to call a timeout obviously didn’t sit well with Kirk Ferentz, considering he then used all three of Iowa’s timeouts in response.
“I figured we’d take Floyd with us and leave the timeouts here,” Kirk Ferentz said.
Some might consider that as being petty on a cold, late Friday night.
But Iowa fans loved it because Fleck’s act wears thin after a while, and because many still hope that Kirk Ferentz will meet the monumental challenge that he now faces, on and off the field.