By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The violence that comes with playing football has gone from being glamorized to almost villainized, and some believe the future of the sport is at risk.
Kirk Ferentz made it abundantly clear after last Saturday’s final spring practice that he believes the NCAA would be making a terrible and costly mistake by reducing full-padded practices from 21 to eight during preseason camp.
On the surface, the decision looks noble and admirable because the NCAA will say that it’s trying to make football safer at a time where there is heightened awareness about the long-term effects of head injuries.
To argue against something that is designed to make the game safer could come across as selfish, stubborn and primitive.
But that isn’t true in this case.
Of course, Kirk Ferentz would like to make the game safer because injuries are without question the worst part about playing and coaching football at any level.
But Ferentz is also a realist, and he believes that there is only so much that can be done from a safety standpoint without greatly altering the sport that he loves.
“We have to develop players,” Ferentz said. “We have to do that. Most college teams do. There’s some that don’t. But we have to do that. And you have to practice to develop players. So I’m a little concerned, and it all starts with you can only learn how to play football by playing football.”
Ferentz described this push for fewer padded-practices as “almost trying to create a story.”
If that’s true, then mission accomplished because it’s definitely a story, and a polarizing one at that.
On one side is the NCAA under growing pressure to make the game safer, while on the other side are head coaches and football purists like Ferentz who worry that the game can’t be made as safe as the NCAA would like it to be without ruining the game.
That doesn’t make Ferentz, or those who agree with him, heartless, self-serving ghouls.
This is a very sensitive and complicated topic in which both sides ultimately want the same thing, which is a safer game, but how to achieve that goal is where they are miles apart.
Those on Ferentz’s side say that their opinion is based on simple logic, and they insist that player safety is their No. 1 concern.
They believe that having fewer padded practices would put players more at risk once the hitting starts for real in games due to a lack of preparation and readiness.
There is an art to tackling, and it takes time and repetition to learn that art, according to coaches. Ferentz believes that taking away those repetitions in preseason practice would put the players more at risk from an injury standpoint.
With the global pandemic finally starting to loosen its grip, Ferentz seems worried that the NCAA is now pushing another storyline.
Ferentz, in order to support his narrative, sought concussion data from his trainers over the last five preseason camps and it showed that Iowa had eight concussions during that time.
“It did pique my curiosity, I went back and asked our training staff, I asked, ‘how many concussions have we had the last five years just out of curiosity because it sounds like it’s a national crisis right now,’ Ferentz said. “I thought we were kind of coming out of one, so I guess, this one is going down, we’ve got to create one.”
Ferentz then pointed out that Iowa has averaged 1.5 concussions over the last five preseason camps.
And while one concussion is too many, Iowa’s numbers over the last five years hardly would suggest a crisis.
“We had three one year in preseason, we’ve had two in one and we’ve had one, one and one,” Ferentz said of the breakdown of concussions. “We’ve had none this camp unless I walk in there and find out somebody had one today.”
Ferentz then pointed out the obvious.
“Football is a risky game,” he said. “Anybody that’s ever played it figures that out pretty fast, and anybody who watches and pays attention.”
Former Iowa All-America tight end Marv Cook has been around football for most of his life as a player and now as the head coach for Iowa City Regina where he has won seven state titles.
Cook was a consensus All-America tight end at Iowa in 1988, and he made All-Pro in the NFL.
He shares Ferentz’s opinion that football is a sport that needs to be practiced like it’s played in order to reduce the threat of injury.
Cook felt that way before the global pandemic created a new normal, and he feels even stronger about it now.
“The one thing that was reaffirmed while coaching through the pandemic is that football is a contact sport,” Cook said. “Blocking and tackling and collisions occur each and every play.
“There has been a great and much-needed emphasis on getting the head out of tackling. But tackling and blocking are skill sets that need to be practiced and mastered. The only way to do that is through perfect practice, drills and repetitions. You don’t do something until you get it right. You do it until you get it right all the time.”
To compromise is often the best solution to a polarizing issue, and maybe that’ll be true in this case.
Maybe it’s time for the so called meat grinder drills, where players are matched one-on-one in combat, to be eliminated.
It wasn’t that long ago when the violence in football was highlighted as a way to promote the game, especially at the NFL level. There used to be television shows in which violent, bone-jarring hits were almost romanticized.
But those times have faded, and rightfully so.
One of the most famous drills featuring contact is the Oklahoma drill in which two players are lined up about three yards opposite one another. A corridor is set up using blocking bags on each side of the players.
The two players, at the sound of the whistle, then run at one another and the drill is over when one of the players is on the ground.
The drill, which was developed by former Oklahoma head coach Bud Wilkinson more than a half century ago, is brutal and dangerous to say the least.
So maybe it’s time to move on from that kind of drill because there still are ways to teach tackling, and to identify the toughest players, without subjecting them to a drill that now seems outdated and too dangerous from a health standpoint.
But to reduce padded practices from 21 to eight seems to be an over-reaction to a noble cause.
It might help to cut down on injuries during preseason camp. But the lack of preparation with tackling also could cause more injuries in the long run.