By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – George Kittle says with great pride that he is from “Tight End U” in reference to having played for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
A star tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, Kittle often introduces himself as being from “Tight End U” when the San Francisco starters are announced on television.
It’s his way of paying tribute to a tradition that dates back before Kittle was even born.
Hayden Fry is responsible for much of what makes the Iowa tradition, from the Swarm to the uniforms that resemble the Pittsburgh Steelers to the tiger hawk logo, Fry did more than just rebuild the Iowa football program 40 years ago.
He gave it an identity, a heart and soul, on and off the field.
He also introduced the stand-up tight end, which was Fry’s way of saying pay attention to this position because I have big plans for it.
Fry first started using a stand-up tight end as the head coach at North Texas State, and he liked it so much that he unveiled it Iowa, much to the surprise of the Big Ten.
Fry didn’t have his tight ends stand up just for show, or to be different.
There was a method to what some considered his madness.
The idea was born during a summer staff meeting at North Texas State in which the coaches were trying to figure the best way to overcome a lack of depth at tight end, and the best way to utilize their starting tight end, Darrell Terrell, who was undersized.
Fry said Terrell was “kind of light in the britches” to be playing tight end so he turned to his assistant coaches, which included Bill Brashier and Don Patterson, and made this suggestion:
“There was a little pause and he said, here’s a thought, what if we stand up Darrell Terrell?” Don Patterson said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
The defensive coaches in the meeting that day, which included Howard Cissell, said it might be an inconvenience having to deal with a stand-up tight end.
So, the coaches ultimately agreed to have the tight end stand up, partly due to physical reasons, but also from a vision and strategy standpoint.
It was easier for a tight end who stood at the line of scrimmage to look in the secondary and give the quarterback another set of eyes.
“That’s how it all started,” said Patterson, who coached tight ends at Iowa under Fry. “So, we did it that fall. Darrell Terrell was a guy who could run and catch, but he wasn’t a very talented blocker. So, that’s what we did, and it worked well.
“And then in the process, one thing we did on offense, we said, ‘okay, the tight end is standing up, we need to be sure to utilize him as another set of eyes for the quarterback.’ And that’s what he was.”
Today, it’s not uncommon to see NFL tight ends stand up as many are valued as pass catchers.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t have his tight ends stand up, but the position still plays a vital role in the passing game, much like it did when Fry was the Iowa head coach.
Ferentz coached the Iowa offensive line under Fry from 1981 to 1989 and saw up close how productive the tight ends were as receivers and blockers.
Iowa’s tight ends are asked to play a dual role as pass catchers and blockers, and the list of players who have thrived at tight end under both Fry and Ferentz is long and distinguished.
“The smart answer I always give is in the ’80s, every time we lost and I went home, (my wife) Mary would say you didn’t throw the ball to the tight end enough,” Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “She was usually right. Kind of like the philosophy about defense.
“All I know is I’m not very smart, but the smart defensive coaches I’ve been around, including in the NFL, if the other team had a good tight end, it seemed to really bother them, throw them out of kilter, out of whack. There’s something about that if you have them in your arsenal. If you have a couple of them, it’s even better. I think it just puts a little more pressure on a defensive team than not having one.”
The tight end position was used almost exclusively as blockers at Iowa before Fry arrived in 1979 with his vision, and with his willingness to think outside the box.
Jonathon Hayes became one of the first stars at the position for Iowa, earning second-team All-Big Ten as a junior in 1984.
He also had a lengthy career in the NFL after declaring for the 1985 NFL Draft as a junior.
The quality and production continued at tight end throughout the 1980s as Marv Cook earned consensus All-America honors as a senior in 1988, and then went on to play seven seasons in the NFL, where he earned All-Pro accolades.
“The way I look at it, coach Fry was innovative,” Cook said Tuesday. “Coach Fry was one of the first guys that came in and convinced us that we could win Big Ten titles. Whether he was selling us a bag of goods, I don’t know, he could sell it. And we believed it was no longer the big two and the little eight.
“So, he came in with that vision, and then you had guys like Bill Snyder and coach Patterson, who were innovative in changing the ways we attacked defenses. We were going to run something based on what the defense was in. We weren’t going to just line up and run something. We were going to be adaptive to what the defenses were running.”
Cook said Tuesday that never lined up in a 3-point stance during his final three seasons at Iowa. He lined up in a 3-point stance when he played on the scout team as a freshman. But once he became a key piece to the offense, Cook always stood at the line of scrimmage.
“As tough as it was to be a run blocker in the stand-up position, usually what it did is a lot of defenses ended up matching up with us,” Cook said. “So, if I guy had his hand on the ground, he would probably stand up. And now he was trying to take on some guy that is coming at him in a different capacity than a normal guy that has got his hand on the ground.”
Asked if standing up gave him a better view of the opposing secondary, Cook said:
“One-hundred percent. We had a check list that we were going through all the time. You could see the whole defense. You could actually see the backside end and see if he was probably going to drop, that means the guy over us was probably rushing, or something.
“You could read where safeties were, or if safeties were creeping down late. You knew that maybe some pressure was coming. When you have your hand on the ground, a lot of times you can’t see that.”
And though it makes sense what Cook says about having the tight end stand up, Iowa starting tight end Sam LaPorta still sometimes chuckles when he looks at photos of Cook and Hayes standing up in the Iowa football facility.
“There’s some funny photos in our room,” LaPorta said Tuesday. ““It does look pretty weird. The game has changed a little bit, but in other ways, it hasn’t changed at all. That’s a way that it has changed.”
LaPorta is the latest in a long line of tight ends to star for Iowa. The Illinois native leads third-ranked Iowa with 22 catches for 263 yards and two touchdowns heading into Saturday’s game against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium.
Redshirt freshman Luke Lachey is also starting to emerge, especially as a blocker.
“I think it’s real cool to be a part of it,” LaPorta said of Iowa’s tradition at tight end. “I try to uphold the standard of our team. You try not to look to the past too much and compare yourself to other people. I think it’s really cool to be a part of the tradition, and of course, I hope I can carry that on.”
LaPorta on one of his catches in last Friday’s 51-14 win at Maryland was the beneficiary of a pancake block from Lachey downfield.
It was Iowa’s tight ends at their best, one making an impact as a receiver, the other as a blocker.
“I thought he was hyped up for me, and he comes running over, Sam, Sam, I pancaked a guy,” LaPorta said of Lachey. “And I was, that a boy, keep it up. And I saw it on film later on the bus, and yeah, he really drove that guy to the sideline. That was pretty cool.”
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Cook has the distinction of catching one of the most famous touchdowns passes in program history in 1987, a 28-yarder from Chuck Hartlieb with six seconds left that carried Iowa to its first victory at Ohio State since 1959.
“After the game I told Marv, I said, ‘Marv I’ve coached tight ends a long time and that’s the best game a tight end has ever played at Iowa,”’ Patterson said. “
Cook is also one of two Iowa tight ends to earn consensus All-America honors, the other being Dallas Clark in 2002.
Iowa has had 11 tight ends selected in the NFL draft under Kirk Ferentz, including three first-round picks: Clark in 2003 and both T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant in 2019.
Hockenson, who now plays for the Detroit Lions, was also the John Mackey Award winner as a third-year sophomore in 2018. The award goes to the nation’s top collegiate tight end.
Kittle was hampered by injuries while at Iowa and lasted until the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft.
But he now ranks among the NFL’s top tight ends, a force as both a receiver and blocker.
“To me, it’s obviously elevated the last seven or eight years, having such high draft picks and guys that have gone on to do extremely well in the NFL,” Cook said of Iowa’s current tradition at tight end.
But the rise of the tight end at Iowa started under Hayden Fry.
He broke the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality that had gripped the Big Ten for years by striving for balance on offense. Fry was known for his exotics, but he valued both the run and the pass, and he used the tight end to help achieve that balance.
Cook had 63 catches for 767 yards in 1988 and 49 catches for 803 yards in 1987.
His 63 receptions in 1988 are the most in program history for an Iowa tight end.
Cook also played with some talented tight ends at Iowa, including Mike Flagg and Craig Clark.
“There was a stretch when I was there when the position was catching 80, 90, 100 balls a year,” Cook said.
The game has changed over the past four decades, but Cook still sees things on the field that remind him about Fry being ahead of his time as an offensive coach.
Many of the NFL’s top tight ends, including Travis Kelce from the Kansas City Chiefs, also stand at the line of scrimmage in numerous formations.
“Look at the formations now in the NFL, now they’re bringing in receivers and they’re lined up right next to the tackle standing up, that bunch set” Cook said. “Or Kelce is motioning into that set.
“We would flex out some periodically, but we weren’t innovative as they are right now. And all that stuff the NFL is doing is trying to create matchups and trying to get defenses to move. A lot of it’s eye candy.”