By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Amid the firestorm of emotion that has erupted since news broke that Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has dissolved his alumni advisory committee and now plans to restructure it, I want to share part of an interview I had with Iowa defensive back Kaevon Merriweather.
The interview occurred on Dec. 29 at an amusement park in Orlando, Florida where members of the Iowa and Kentucky football teams were holding a Kids Day event as part of the pre-game festivities leading up to the Citrus Bowl.
Merriweather, a junior defensive back from Michigan, had just finished being interviewed by a pack of reporters near the end of the event when I approached him and asked if he could answer a few more questions before the players boarded their team bus to leave.
And like always, he was gracious with his time.
Merriweather talked about how he wants to work in management for a professional sports organization after he graduates from Iowa, and about how he manages such a hectic schedule, and about how playing football for Iowa has changed the course of his life.
Before finishing the interview, I asked Merriweather about how the culture within the Iowa program has changed since the turbulent summer of 2020 when multiple former Iowa black players accused the program of racial disparities.
Merriweather was outspoken in the wake of the accusations and has played a key role in uniting the team and making the program more inclusive and more comfortable for black players.
He embraced my question as I knew he would, and he spoke from his heart as a young black man who is growing from a teenager to an adult in college.
“It’s definitely working,” Merriweather said of the culture change. “I think our team with everything that happened, I think we became more close-knit as a brotherhood and as a family, and not just current players, but past players as well.
“They started coming back a lot more than they had. I started interacting with a lot more past players than what I did, especially after last year’s events.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz wrote a letter to his players’ parents on Tuesday that was published in the Des Moines Register in which he said he plans to form a new advisory committee consisting of former players who competed at Iowa more recently.
Ferentz also stressed in the letter the importance of maintaining and building relationships with alumni.
“As I’ve said before, being a Hawkeye does not stop when someone takes off the jersey,” Ferentz said in the letter. “We value the input of alumni. The men who have come through the program have built the foundation that we live off today.”
A cynic might say that Merriweather is just pushing the company line and staying on Ferentz’s good side because Ferentz has so much control over him right now.
But I asked Merriweather about that, and he said he doesn’t operate that way. He speaks the truth about everything, but especially about a topic as serious and as sensitive as racism.
Sometimes, you can just tell when a person is being genuine and honest and that described Merriweather as he answered my question.
The interview only lasted for about five minutes, and it took place in an amusement park, but it left a lasting impression.
“I think our program, and our culture has definitely grown stronger as a family,” Merriweather said. “That’s a strong word to use. But that’s really what it is. It really, truly is a family now, it’s a family environment.
“As you can see, we’re all close-knit and no matter who you’re with, it’s a brother no matter who your mom and dad are; what the color of your skin is and how dark or light you are. You feel like that’s your brother no matter what and you would do anything for him. And I think that’s what really transpired last year. We’re just really close-knit.”
Some probably will accuse me of trying to deflect attention away from a column that I published this past Sunday in which I said the way that Ferentz dissolved the advisory committee looked bad for Iowa and was a step backwards.
I’ve been accused of trying to burn down the Iowa football program, and of having a personal grudge and vendetta against Kirk Ferentz.
But that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Kirk Ferentz and his son, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, played a key role in helping me keep my press credential after switching from newspapers to online reporting in 2015.
My request at first was denied, but then Brian Ferentz came to my defense and said that I should be given a press credential.
I will forever be grateful.
My older brother was also a member of Iowa’s 1978 recruiting class along with Bob Stoops. It was Bob Commings’ final recruiting class.
So, Hawkeye football is special to me.
And I believe that positive change has occurred, and that more changes are on the way.
I just thought the way in which Ferentz dissolved the committee left something to be desired, and was a bad look for the football program, and I thought committee chairperson David Porter made a mistake by saying in a group message on Jan. 2 that Ferentz should retire and that his entire staff should also be replaced.
Porter’s request was unreasonable and counter-productive and it offended many Iowa fans.
But I also couldn’t just dismiss Porter, a former Iowa offensive lineman, as being disloyal because I truly believe he loves his connection to Iowa, and ultimately wants what is best for the program when it comes to race relations, and he certainly has a right to express his feelings.
I just wish Porter would’ve reached out to Kirk Ferentz before sending the group message, and that Kirk Ferentz would’ve reached out to Porter before dissolving the committee. Maybe they could’ve worked something out in private and this controversy could have been avoided.
Because there was clearly a lack of communication on both ends.
I’m not going to rehash all the details about the meeting on Oct. 18 with Iowa assistant coaches and members of the advisory committee that became contentious because it already has been well-documented from Porter’s side, while Iowa and members of the committee aren’t commenting.
Ferentz said in his letter that much of the reporting about the committee being dissolved has been inaccurate, and he called it sad.
This whole thing is sad, with Porter now a villain, with Ferentz feeling that some in the media have mispresented the facts and with fans lashing out and taking personal shots at members of the media for in their opinion not reporting both sides of the story.
That’s why I chose to write about my interview with Merriweather.
I had planned on using his quotes for a later story, but the timing seemed better right now considering the delicate circumstances.
Merriweather’s comments show that progress has been made and that Kirk Ferentz is serious about fixing the culture.
Ferentz now lets his players either stand or kneel for the National Anthem, allows them on Twitter and has softened his stand on the dress code for his players.
“It’s a lot more than those types of things,” Merriweather said. “Those things are important, but the changes go deeper than that. There’s a level of mutual respect and understanding that wasn’t nearly as strong before the accusations were made in 2020.
“Again, we’re brothers and we don’t judge each other because we look or act different. We’re a brotherhood.”
Merriweather’s comments should show potential recruits that the culture that caused the black players to speak out in June 2020 is becoming a thing of the past.
But there still is work that needs to be done because a culture doesn’t change in 18 months.
Merriweather as a team leader vowed to keep working to make the necessary changes.
“It’s a day-to-day process, building respect and trust with your brothers,” Merriweather said.
This is an important time in Merriweather’s life and he is determined to make the most of his opportunity, on and off the playing field.
“Being in an environment such as Iowa City and a great school and being able to get a world-class education from Iowa, there’s a lot that college has brought me and I’m just happy for all of it,” Merriweather said.