Win, Graduate, (Waiting For) Do It Right
On the positive side, at least the Iowa athletic department didn’t announce a forthcoming lawsuit (as we know, that is customary Friday afternoon fare from the Iowa athletic department). Snark aside, Ferentz’s press conference was more spin than substance. There was abundant optimism about an Iowa football program with a new feel. Kaevon Merriweather, Keith Duncan, and Ivory Kelly-Martin all expressed faith in Ferentz and company (although you could sense IKM’s unease with the Kinnick fortress mentality). And, sure, I believe the Monday and Tuesday meetings —where players opened up about the program’s oppressiveness — were cathartic.
But -- and this is a big but -- there was no actual news in the, uh, news conference. This was more of a public relations ploy, one to reassert Kirk’s mantle of leadership. And as a Hawkeye fan, one disgusted with the stories of abusive/racially inappropriate behavior within Kinnick’s confines, I expected Ferentz’s Friday afternoon press conference to be at least somewhat substantive. Ferentz repeated what we already knew — the Twitter ban was “stupid,” there will be a player advisory committee, and… well, come back next week for more! I mean, after watching Ferentz artfully dodge questions for 20 minutes, a KF Tuesday news conference before Iowa plays, say, Ball State felt more newsworthy.
As much as Iowa touts “Win, Graduate, Do It Right,” the Friday presser seemed like it would be the first opportunity for Iowa leadership to “get it right.” And while I understand the realities of an ongoing investigation, I wanted Ferentz to be more definitive. If he couldn’t publicly denounce Doyle because of the ongoing investigation, I wanted something unequivocal — a definitive statement against the systemic bullying and racially inappropriate comments engulfing the program. Instead, with his overly cautious tone and lawyerly language, Ferentz sounded like he was engaged in oral arguments before the Iowa Supreme Court. Considering the bullying and, at times, ingrained cruelty within the Hansen Performance Center (such as Seth Wallace’s mocking of Jack Kallenberger’s learning disability), forceful Ferentz, the pissed-off version outraged at the bullying and racism within his program, would have been more appropriate. As the program’s tone-setter (and, quite frankly, the athletic department’s most visible spokesman), his disgust would have resonated with the press, fans, and, most importantly, his players.
Reflecting on the toxicity within the Iowa football program, here’s my biggest disappointment. As an Iowa fan, there has always been an implicit trade-off (at least in my mind). We accept the 8-5/9-4 monotony (and early November BIG fade) because Ferentz and company run a stand-up program. And, sure, Ferentz has earned goodwill for his 2002-04 run, the 2009 Orange Bowl squad, and the 2015 Rose Bowl team but, at least for this native Iowan, he has earned more goodwill for running a program Hawkeye fans and alumni can be proud of. We aren't Florida or Ohio State but, then again, our players aren’t perp-walking to their latest arraignment (like Urban Meyer’s Gators) or on a first-name basis with NCAA investigators (like Maurice Clarett, Terrelle Pryor, or Jim Tressel).
Instead, there was something more insidious — two decades of silence as Doyle (with Ferentz’s tacit approval) demeaned his unpaid athletes in the name of “toughening them up.” We thought Doyle-izing players meant next level training for our developmental Hawks; unfortunately, it seems that it also meant enduring insulting and racially demeaning comments, self hate, suicidal thoughts, and even quitting the sport altogether for some Hawkeye players.
After 162 victories, five top 10 finishes, and countless coach of the year accolades, it feels hyperbolic to say that Ferentz is at a crossroads. That said, his response to the systemic bullying and racial insensitivity within the Iowa program will cement (or, conversely, corrode) his legacy. From my perspective, Fry and Ferentz are Iowa’s two most successful coaches. And while you can debate their respective GOAT cases (Kirk’s five top 10 finishes narrowly eke out Hayden’s three Rose Bowls in my Hawkeye coaching pantheon), Fry has the ultimate legacy trump card: a historic commitment to racial equality. As much as I revere Fry for transforming Iowa into a national powerhouse, his racial justice work—more than Pasadena trips, 12-10, or Hartlieb to Cook—secures his legacy. Now Hayden’s protege, whether he wants it or not, has an opportunity to do his own part to advance the cause of racial justice. It once seemed a certainty that Ferentz would have a statue outside Kinnick, one celebrating his BIG championships, bowl victories, and player accomplishments. But until Ferentz addresses the bullying and racial discord sullying his program (with more than a formulaic press conference and all-too-predictable player advisory committee), his legacy is on hold.