Let's Talk About That Erik Campbell Issue

By Patrick Vint on July 27, 2020 at 2:30 pm
Kirk and Brian
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen

It's looking like News Dump Week at Iowa Football is upon us, a week later than expected.  It starts with an ESPN.com article from Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg and Michelle Steele, detailing the complaints of racial bias and discrimination levied by former Iowa football players against Kirk Ferentz.  The article isn't a great look; it includes much of what we've already heard, but also allegations by respected former Hawkeyes like Marvin McNutt and Dace Richardson who don't carry the baggage of guys like DJK.

Soon after the article dropped, former receiver (and Iowa career receptions leader) Kevonte Martin-Manley came forward and brought up an issue that was never truly addressed: The 2012 decision to hire Greg Davis over Erik Campbell as offensive coordinator.

For those who weren't around then, a brief history:  When Ferentz was first hired at Iowa, he retained longtime Hayden Fry assistant Carl Jackson as running backs coach.  When Jackson retired in 2008, Iowa moved Lester Erb from receivers to backs and hired Erik Campbell to coach receivers.  Campbell had previously served as receivers coach and assistant head coach to Lloyd Carr at Michigan, where he had churned out a whole string of all-conference wideouts.  Getting him to Iowa was a coup, to say the least.

Campbell would stay in that position through the 2012 season.  In that time, he coached DJK, McNutt and KMM.  As KMM states in that tweet, that trio really is the most productive group of receivers in the history of the program.  None of them were particularly coveted receiver recruits.  Two of them were high school quarterbacks.  It didn't much matter to Campbell, who did his job and did it well.  Given his Michigan bona fides, his experience and his success, it was assumed that Campbell was either going to leave for a head coaching job or replace Ken O'Keefe as Iowa's offensive coordinator at some point.

Fast forward to February 2012: Ken O'Keefe announces he's leaving to work as an assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins, just days after Norm Parker retired as Iowa's defensive coordinator.  Iowa promoted from within on the defensive side of the ball, and many -- us included -- expected they would do the same on offense.  "Promoting from within" seems like a very Kirk Ferentz practice, after all.  Campbell had been a complete success, had been in the program for four years, and had that shared Carr-era Michigan DNA that Ferentz always liked and respected.

But Iowa had another opening on staff that year:  A shuffle of the defensive staff had moved offensive line coach Reese Morgan to the other side of the ball, and Ferentz needed an offensive line coach.  That hire was never really in doubt, as Brian Ferentz had spent three years with the staff at New England and was tailor-made for the post.  The hire was announced within a couple days of the opening being posted.  This all made sense: Campbell would make the move up for continuity, with a guy literally raised in the program coaching the most important position group and Kirk as supervisor of the whole endeavor.

Iowa started floating some truly bizarre names for the offensive coordinator position, though: Bart Andrus.  Terry Shea.  There was some talk that former Colts coordinator Tom Moore -- at the time 73 years old and semi-retired -- would come in to call plays for a couple of years.  And then it happened: Greg Davis, the former Texas coordinator with zero ties to the program, was finally named in late February.  Davis wasn't as old as Moore, but he was 61 when hired, and had been out of football for a year.  And Davis wasn't going to groom Campbell as an assistant coordinator or make him passing game coordiantor, either; Campbell's title remained the same. 

The 2012 campaign was a disaster, particularly on offense, where the late hire of Davis led to communication errors and the Ferentz/Davis merged philosophy didn't really work.  By the end of the season, Campbell was out in another reshuffling.  Ferentz replaced him with Bobby Kennedy, a holdover from Davis' time in Austin.  Three years later, Brian Ferentz got the title bump that we expected Campbell to receive, becoming running game coordinator.  Davis retired in 2017, and the younger Ferentz was named as his dad's third offensive coordinator in 19 years.

Let's dispense with a few of the problems of KMM's allegation.  For one, Brian Ferentz had been on staff for about two weeks when Campbell was passed over for Davis.  I'm not sure how the opinions of the line coach would have factored into the head coach's decision to begin with, but it's doubtful that Brian had that kind of pull.  Also, Iowa did replace Campbell with a black assistant.  Kennedy was an unmitigated disaster as an assistant, and eventually received the honor of being one of the first two assistants ever fired by Ferentz after the Eno Benjamin thing, but Campbell wasn't replaced by a white coach.  Ferentz's offensive staff was never exclusively white, though no black offensive assistant has ever moved into one of the two premier jobs, coordinator or offensive line coach.

And I suppose that's the point that KMM is making.  It's not that Ferentz hasn't hired black assistants.  It's that he's not promoted black assistants, or at least hadn't as of the early 2010s.  That fact is undeniably true.  There have been three offensive coordinators during Ferentz's tenure, all white.  There have been two defensive coordinators, both white.  There have been two quasi-assistant coordinators named during that time, Brian Ferentz and Seth Wallace.  Ferentz did have Darrell Wilson serve as co-interim defensive coordinator with Phil Parker during Norm Parker's health-related absence in 2011, but gave Phil the job when push came to shove.  Much of that is the unfortunate glass ceiling that comes from never firing assistants, though.  Wilson was probably qualified to be the coordinator in 2012, but Ferentz opted for Parker, and it's hard to quibble with that decision given Parker's output since.  Ferentz chose his son in 2017, and Brian was probably the most qualified guy on the staff by that point.  It's worth noting that LeVar Woods has been Iowa's special teams coordinator since 2018.

The one big question mark is the one raised by KMM: The hire of the outsider, Greg Davis, over the internal candidate, Erik Campbell.  There is, of course, an explanation for that, but it's not one that Iowa really wants to publish.  

In February 2012, Soup Campbell was 46 years old.  He'd been coaching in college for 25 years, but he was relatively young.  If Ferentz made him the offensive coordinator, he could certainly use that to launch to a head coaching job in a few years, and his resume would allow for it if he were successful with Iowa's offense.  But he could also just stay as Iowa's offensive coordinator forever.  After all, Ferentz had never fired an assistant coach, even when Iowa's performance and disciplinary records had been at their worst.  So long as Campbell stayed modestly successful and Ferentz stayed employed -- as of early 2012, with the ten-year extension signed, the latter was comically guaranteed -- Campbell could remain in that spot for the rest of Ferentz's tenure.

Of course, if Erik Campbell remained Iowa's coordinator for the next 15 years, then Campbell would become the glass ceiling on Ferentz's real choice for coordinator:  Brian Ferentz.  Kirk didn't need or want a young coordinator in 2012.  A young coordinator would have to be let go in five years, and Kirk has never been about letting his guys go.

What Kirk needed in 2012 was an old hand to call plays and groom his son for the job in 4-5 years.  As we wrote back then, Greg Davis checked a lot of boxes for Ferentz: He'd called plays before, he had been a loyal soldier and criticism shield for Mack Brown, and he'd run something like a pro-style system.  But he also checked the final, most important box: He wasn't going to be at Iowa for a decade.  It was the Tom Moore hire with a slightly longer runway.  Davis would gradually bring Brian along, then step aside and give Brian the job.  He would allow for the succession plan that Kirk had desired all along, in a way that Campbell couldn't.  The decision to hire Davis over Campbell wasn't about race.  It was about that other Ferentz problem: nepotism.

Campbell would resurface as an assistant with a CFL team for a couple of years, then bounce around college football again.  He's currently the passing game coordinator at Bowling Green for Scot Loeffler, another Carr-era Michigan assistant.  I doubt he comments on any of this, because that's not who Campbell is.  If he was going to burn bridges, he'd have done so back in 2013.

As for KMM's allegations, my insight into Ferentz's opinions on black coordinators is obviously limited.  There does appear to be a plausible explanation for what happened that doesn't involve race.  I can't tell you whether either explanation is correct.  I can only say what seems plausible.  If Kirk's goal has been to get Brian the head job when he retires, a goal that has been essentially baked into Kirk's thinking over the last decade, then what he did makes sense without bringing race into the equation.  It may not be palatable to many, but it makes sense.

More importantly, this issue isn't going away.  Phil Parker is 57 years old now.  It may not happen during the elder Ferentz's tenure, but there will come a time where Iowa needs a new defensive coordinator.  LeVar Woods and Kelvin Bell have done everything asked of them in every role given.  Woods has been with the program as an assistant since 2008, Bell since 2013.  Woods isn't currently on the defensive staff, but has coached linebackers in the past.  Bell has moved up from graduate assistant, through recruiting coordinator, to defensive line coach.  If those guys are passed over for Seth Wallace or an outside hire, there's going to have to be an awfully good explanation, or this problem will be brought to the forefront again.

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