It took until the last week for veteran Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to become aware of allegations of widespread mistreatment of players within his program. That’s shocking enough, especially with the allegations having to do with bullying and racist comments.
Now, add the context that Ferentz is the longest-tenured coach in the country at one school. The widely respected Iowa legend will turn 65 on Aug. 1 as he begins his 22nd season at Iowa this fall.
If he makes that far.
“I don’t want to say I was blind-sided,” Ferentz said during a Sunday call with media, “… but the bottom line is we don’t want anybody to leave this place not feeling like this was a good experience.”
There is apparently a long way to go before Iowa becomes a feel-good program. We know that because powerful, highly-compensated, highly-regarded strength coach Chris Doyle has been put on administrative leave. An investigation is ongoing regarding alleged mistreatment — including racist comments and actions — by Doyle.
Tweets began being published by Iowa players on Friday and picked up over the weekend. An estimated 40 ex-Hawkeyes have come forward to share their negative experiences with Doyle while involved with the program.
The situation roiled so intensely that some of those came forward while Ferentz was on the call. Ferentz’s own son, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz, was also implicated.
Doyle is considered one of the best in the business; he is definitely the highest paid, making $800,000 per year.
How he got to that lofty position and kept his job for this long is now in question.
Former defensive back Emmanuel Rugamba said Doyle mocked black players, making them walk around the facilities on “eggshells.” Rugamba called the anxiety caused by Doyle’s actions “unbearable.”
Doyle allegedly told another black player, “I’ll put you back on the streets.”
If true, those incidents alone might be fireable offenses. And not just because the Black Lives Matter protests have raised awareness of social injustice. Players may have been compelled to come forward amid the protests that have sprung from George Floyd’s death, but the overwhelming reaction for their willingness to talk should be positive.
If the allegations are true, it’s a shame it took this long for them to go public. Awareness is supposed to be raised at an institution of higher education. And not just for the players.
Racial disparity continues throughout college football, a sport where minority head coaches are scarce while 45% of the athletes are African-American.
Adding to the confusion is determining just what is the culture of Iowa football.
Minutes before Ferentz started his call Sunday, Doyle posted a tweet denying any racial comments. He also said that his statement was being made despite the fact that he was told to “remain silent.”
“I don’t remember using the word ‘silent,'” Ferentz said. “I’m not here to tell Chris what to do. When you feel like you’re being wrongly accused of some things, you want your chance [to speak].”
Yeah, but what about the players who have felt abused? Ferentz was sympathetic saying he is the process of assembling an advisory committee of former players to guide future policy.
Clearly, though, any way out of this has to involve Ferentz’s bosses, athletic director Gary Barta and school president Bruce Harreld. If Doyle’s alleged actions were missed, whether enabled or ignored, this is still a matter for the board of trustees, not just a football coach.
Ferentz literally got to this point in his career by knowing everything that goes on within his program. He wouldn’t be the first coach to rule like an autocrat only to claim ignorance when times get rough.
That institutional dominion is how Ferentz got to be this successful, this powerful in a state that only sees 2% of its high school players recruited by Division I schools.
The first question from a reporter Sunday capsulized the moment: Given all of the above, how does this happen?
“That’s a fair question,” Ferentz said.
The answer hangs in the air like a booming punt.
Doyle is no stranger to controversy. Under his watch, 13 Hawkeyes were hospitalized in 2011 with rhabdomyolysis. “Rhabdo” a stress-induced syndrome that can cause organs to shut down and even death. An internal investigation by Iowa found that the exercises Doyle was using, not Doyle himself, were responsible for the players’ condition. Later that season, he was honored as Iowa’s “most valuable coach of the year.”
The school settled a lawsuit with a player who sued for negligence, paying $15,000. According to reports, since 2009, Doyle has made at least as much as both Iowa coordinators each year but two.
“There’s a fine line between demanding and demeaning,” Ferentz said more than once on Sunday.
There’s no fine line when it comes to racist comments. Those are for the weak-minded and uneducated. They’re why this country is experiencing its largest united protests since the 1960s.
“I don’t want to say [the reaction] is a ‘spin off,’ but I think people are tired. People are frustrated. They are angry,” Ferentz said.
Maybe the Iowa players felt compelled to share their experiences because of this national awakening, but that shouldn’t muddle or distract from what actually happened to them.
Most coaches know the line between demanding and demeaning. Ferentz has called for a “cultural shift” in the program. Asked what that culture was before the past week, he said, “you could argue, in my mind, it’s been healthy.”
Ferentz added: “[But] in the last 48 hours, I learned of things that needed more attention. However you want to break it down, I’m the one who is responsible.”
Doyle and Ferentz were also credited by former players for their success. The mother of one current player, who spoke with the Des Moines Register, said she felt safe with her son reporting for voluntary workouts on Monday.
In a tweet, 49ers All-Pro tight end George Kittle called it a “defining moment” for Iowa football.
Asked whether he feared for his job, Ferentz said, “That’s really not my frame of work. But I did ask multiple players if they feel like I’m part of the problem or if they feel like we can’t move forward with me here, I’d appreciate that feedback. That’s not what I’ve heard thus far.”
The picture painted of Iowa football is over overachieving excellence. In the Big Ten, it is not Michigan or Ohio State or Penn State. But under Hayden Fry and then Ferentz, it frequently punched above its weight class. Those teams were/are tough.
Doyle has helped produce two Outland Trophy winners (Robert Gallery, Brandon Scherff) and the AFC Defensive Player of the Year (Bob Sanders), but something has seemingly gone wrong for that many players to speak out.
Fifteen minutes into Sunday’s call, former walk-on defensive lineman Jack Kallenberger posted a lengthy tweet about being ridiculed for his ADHD. Kallenberger referenced that a coach wrote his GPA on a meeting room whiteboard to mock him. That is a possible violation of privacy laws.
If the allegations are true, Barta has no choice but to fire Doyle for cause. The current crisis is a symptom of college football culture not just central to Iowa. Too much power is consolidated at the top.
In that Iowa culture, Doyle was seen as some sort of body-building savant. He reveled in making stars out of two- and three-star recruits. Iowa coaches and administration bought in, making him the highest-paid strength coach in the country. He has even been called a “third coordinator.”
Strength coaches have outsized — and sometimes unregulated — influence in most major programs. They are able to spend large swatches of time alone with players when head coaches cannot. Those experiences can be tremendously enriching. Those moments can also be abused.
This cannot be explained simply as a coach and a program out of touch. Ferentz recently relaxed a ban on Twitter which seems almost prehistoric these days.
What else, one might ask, was he missing?