At the beginning of last week, as social unrest around the country started to spill over into the Twitter accounts of current and former college football players, Iowa would have seemed an unlikely place to search for resentment seeping out of its foundation.
From the outside, the image of Iowa’s program has been as steady and low-key as that of its coach, Kirk Ferentz, who does not self-promote, does not allow his players to self-promote and whose ethos has revolved entirely around the consistent grind of 8-5 seasons, give or take a couple wins. Boring was the brand Ferentz has packaged and sold time and again as his contract grew longer and his power over the Iowa athletic department deepened.
And yet, in recent days, the entire country has learned what’s been simmering under the surface of that culture and it’s not pretty.
For Ferentz, it may not be survivable.
A critical mass of players — nearly 50 and counting — have come forward to describe a program that left them feeling bullied, belittled and stripped of their identity by an unreasonable demand to conform. Many of the accusations have come from black players, but not all. Taken at face value, the allegations paint the picture of a program with a race problem but also a deficiency in treating players with basic dignity.
Ferentz has said subsequently he was unaware of those issues before they surfaced on social media. He’s also said he wants to play a lead role in fixing them.
But on both counts, Ferentz has one major credibility problem that will be impossible to escape: The coaches being held most responsible by the former players are his son, Brian Ferentz, and a strength coach in Chris Doyle, who has been his closest professional associate for the length of his tenure.
Kirk Ferentz has mostly been spared of direct accusations of mistreatment until Monday night when former star receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos wrote a withering account of his time at Iowa. In addition to accusations of racially-biased mistreatment by Doyle, he accused Kirk Ferentz of frequently chastising him for “my attire and mannerisms while out at Iowa City” and of smearing him with NFL teams before the draft. He also alleged that Ferentz “orchestrated” a police raid that led to him being kicked off the team with “no due process, no counseling, no treatment programs, and no second chances.”
Many Ferentz supporters will point out that there were legitimate reasons for Johnson-Koulianos, who is now a Div. II coach, to land in the doghouse on occasion during his playing career. His Iowa career ended when he was charged with five drug offenses, though only one of them — a guilty plea for marijuana possession — stuck.
On its own, many fans with blind loyalty to the program would try to marginalize the account of Johnson-Koulianos. Instead, it is supported by specific story after specific story of jokes and remarks that crossed way over the line, of players who saw the demand to conform as a double-standard that unfairly impacted black players.
Former linebacker Terrance Pryor recalled an incident where Doyle told him football might not be for him and that he should take up rowing before saying, “Oh wait, black people don’t like boats in water do they?” Diauntae Morrow, a former defensive back, said he was suspended by Kirk Ferentz because he pushed back on Doyle for a comment that insinuated he would be “sent back to the ghetto.”
Those incidents, and plenty more that came to light over the last several days, are too specific and too voluminous to ignore. These are memories that stuck with players long after their departures from Iowa, moments of pain that they are still reckoning with today.
Doyle, who denied the allegations of racism in a Twitter post on Sunday, has been placed on administrative leave while Iowa investigates these claims. But whenever this is over, can the school really isolate his actions from the head coach who oversaw him and empowered him?
It strains credulity to suggest that Doyle ran this tyrannical empire out of the weight room for more than two decades while Kirk Ferentz had no idea that players saw the treatment they endured as demeaning and racist. It’s hard to see how Brian Ferentz could be a problem without the tacit endorsement of his father.
The most charitable explanation is that Kirk Ferentz, like many coaches whose power is entrenched because of how much they’ve won, was too deeply immersed in his own bubble of comfort to really understand his own players or to see that the tactics used by his coaches had traversed beyond “old school” into something more sinister.
The less charitable explanation is that Ferentz knew how his players viewed the program all along and didn’t see the problem.
Those close to Ferentz say he has long modeled his approach after Bill Belichick, who hired him as the Cleveland Browns’ offensive line coach in 1993. Given Belichick’s control over every aspect of his organization, which seems more likely?
Either way, Iowa comes off looking like a program stuck in the past with no clue how to fix its future. It wasn’t even until this crisis, for goodness’ sakes, that the football team allowed current players to express themselves on social media. Can a 64-year old head coach who was either part of the problem or embarrassingly oblivious to it really be the one to engineer the necessary changes?
College coaching is a much different profession in 2020 than it was when Ferentz got to Iowa in 1999. The options players have to voice their concerns and build their brands are almost endless. The standards of how players should be treated and the experience they should have in college have been raised. Disciplinarians and tough coaches can still succeed, but you have to show the players that you care.
Until his world blew up last weekend, Ferentz looked like an aloof old man who just didn’t care what was happening right under his nose. He’s yet to offer a compelling case that he’s equipped to start now.