My column for Sunday’s Gazette is about the atypical stability and continuity of the Iowa football staff. Space didn’t begin to allow me to include all the comments from the three Hawkeye coaches I interviewed Friday.
At the end of the 2009 seasons, Iowa’s nine assistant coaches will have been in Kirk Ferentz’s program for a combined 77 years. That doesn’t happen in football. Coaches move on, coaches get fired.
Why has Ferentz’s staff stayed together? What keeps the coaches there when their salaries are basically average by Big Ten standards?
Here are remarks made by Iowa assistants Ken O’Keefe, Darrell Wilson and Phil Parker from interviews with them on Friday at the Hawkeyes’ Media Day:
KEN O’KEEFE, 11 years as Iowa’s offensive coordinator:
(On why the Iowa program has had such little turnover among coaches)
I think the number one reason would be the environment that Kirk and his wife, Mary, have created for Iowa football, the staff and players both.
For most assistants, for a guy like me who has been a head coach previously (at Allegheny College), the biggest factor was being able to trust and put your faith in a head coach. That’s never been an issue with Kirk Ferentz, ever.
When you come back to that, what does that do for the program and the stability? Obviously, all this improvement each year is a process that takes place from the very beginning to the end. When you’ve been together a while as a staff you can, at certain points, start to improve the process because you know the things you are dealing with, you know what you’re up against. That prevents boredom, that prevents complacency, things like that. This is a very hungry staff, a staff that’s always looking for ways to improve professionally.
Kirk, he provides the leadership that allows all that to take place. He lets guys coach their positions, he lets guys recruit their positions. He pushes all of us to improve and get better. That’s an important thing.
That’s why I think for any kid that comes here, it’s easy in my mind that when we recruit now to say “If you come to the University of Iowa, you’re going to get a chance to play for one of the truly legendary coaches in college football in modern history.” Guys will be able to count on it. All the guys that have played here in the last 10 years will be able to say that along with the ones that continue to play, too.
The system’s not changing all the time. Certain things are going to change, but the whole philosophy, the core of the program doesn’t change. The philosophy of what you’re doing doesn’t change. The system might be tweaked to a certain degree to allow us to do things better, which could be perceived as change, but there’s a lot of security in how all that takes place from a player’s perspective.
It’s tough on players when you have to play for a couple different position coaches and a couple different systems. It’s my experience young people are pretty good at making transitions if they have to, but it’s not easy. Any time there’s a big transition it’s usually toughest on the senior class.
(On what qualities he would say Hawkeye coaches own in in general)
First of all, I think they’re good teachers. Everybody on our staff has the ability to really teach well, to break things down so their players understand them, to get their points across so that you can see the improvement.
Part of our whole process is improvement. People get into coaching usually because somewhere along the line they had a coach who mentored them Usually, somebody that’s in coaching is trying to give that back to the players.
I think the guys on our staff are all in coaching for the right reasons, because they want to help these kids become what they’re capable of becoming and reach their full potential. They want to give back, they want to see these guys succeed. Football’s the avenue in which we’re able to do it.
You have people that are in coaching because of that, and you have people who coach to extend their own careers. Our coaches are coaching for all the right reasons. They’re great coaches, they’re good people, they care about the people they coach. They have close relationships. Phil Parker was at Bob Sanders’ wedding this summer. Guys are in touch with people after they leave the program. They’ll come back and train with (strength coach) Chris (Doyle).
This is education, ultimately. It’s tough in our business, obviously. We’re measured by wins and losses, the production on a daily basis. That’s how our players are evaluated. But education isn’t about immediate results in most cases. It might be 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the road when you start to see the results of what we’ve done or what you’re trying to do. It’s tough in this environment to keep perspective on things. But our staff has good perspective on what this is all about, helping young people.
I think if you want to start right at the top, it’s going to be Kirk and how he treats people, how everybody feels about him.
If we push past football and the environment that Kirk and Mary have created for us as a staff, then you look at the state and how the state approaches things and the environment that you have to coach in. If you want to be a football coach, it’s hard to be anywhere where it’s as important as it is here. It’s important and still in perspective to a large degree. It’s a great state, a great place to raise a family. I think that’s a huge factor with our staff. Because in this day and age, that’s important.
After the state, the city factors into that, and certainly the university. … Those are factors that are critical.
Then . . . the players. We’re recruiting guys that you like being around, you have fun being around every day. That’s worth its weight in gold.
It’s fun, too. My wife accuses me of not having a real job.
DARRELL WILSON, 8 years as Iowa’s linebackers and special teams coach:
I think it starts with the head man in Kirk Ferentz. I mean that in all sincerity. You’re working with a gentleman who exemplifies everything you look for as a person. You talk about character, leadership, caring – all the above.
Knowing Coach when we played together (at Connecticut), I had an opportunity to work with him. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else or with any other head coach.
We’ve all had opportunities to move on and chose to stay. One reason in particular is because of Kirk Ferentz.
(On what the stability in the coaching staff means for the players)
I think it has a tremendous effect. In this day and age where it’s almost – the cliché is three and out – as far as the pressure that’s put on college coaches and programs to win, there’s so much turnover. That affects the continuity of the program. It does affect recruiting. Young men today want to know how long is a coach going to be there, how long has he been there. In our situation, it’s become a big plus.
At one point I was the new kid on the block, and that was six years. Then Coach Kaz (Rick Kaczenski) became full-time and Soup (Erik) Campbell, but you had a staff of men that had been here eight to 10 years. That continuity … we know each other, the players know us, things run a little smoother.
I really think it truly trickles down into the young men. When they see the stability of the program and the system, they’re comfortable. All those things play into having a successful program.
PHIL PARKER, 11 years as Iowa’s defensive backs coach:
When I first came here I’d spent 11 years at Toledo. The one thing that intrigued me about Iowa was coaches seemed to stay for a long period of time. Obviously, Hayden Fry was here for a long time and this seemed like a very stable situation.
I think once a coach moves here with his family … it’s a beautiful place to live, it’s slowed down compared to major cities, and I think a lot of guys want their families in a good environment with good education here. There are different priorities than some coaches have.
Coach mentioned to me one of the reasons I liked so much about you is that you stayed 11 years in one place. There were three different head coaches there when I was there.
Some guys will always be taking a job while they’re looking for another job. I guess what I look at is I take a job, try to do your best. I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I was never a guy to keep on looking for another job.
We’ve had some guys that moved on for coordinators’ positions and some of them moved into the NFL. But I think everybody’s in different stages of their lives. For me, the best thing is to have my family in a good situation. They’re comfortable. And working for Kirk Ferentz, who else can you work for?
You look around the country, a lot of guys are getting compensated very well, and I think that’s what some guys make decisions and move to different parts of the country and different places and different organizations for — the money. I don’t think too many guys here are coaching for the money and the compensation. I think we’re coaching for the love of the game of football, and that’s kind of the philosophy of Coach Ferentz. We love the game of football, we’re doing something we like to do. Yeah, we’re paid good. But we have to win, too. Everybody understands that.
If you put how many hours we put in … Life on the road, I’ve missed a lot of my son’s ballgames, my daughter’s basketball, softball … there’s some sacrifices that go into it that maybe some guys don’t see. My neighbors say we’ll put your picture up to make sure we know who you are for a while.
(On an assistant coach’s responsibilities at Iowa)
Everybody has a job to do and you’re expected to do it. Kirk doesn’t micro-manage it. You do what you’re supposed to do, and that’s why he hired you. He does good research before he’s hired guys, and that’s helped us.