I have a hard time trying to organize my thoughts about those Iowa players who were hospitalized and also about Coach Ferentz and Coach Doyle.
Obviously, I was concerned for the health of those players and thrilled to hear they are doing better, but disappointed it cast a negative light on the program. As a former player, I am fiercely loyal to and dearly love the program. It bothers me profoundly to hear about legal troubles with certain players who appear selfish, stupid, or both. It bothers me that 100+ guys can be doing everything right in the classroom, on the field, and as people, and have to deal with the negative light that glows when a few morons make mistakes. But, that is based on my devotion to the team and the ideals that people like Ferentz and Doyle promote.
I am also steadfast in my devotion to both Ferentz and Doyle. They are dedicated coaches, men of integrity, and models for all that is good about Iowa. While I was a less-than-elite player, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Iowa, especially with Ferentz and Doyle. (While that could be misinterpreted as a slight on Coach Fry and his staff, I do not intend it to be.) That says a lot coming from a senior on a team with a lousy record. But, so much of my enjoyment came from being a member of a group that clearly was – to insiders, at least – the start of something special.
After the season ended, I spouted off to some members of the media about how good the Iowa team would be because of people like Ferentz and Doyle. I made all sorts of supportive comments about younger players’ potential and the team’s ability to rebound to the elite. In 2002, while many Iowa fans were basking in awe of the undefeated Big Ten record, I was genuinely surprised it hadn’t happened the previous year because that team was quite talented and came darn close in many, many games. In 2003 and 2004, while many Iowa fans were delighted in continued success, I felt a sense of vindication because Iowa wasn’t a “one hit” wonder that some national pundits predicted after 2002. (My feelings about Iowa’s subsequent football teams are predictable, so I’ll spare the reader with such prescriptive musings.) While this loyalty is, in part, due to my past experiences with Iowa football, it is also due to my feelings for Ferentz, Doyle, and their colleagues. They are men of great integrity, whose intensities are matched only by their background knowledge, diligence, and precision.
In these ways, I would say that they – along with people like Coach Fry, Coach Verducci, and Coach Philbin – strongly shaped me into the person I’ve become.
While I’ve never experienced the NFL, the tangible lessons I learned about dedication have carried over into other aspects of my life. Without a doubt, I would not have graduated with both a BA and an MA in 5 years had I not had the support of the coaches and the academic support staff. They easily could have simply allowed me to take the minimum course hours required to stay eligible. But, in everything we did, they demanded more than what was required.
As Warren Holloway so eloquently stated, “On this team, giving 100 percent doesn’t make you special, it just makes you part of the team.” And, I can honestly say that I would not have earned a PhD without the lessons learned on the gridiron, without hearing Doyle’s voice in the background screaming things, without the image of Ferentz violently chewing his gum, eyes squinted.
Sitting in my home office after my kids were in bed, after a full day teaching, sometimes staying up till 11 pm, I did not have the pleasure of Doyle’s barking commands motivating me, “That’s not good enough…we’re getting better today! RIGHT NOW!” But, I had that image in my head.
That image, and others like it, brings me back to my time at Iowa. It’s hard to conceive that I’ve been out of Iowa football twice as long as I was in it, it seems like only yesterday.
While I miss playing in Kinnick on Saturdays and being around such gregarious personalities as Bobby Diaco, Timmy Dwight, Ross Verba, and Matt Bowen, I miss more the preparation in the weight room and on the practice field. I miss the grind. I miss running until I puked, walking away from a workout with legs that feel like jelly, and getting a complimentary nod from Ferentz or a guttural response from Doyle like, “you got better today, Bickford. See you tomorrow.” I miss the physical journey, the path of preparation, as much as I miss Saturdays. And, that says more about the culture of accountability that the coaches cultivated than it does about any disposition I had as a player because, while I tried my best, I wasn’t extraordinary. But, I hit that rock everyday.
I keep in contact with the coaches. In the first few years after I was done, I called Doyle’s, Philbin’s and Ferentz’s office phones to leave a voice mail after every win. I lived in Iowa until recently and always stopped by a summer practice on a random day to just watch. It always amazed me how those coaches, so busy coaching, with so many former players stopping by, always initiated the discussion, remembered me, and brought up key details about specific things.
From these discussions, it was obvious that while those guys coached well, they cared more. I brought my University of Iowa PhD advisor (Dr. Bruce Fehn) with me one time and he and Ferentz chatted a bit about books. I remember laughing when Ferentz commented about how much he missed teaching and reading and that football has kept him “for all intents and purposes, functionally illiterate” for the past few decades.
As a father of an 8 year old boy (Samuel) and a 6 year old girl (EmmaJane), I cherish my time with them and love watching them grow and learn. I have no ambitions for either child to do anything in life other than that which they truly prize. If Sammy doesn’t want to play football, I honestly do not care. I want them both to be good people, to love God, and to find their niche in life. But, I hope that they each find people in his life like Ferentz and Doyle, people who balance demanding expectations with unconditional support, people who expect loyalty and precise preparation but who also reciprocate in kind.
I had the privilege of coaching current Hawkeye, Tanner Miller, when he was in high school. I wasn’t his position coach, but we talked a lot about Iowa, Ferentz, and Doyle (even though he was a Big Red fan back then, ha ha, his dad was a backer for the Huskers back in the 1980s). I called Tanner and his dad, Brian, when Tanner signed. While I would have called to express congratulations about any scholarship he accepted, I wanted to specifically congratulate him on who he signed with.
Signing a scholarship is one thing, but signing on with Ferentz and Doyle is quite another. As I said before, they are men of integrity who give as much as they demand. While it was a privilege to receive a scholarship to play football and go to school at Iowa and while it positively impacted my life in every measurable way, it was an honor – a true honor – to be around people like Ferentz, Doyle, Fry, Verducci, and Philbin.
Dr. J. H. Bickford III
Department of Middle Level Education
Eastern Illinois University
Jay Bickford lettered as an offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes in 1998 and ’99.
And, yes, he did spout off at the Minnesota game. The Hawkeyes closed out a 1-10 death march in Ferentz’s first season with a 25-21 hard-fought loss at Kinnick Stadium. Attendance was 55,386 in the 70,000-seat Kinnick Stadium.
“If I had money right now, I’d buy (the next) 10 years of season tickets. And it’s not because I’m a little emotional after my last game. This team’s going to turn it around. To tell you the truth, I’d be shocked if they don’t go to a bowl game next year.”
As it turned out, Bickford was only off by a year.
I’ve made contact with Jay in the last couple years through Facebook. I thought you might be interested in his perspective on Iowa football, Kirk Ferentz and Chris Doyle in the wake of things.