Hlas column: Rhabdo gone, squats drill gone, this Iowa football story probably soon to be gone

Mike Hlas
Published: March 23 2011 | 5:27 pm - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 1:26 pm in
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IOWA CITY — Never say never when it comes to a controversial story that doesn’t have a tidy ending, so it’s premature to say the Iowa football/rhabdomyolysis saga will steadily fade from the national sports consciousness.

Know that at its worst, the story didn’t move the national needle compared to the Jim Tressel/Ohio State or Bruce Pearl/Tennessee scandals.

Barring jarring revelations or accusations from anyone who was in the Iowa football complex the day of the fateful Jan. 20 squat-lifting workout that led to 13 Hawkeye players spending several days in University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, this story goes bye-bye. Those players are still on the team and participating in spring practice. Which leads you to believe they haven’t hired lawyers.

The investigation commissioned by the university cast blame on no individuals. The committee determined the strenuous squat-lifting was responsible for the rhabdo, and nothing the players did, didn’t do, or ingested before or after the workout was a cause. Some of the team’s best squat-lifters were among those affected.

That intense, high-volume squat-drill has been removed from the Hawkeyes’ future workout itineraries. So ... that’s all, folks.

The investigation’s findings capped a very similar timeline to an outbreak of “rhabdo” with a college swimming team in South Carolina in 2007 and an Oregon high school football team in 2010. It was the first workout after an extended break, it was grueling, roughly the same percentage of athletes were affected, an investigation found no smoking gun, and apparently everyone involved returned to full health.

Still, this was never a non-story. Thirteen players in a hospital is serious business, period. The negative national publicity from the story was severe several weeks ago, and the clippings will surely be put to use by someone.

At his press conference Wednesday, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz conceded opposing recruiters may use the story to what their benefit.

“I would imagine that’s probably the case, yeah, sure,” he said.

“I think it’s a matter of when prospects come on campus, it’s something we’re going to talk about openly. We’ll communicate what happened, what we know.”

The reality: Elite high school players have their ears open a lot wider when the subject is how many players a college program has advanced to the NFL.

“What, there was a workout and 13 guys got real sick? That was their problem. It won’t be me. I’m a beast.”

Some writers for major sports sites put out tough stuff regarding this story, no one more than Pat Forde of ESPN.com. He questioned Ferentz’s leadership, compassion and accountability. Forde said the workout in question seemed to have “bordered on barbaric.”

That was ESPN.com, folks, not a message-board poster with an ax to grind. That site attracts a lot more eyeballs than any newspaper or website originating in this state.

Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com had a column in February with the headline “Mass transfers could be next stain for Iowa, Ferentz.”

The piece mostly was an examination of what kind of waivers are and aren’t readily available for athletes to forgo their one-year residency requirements should they want to transfer to another school. But just the headline alone was another stone thrown at Ferentz’s program, even if mass transfers seem pretty far-fetched.

The coach’s used harsh terminology of his own Wednesday.

“I think a lot of shots that were taken were drive-by shooters, if you will,” Ferentz said. “To throw out the term ‘barbaric’ or somebody suggested we had 13 transfers, things like that, those are shots from left field.

“As I said a month-and-a-half ago, I just encourage them to know the parties involved, know the people on this staff, the players on our team, and talk to past players.”

From afar, it’s always easier to throw those stones. Ohio State’s Tressel is a false idol, right? Auburn had to have bought the services of Cam Newton, right?

When it’s far from us it’s easier to judge and stereotype, and we often do it. So expect nothing different when your favorite team has left itself open for question, no matter how deserved or fair.

But not every unpleasant story has a villain. Not every bad situation has someone with wrongheaded methods or intentions. Isn’t it possible this Iowa rhabdo deal really is an unexplainable fluke, without evil or cruelty at its core?

Ferentz and strength/ conditioning coach Chris Doyle don’t pretend they’re running a program for hobbyists. The edge the Hawkeyes have had over many Big Ten teams over the course of the last decade has come at least as much from physicality and attitude as talent.

That derives from a process that most people aren’t cut out to handle. With the emergence of details of that Jan. 20 workout, a challenge to the desire of the players to prove their competitiveness, we got a glimpse of how the sausage is made.

“We put players in tough situations, difficult circumstances,” Ferentz said. “We do the same thing on the practice field. We did that in December on the practice field. That’s part of what we do because when we play on Saturdays, in bowl games, it’s pretty challenging out there. The competition we play is tough. It’s going to be tougher with Nebraska coming into our conference.

“It’s just the nature of what we do. It’s been that way 13 years. ... We work hard. We’ll continue to work hard. Our drills, not all drills, but a lot of things we do are competitive and difficult, challenging by design. But they’re also safe by design.”

One didn’t turn out to be safe. So that particular workout is gone. Like this story will probably be by the time the 2011 season starts.

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