Happy trails, original Bullies of the Big Ten

Marc Morehouse
Published: August 22 2012 | 1:03 pm - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 11:21 pm in
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We're all getting old, aren't we?

If you're a fan of the HBO show "Hard Knocks," you've seen Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Eric Steinbach run schtick. After his tryout/workout thingie, he said, "Now for a cold tub and a cigarette." He also gave wayward WR Chad Johnson, with whom he was a teammate with in Cincinnati, the business in the lockerroom, chiding Ocho about drinking tequila, getting in at 5 a.m. and about marriage slowing Ocho down. (Prescient much?)

Today, Steinbach, a former all-American and all-Big Ten guard at Iowa, announced his retirement. He joins former Hawkeye Outland Trophy winner Robert Gallery, who retired from the NFL earlier this summer.

I remember these guys back then.

Steinbach always was hilarious. We had a few beers together before the 2001 Alamo Bowl. Great guy, hilarious. Gallery was a little more intense, but also was quick to laugh. I remember interviewing him when he donated $10,000 to his old high school, East Buchanan. We talked about the concept of charity and what his NFL riches have allowed him to do.

Here are some stories from back in the day (When do I get to retire? Never mind.):

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - Eric Steinbach screams Chicago.

The Chicago accent is thicker than a Chicago-style slice of pizza. His name, Steinbach, sounds like a beer brewed in Chicago for Chicagoans. He proclaims himself a somber, blue-collar regular guy, a Chicago guy.

And down here in sun-baked Miami, he has that Chicago-guy tan, basically a blaze-red nose and brow.

Of course, he loves the Chicago Bears. But he's not going to be picky next April. Even if the Green Bay Packers select him in the first round of the NFL draft, he'll go with a smile and a green-and-gold Packers cap on his head.

Chicago, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, anywhere NFL suits Steinbach just fine.

"For my parents and buddies who live in Chicago, yeah, the Bears would be a dream come true," said Iowa's 6-foot-7, 290-pound senior guard. "We all grew up loving the Bears. But the closer (the draft) gets, I hope the team that needs me the most drafts me. I'm ready to check out another city."

Steinbach's credentials say he's Iowa best offensive lineman. He made four all-American teams, including the Associated Press. Big Ten coaches voted him offensive lineman of the year.

Come Thursday after Iowa meets USC in the Orange Bowl, Steinbach will have two more games, the East/West Shrine game and the Senior Bowl, which is a week in Mobile, Ala., practicing and playing in front of every NFL scout who can squeeze a stopwatch.

But really, picking Iowa's best offensive lineman is like picking the shiniest Rolls-Royce, which is something they actually do down here in Miami. Three of Iowa's linemen - Steinbach, center Bruce Nelson and tackle Robert Gallery - were all-Big Ten this year.

Yet, Steinbach, who's from Lockport, a south Chicago suburb, somehow distinguishes himself, and it's all his play, not any sort of self-promotion.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper rates Steinbach a top-15 draft pick. Countless other NFL draftniks have Steinbach going somewhere in the first round.

"Even if I don't look at them (draft projections), people see them and come up and tell me," Steinbach said. "I've just got to realize that those people aren't actually making the real draft picks. I've got to go to the Senior Bowl and the (NFL) combines and impress them there to solidify it, because I'd love to go that high."

You can listen to Mel Kiper explain what sets Steinbach apart, or you can listen to his linemates who have seen him every game, every practice.

"I really believe he has so much potential," guard Andy Lightfoot said. "He weighs 290 pounds right now. He could probably put on 20 more pounds without getting fat.

"He's probably one of the fastest guards in the country. He can move side-to-side and get up field probably faster than any guard."

At 290, Steinbach isn't the cookie-cutter 300-pounder that's the NFL norm. He arrived at Iowa as a 235-pound tight end and has kept at least some of that tight end agility.

"I don't think he would really have the tools," Iowa's all-American tight end Dallas Clark said with a laugh. "Maybe if you need that 4-yard catch and that's it, then maybe. But if you need anymore than that, probably not.

"I'm not sure what kind of tight end Steinie would've made. He doesn't have that flexibility and quickness. But now he's a lineman and a great one at that."

He's also Ox-strong. O-line coaches love the players with the strong base, the anchor-types who are hard to move. Steinbach has the team's strongest squat lift, at 650 pounds.

"He's an athletic guy and extremely strong," Nelson said. "He might not look like it, but he certainly is."

The strength goes hand in hand with explosiveness.

"You watch the film, he's always the first one firing out," tackle David Porter said. "Sometimes, it looks like he gets out before the ball is snapped. He's always the first person moving, that way he gets the jump on the defenders.

"He's up on a linebacker sometimes before the rest of us make contact with the down linemen. That's just hard to defend against. He makes difficult and complicated blocks look very easy."

The Orange Bowl is a wonderful stage for Steinbach. It's the only game Thursday night, primetime Thursday night.

USC's defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher. And the Trojans didn't do it against stiffs, holding six 1,000-yard rushers to less than 100, including Colorado's Chris Brown.

"We have a list of goals on our game sheet," middle linebacker Mike Pollard said. "At the top of that list every game is stopping the run. That's definitely at the top this week. If we can do that against these guys, that's really doing something."

A strong Orange Bowl, with a running back Fred Russell going for 100 yards and quarterback Brad Banks passing and running, could help solidify a first-round slot for Steinbach.

A signing bonus for a first-rounder can hit the $3 million range, a nice bonus for a blue-collar kid from a blue-collar family from a bluer-than-blue collar suburb.

Steinbach's dad, John, is a sales manager at a trailer dealership. Ruth Steinbach is a stay-at-home mom. They had to scrimp and save to send two sons through Providence Catholic High School.

"They had to sacrifice a lot," said Steinbach, whose brother, Rory, is a walk-on freshman at Iowa. "There were times when our parents weren't doing so well as far as income.

"We were never really hurting. But my dad went a pretty long time between buying new cars, a real long time. We're just a regular, blue-collar family.

"That's why I think it'd be so great if I were given the opportunity to be drafted into the NFL. I probably wouldn't know what to do with that money."

After spending a week in trendy Miami, he'll think of something.

IOWA CITY The library at East Buchanan High School filled with 50 or 60 kids. They applauded when the lanky kid signed his national letter of intent to play football at the University of Iowa.

There was cake, Hawkeyes colors, of course. There was signing the letter, faxing it to Iowa City and then a short telephone conversation with Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz.

And there was blond hair.

Never mind the nearly 100 pounds and the full beard, Robert Gallery had blond hair at one point in his life. Yes, the 6-foot-7, 320-pounder with the long, flowing locks of curly dark brown hair once wore the kooky, trendy dyed-blond look.

"Who knows back then," Gallery said.

That was February 1999, one bad 'do and nearly 100 pounds ago for Gallery, who bulked up from a 230-pound freshman tight end to a mammoth left offensive tackle and possible top-five NFL draft pick.

In February 1999, the Iowa football program was a bad 'do and 100 pounds too light in the can.

Ferentz was hired in December '98 just weeks after Hayden Fry retired. He spent his first month or so finishing his run as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line coach and trying to keep the reins on recruiting and hiring a staff at Iowa. At the time Ferentz was hired, running back Aaron Greving and tight end Erik Jensen were Iowa's only commitments.

Ferentz had a list leftover from Fry's staff and dug up a few new names.

"We were hitting it on the run, hitting it on the fly," said Ferentz. "We" meant his early coaching hires, offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe, running backs coach Carl Jackson and offensive line coach Joe Philbin.

"With the fifth-year guys, it was kind of peck and hunt."

The "peck and hunt" fifth-year seniors, mixed with four-year seniors Bob Sanders, Nate Kaeding and Kevin Worthy, have taken Iowa on a ride that has included an undefeated Big Ten season, the first in 80 years at Iowa.

Eleven seniors will start their final game Saturday at Kinnick Stadium when the No. 20 Hawkeyes (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) host No. 19 Minnesota (9-2, 5-2).

While Ferentz and his small band of assistants pecked and hunted, Iowa's possible recruits scratched and wondered. Who was Ferentz and why wasn't he Bobby Stoops?

Maybe that Stoops thing wasn't so much Iowa's recruits as it was Iowa's fans, but there was still a little getting to know Kirk Ferentz.

"I really didn't know a whole lot about him," Gallery said. "I knew that he coached in the NFL and was here in the '80s. Other than that, I really didn't know.

"Everybody made a big deal out of Stoops and all that. I didn't know much about him, either. I was glad when they did hire (Ferentz) and when I did get to meet him for the first time, I knew the university made the right decision no matter what all the fans thought or what everybody was complaining about."

The common theme is that first meeting with Ferentz, who apparently has the closing skills of a rabid realtor.

"You can tell a man's character," senior defensive tackle Jared Clauss said. "You can tell when you meet somebody what kind of person they are. I knew we were going to win eventually because they were going to get it done."

Here is what Ferentz and his staff found in one frantic month of recruiting in January '99:

Three starters on this season's O-line, Gallery, Eric Rothwell and Sam Aiello. Tight end Erik Jensen, who actually committed before Fry left and then decided to stick with Iowa when Ferentz arrived.

Two starters who'll carry and catch the ball Saturday, fullback Edgar Cervantes and wide receiver Ramon Ochoa, who were brought to Iowa from East L.A. by former Iowa assistant Chuck Long, now offensive coordinator at No. 1 Oklahoma.

Two starters on the defensive line, Clauss and end Howard Hodges. And outside linebacker Grant Steen, a former walk-on.

"You had to try to go through the list, try to meet all the guys, try to get a feel for who you like the best," Ferentz said. "I don't think I looked at one of them on tape. I didn't have time."

Looking at the tape now, Gallery had the blond highlights and hopes of four years of catching passes as a tight end at Iowa.

"They said they wouldn't move me to tackle as long as I catch passes and stay fast," said Gallery, then a high school high jump ace with a personal best of 6-5. "They'll let me stay at tight end."

But during Gallery's red-shirt freshman season, five games and three catches into his career as a tight end, backup tackle David Porter injured his ankle going into Iowa's 2000 Big Ten opener at Indiana.

Gallery went from No. 85 to No. 78. Three practices after switching, Gallery played tackle in the second quarter against the Hoosiers.

"I knew I'd have the opportunity to be a lineman at some point, but I didn't know if it was going to happen," Gallery said. "I didn't know I was going to gain 50 pounds my first semester.

"You don't really know what's going to happen. I knew it was going to be fun and it was going to be a ride. It's been all that."

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