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Iowa Football Allegations Show the Hawkeyes' Longtime Culture Needs Changing

The accusations of the last week have made it clear Kirk Ferentz's program must improve player-coach relations.

For the entirety of the 21st century, there has been an unbreakable sameness to Iowa football. In many ways, that continuity has been the Hawkeyes’ greatest competitive strength. While leaders and playing styles came and went around the Big Ten, Iowa’s identity remained rooted.

But roots can twist as they grow deeper. Continuity can become corrosive. An organizational strength can become so ossified that it turns into a weakness.

Kirk Ferentz has been the head coach since 1999, and he’s built a cocoon of familiarity around himself. His defensive coordinator, Phil Parker, has been with him the entire time in various capacities. Quarterback coach Ken O’Keefe has been on staff 15 out of 20 years this century. Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods and defensive line coach Kelvin Bell played at Iowa under Ferentz.

That’s hardly all. Director of video operations Bob Rahfeldt has been there throughout the Ferentz Era. Director of player personnel Scott Southmayd has been around since 2002. Operations director Paul Federici is in his 17th year. The rest of the support staff is heavily flavored with Iowa grads, and it should be noted that 16 of the 19 support staffers listed on the school’s athletic website are white.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz before a game in 2019

Longtime Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz before a game in 2019

The continuity carries over to hiring family members. The current offensive coordinator is Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son, who also played under his dad. The recruiting director, Tyler Barnes, is Ferentz's son-in-law. Parker’s son, Tyler, is in his fifth season on the staff.

And the guy at the right hand of the head coach, the $800,000-a-year strength coach, has been there every step of the way with Ferentz, too. That’s the embattled Chris Doyle, currently on administrative leave after a barrage of accusations from former players, and he’s central to this story.

Doyle denied accusations of making racist comments in a statement Sunday, but his words are countered by those of too many old Hawkeyes to ignore or write off. Ferentz has tried to get out in front of the situation, stating that he’s “thankful that these players decided to share their experiences now. As I said earlier this week, the best way to affect change is by listening. I have started reaching out to them on an individual basis to hear their stories first hand.”

But plenty of damage has been done to Ferentz, who has been as entrenched in his job as anyone in college football not named Saban or Swinney. His program looked, for a long time, like an overachieving Utopia from the outside. Now a parade of players are exposing what can happen when too many things stay the same for too long.

Ferentz is tied to Doyle, an allegedly bullying, racially benighted individual who appears to be from the archaic, Strength Coach As Punisher School. (Doyle survived an episode in January 2011 when, after a grueling winter workout, 13 players wound up in the hospital with external rhabdomyolysis, which is the result of muscles breaking down and releasing proteins into the bloodstream. One player sued and the university settled for $15,000.) Ferentz elevated Doyle to a position of authority that was nearly absolute, allowing him to do damage in an insular program that appears out of touch with many of the young people playing there.

And so here Iowa is. When an institution balks at making its own changes, oftentimes the catalyst is a jarring push from the outside.

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Former Hawkeye after former Hawkeye—most Black, but not all—have come forward with stories about feeling marginalized, disrespected or aggressively insulted during their time at the school. Many of them cited Doyle as the biggest problem.

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who was Iowa’s all-time leading receiver when he left the program in 2010, wrote a long and scathing statement alleging poor treatment from both Doyle and Ferentz. “He is nothing short of a punitive, sadistic man,” Johnson-Koulianos wrote about Doyle, after alleging repeated verbal taunts and what he considered excessive physical punishment. He also characterized Ferentz as a control freak with a vindictive streak.

(Johnson-Koulianos’s Iowa tenure ended badly—he was kicked off the team in December of his senior season after being arrested on five drug-related charges. Four of them were dismissed after he pleaded guilty to marijuana possession. In his statement, he acknowledged taking drugs during his time at Iowa. He’s currently the receivers coach at Division II Bloomsburg.)

“So, is this racism?” Johnson-Koulianos asked near the end of his statement. “Is this strict, old school coaching? I cannot honestly say; however, going through this as a young, black male, I can genuinely say that whether it was their intent or not, I believe that race was a large part of it. I was just another black athlete and I wasn’t going to be bigger than their program.

“I am a coach today because I want to use my life’s experiences to make a difference to develop young men the right way. In my wildest dreams I would not treat or humiliate ANY of one of my players in this or any way—no matter their race, color, or creed. My hope is that these events will bring attention to injustices like these and will prevent things like this from happening to future Hawkeyes and student athletes everywhere.”

Another Black former Iowa player took aim at Brian Ferentz. Cedric Boswell said that the younger Ferentz labeled a new tattoo representing his hometown of Detroit, “the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” What’s the point of that? It’s not coaching.

Other revelations that have tumbled out in recent days underscore the controlling nature of Ferentz. Scott Dochterman of The Athletic wrote two sentences over the weekend that portray a program living in the past and afraid of player self-expression: “The program’s Twitter ban was loosened this month to allow for one pre-approved tweet from players. Last year, the program eased restrictions on hats, earrings and hoodies in the football building.”

Not long after word of the single self-approved tweet policy surfaced, Iowa magically changed its policy again to let players say what they want on the social media site. Lo and behold, many of them came to the defense of the program. (The policy change surely was an immense relief to whatever luckless soul Ferentz designated as his Twitter censor.)

Clearly, this is a program in need of recalibrating its player-coach relations. It’s not 1999 anymore. Or 2009. Or even 2019. The current pace of change in America—and in football—is breathtaking.

A college athletic program cannot become a time capsule. It cannot become an ongoing shrine to its leader—even the good ones. It is perilous to let a coach build his own echo chamber, surrounded by the same faces and voices for two decades.

The more resistant a place is to change, the more jarring the change will be when it comes. And it will come. Iowa football is now at that point, after two decades in its Utopian bubble, and how it responds to this crisis will influence its next 20 years.

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