He is Iowa's all-time leader in receiving yards and career receptions. He led the Big Ten in kick return yards per game in 2010. He played quite well in the NFL Players Association Game, formerly known as the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star game, a game created expressly so that pro football scouts can evaluate talent that's not invited to the selective NFL Combine. Yet, he cannot even get a sniff from the National Football League, presumably because on December 7, 2010 Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, or DJK as he is widely known, was arrested on a slew of drug related charges to include the incendiary charge of "keeping a drug house." As sensational as his arrest was, and it was a doozy in the Iowa community, he ultimately pled guilty to only one of those charges, misdemeanor drug possession.
The judge cited Johnson-Koulianos' clean record in agreeing to a plea that led to all other charges being dropped and providing a pathway for his record to be expunged. He needs merely to stay "clean" for one year and in the eyes of the law, if he is successful, none of this ever happened. Was it an uncharacteristic mistake? Hard to say. Although, DJK played for five years at Iowa and not once was he cited for any mischief prior to his arrest last fall. In all his time at Iowa, other than the December 2010 drug arrest, his most serious transgression, and it was very serious, was that his personality was too big for Kirk Ferentz.
The NFL is a league that has a long, rich history of drafting or signing players who've exercised highly questionable judgement. Indeed, the NFL has drafted players who've failed drug tests literally days before the draft (Christian Ballard, in fact, failed a drug test at this year's NFL Combine yet was drafted in the 4th round), but that's not all! The NFL has also found a home for players who've been cited for drunk driving while in college (too many to list here), been arrested for drug possession while in college (Cedric Benson is a recent example), been arrested for committing violent crimes (sometimes against women) of every conceivable variety while in college, and they've signed players who are just plain thieves. Yet, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and his soon-to-be-cleared misdemeanor criminal record is apparently a bridge too far. Really? It's more than a little confusing because as an example of just how flimsy the NFL's "Character Matters Here" stance is, consider that as of this post the San Francisco 49ers are working with Jeremiah Masoli, a spread-only QB (of middling talent IMO) who they've signed to a free agent contract, and a guy who's been arrested twice (so far) for robbery --- he was incarcerated after his first arrest and kicked off his college football team as a result of his second --- he's evidently admissible, but not DJK?
[More after the break. A lot more.]
(Empty steel mill buildings in Campbell, Ohio. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos had, by Iowa standards, a rather unusual upbringing and his story is the kind that captivates. He's been called Iowa's version of the blockbuster hit movie, The Blind Side and you can see why. DJK was born Derrell Johnson, to a 14-year old girl in Campbell, Ohio. Campbell is effectively East Youngstown, a town where 1 in 5 families live below the poverty line. Youngstown, Ohio is well known for its passionate devotion to high school football and has produced many college and NFL players over the years, and it's also home to Iowa football royalty --- the Stoops brothers. Youngstown, however, is even more well known for being an American city in decline. It still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. well after the decline of the steel and auto industry, which took hold in the late 1970s. Poverty in Youngstown and the surrounding area was everywhere when Derrell Johnson was born to his teenaged mother and he lived in what he would later describe as "the projects" until about the time he entered middle school. That's when he had the good fortune of meeting Stephen Koulianos. Johnson's birth city is home to the majority of Youngstown's Greek-American population, which represents a large portion of Campbell's middle class. As Johnson's friendship with Stephen Koulianos grew he would find himself spending more and more time at his home. Stephen's parents, Lauren and Tony (a successful physician), often would invite Johnson to sleep over and in due course the Koulianos's were serving as his de facto guardians. Eventually Johnson moved in permanently and at age 18 he was legally adopted by the Koulianos family.
Johnson-Koulianos came to Iowa, one could surmise, thanks to the Stoops family connection. Johnson-Koulianos played at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, a private school with a tuition his birth mother could never afford (paid undoubtedly by Dr. Tony) which was a football powerhouse with first rate coaching. Ron Stoops, Sr. had coached at Cardinal Mooney for many years and Iowa had found gold there with Ron's now famous Hawkeye sons Bobby and Mike. Ron Sr. passed away before Johnson-Koulianos came along but Ron Stoops, Jr. was coaching there when Johnson-Koulianos was running the Cardinal Mooney offense and despite scholarship offers from Michigan, West Virginia and North Carolina (the latter recruiting him as a QB) he chose to come to Iowa to play wide receiver. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit proclaimed at Big Ten media days before the 2006 season that Johnson-Koulianos was probably the best player in Ohio his senior year. In an interview with Marc Moorehouse Johnson-Koulianos would address his emerging status as glorified Hawkeye before ever seeing the field, "We like to call that hype, most people, most players don't ask for it. No one ever asks for hype. But I know one thing, when there is hype, it motivates you. It sets a spark under you like you've got to go, you've got to do it." Johnson-Koulianos eventually redshirted in 2006 but in 2007 he saw the field straight away and by the time Iowa entered the Big Ten season he was firmly entrenched as a key contributor on special teams as a kick returner and at wide receiver. The rest, as they say, is now history as Johnson-Koulianos has stamped his name in the Iowa record books and accumulated numerous accolades (from hawkeyesports.com):
- Iowa's career leader in receiving yards (2,616) and career receptions (173)
- Ranks third in career touchdown receptions (17) and fifth in all-purpose yards (4,231)
- Third player in Iowa history to lead team in receiving for three straight seasons (2007-09)
- His 99-yard KO return for touchdown at Ohio State in 2009 ties as fourth longest in school history
- First Iowa wide receiver to earn first team all-Big Ten honors since Tim Dwight in 1997.
It was no surprise either to see Johnson-Koulianos at the center of attention for Iowa's first appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated since Chuck Long shared the page with Bo Jackson and Joe Dudek in his senior season of 1985.
Despite his prodigious talents and undeniable productivity on the field, Johnson-Koulianos never gelled with Kirk Ferentz. It's hard to say with any certainty why this was the case. There's been great speculation though in chat rooms and articles. Some attribute it to Johnson-Koulianos' suspect work ethic in practice. Although, it is well known that he was a weight room phenom, which does not come without a high level of commitment and determination. As Scott Dochterman reported following Johnson-Koulianos’ so-called pro day, "he benched pressed 225 pounds 21 times and had a vertical jump of 34.5 inches. At the NFL Combine last month in Indianapolis, only 11 wide receivers posted better 40 times and only two had more bench-press repetitions."
Another theory, one which many subscribe to, is that Ferentz simply did not enjoy the way Johnson-Koulianos interacted with the media or how he represented himself within Ferentz's "team first" culture. From very early on Johnson-Koulianos was freewheeling when interviewed and, for Ferentz's taste, overactive on social media -- a form of communication Ferentz does not really understand to this day. It was during the 2007 season that the whole "DJK" brand was born. For Ferentz to watch Johnson-Koulianos refer to himself in the third person, using an acronym while wearing a fedora, diamond studded earrings and sunglasses must have been intolerable. Ferentz is on the record for pointing out that football stars are only stars because of football. In other words, if not for Iowa football no one would give a crap about Derrell Johnson-Koulianos or any player for that matter. Playing at Iowa is a privilege (a privilege granted, of course, by Ferentz) and no way would the demure head coach ever allow a manipulation of that privilege. It did not take long for Ferentz to aggressively shut DJK down. At first he excluded him from contact with the media during game week, allowing him only to speak following games. But eventually contact with DJK was entirely cut off; by his senior year he was completely muzzled on all fronts. Players often deferred comment about him entirely and only those who reflected the preferred Ferentz media pretense, such as Tyler Sash and Ricky Stanzi, could say anything at all and what they would say of DJK was benign at best --- typically when asked about DJK they would utter something glib along the lines of, "Oh well, that's Derrell." It's not unusual for coaches to make an example of one player as a cautionary tale for the others make note of, and for Iowa DJK was Ferentz's poster child for what he believed to be completely unacceptable media relations.
(Video courtesy of YouTube via gazetteonline)
It was not only DJK's interaction with the media that inflamed Ferentz but there may have been on-the-field issues as well. As David Fidler wrote about last spring on Bleacher Report, in a reflection on the 2007 season:
Of course, as stated earlier, he seemed to be in Kirk Ferentz's dog house the entire season, and fans were never sure why. However, I believe it was during the Minnesota game when the picture began to get clearer.
Koulianos ran a deep route, but quarterback Jake Christensen threw it short, and it was picked off. DJK, instead of turning around and attempting to tackle the man that had picked the ball off, continued running his route. He ran right through the end zone and into the student section where he exchanged high fives with those in the front row.
But more than anything, Ferentz's beef with DJK seemed most often to be a matter of message and image control. To Ferentz's chagrin much of the Iowa football media were drawn to DJK like a moth to a flame. And why not? Working a Kirk Ferentz midweek press conference can be like transcribing bingo night at the VFW. The players, by and large, are not much better. They're justifiably wary of the wrath of Ferentz and choose most often to stick to the talking points. DJK, meanwhile, (when he was allowed to speak) was fearless, refreshing and genuinely quotable. Following the Ball State game last fall Ferentz was finally confronted by the media at his weekly Tuesday press conference. They were curious yet playfully agitated about their lack of access to the talkative wide receiver during a senior season in which he was likely to break numerous Iowa receiving records. At one point a reporter pressed Ferentz sarcastically, "Doesn't seem like he wants to talk to us this year. Did we do something to make him mad?" To which Ferentz replied, "I don't think you did. I think he loves you guys actually, talking in general terms. You can move in with him in January. Help yourself. I told him that, too. He can Twitter. Can have a ball." And with that response it was clear, DJK had indeed been censored. Although, it's important to note that Ferentz may have thrown out "January" as an end date not because it marked the conclusion of the season, but because as a fifth-year senior DJK was scheduled to graduate in January. Ferentz even mentioned that fact earlier in the presser. January marked, in other words, the moment at which DJK would no longer be under the auspices of the Iowa football program or it's head coach. It's reasonable to assume that had DJK been only a junior, the timeline for access proposed by Ferentz would have been much, much later. As in never.
Not all of the media bought into the DJK mystique though. Pat Harty wrote a blog entry in October of 2009 in which he demanded that DJK "Get With The Program," to which it must be noted I wrote a sarcastic fanpost. [I could not find Harty's original entry, sorry!] While DJK cultivated his fair share of fans it was clear the Iowa football establishment was mostly disapproving of his act, if for no other reason but to support Ferentz's efforts to keep player's heads below the corn rows. Realize too that Ferentz is essentially the anti Hayden Fry when it comes to image making. Fry rebranded the Hawkeyes boldly, top to bottom, and on game days he wore what is now sold in stores as a "costume" --- a Tiger Hawk hat with oak leaves embroidered on the brim, as if a naval commander, and even wore white pants like one. Although he later claimed the white pants made it easier for the quarterback to find him from the huddle. It's seems unlikely Hayden would have ever taken issue with DJK to the extremes with which Ferentz has. But Hawkeye football under Kirk Ferentz is a more pragmatic, restrained experience. And if you cannot tow the modesty line you will get flack. For many young men criticism and ostracizing leads to diminished performance and sulking, but as you might expect from a kid who never had a great deal of security growing up to begin with, Johnson-Koulianos never has appeared offended by any of it. In fact, to this day, he seems to be utterly fascinated by it all. It appears for DJK receiving attention, whether it be good attention or bad, is an elixir. Like many children of adoption he seems to ascribe to the notion that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. Which makes him unique. For most players being relegated to the Ferentz doghouse would be a living hell hole, but for Johnson-Koulianos it was a roof over his head and shelter from a storm.
Discord between Ferentz and Johnson-Koulianos seemed to spike toward the end of the 2010 season when the record setting wide receiver, who was often not listed with the first team during his senior year but would nevertheless play early and often in games as if a starter, was benched for most of the first quarter of the Minnesota game. The irony for DJK fans was that he nevertheless played with passion and determination throughout the game while his teammates often looked listless and demoralized. Johnson-Koulianos would even return a kickoff for a touchdown, keeping a flaccid Hawkeye team in the game before they ultimately fell in an enormous upset to a Minnesota team thought to be in total disarray after the recent firing of their head coach. It was not really explained by Ferentz as to why he benched one of his most potent playmakers but he made cryptic remarks suggesting the wide out was not sufficiently focused in practice, which matched up with an oft stated, hard and fast Ferentz rule: the player who practices the best, starts. Ten days later Johnson-Koulianos' world would come crashing down with an arrest, dismissal from the team and ultimately a persona non grata tag (as expected, he was barred from Iowa's Pro Day in the lead up to the draft).
To conspiracy theorist and DJK fans there appears to be some evidence to support a theory that Kirk Ferentz might have blackballed Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. Ferentz is well known and respected among the NFL coaching ranks. He's been successful in the play for pay league and is well connected there, his son is gainfully employed by the gold standard NFL franchise and Iowa players are on three out of every four NFL teams. It's probably safe to say that if Ferentz supported Johnson-Koulianos' inclusion in the league, he'd be there right now. His talent is undeniably compelling enough for a team to take a shot with him unless the magnitude of his questionable character was confirmed, or perhaps even bolstered, by the one man who the NFL believes knows him best from a football perspective, his former coach. As for Johnson-Koulianos, he seems resigned to the notion that Ferentz has somewhat contributed to his being snubbed. In a tweet that he subsequently removed he admitted his beloved Hawkeyes have likely badmouthed him to the pros. It was foreshadowed when he attempted to play in the NFL Players Association Game using an Iowa helmet, but the Hawkeyes would not grant him permission. By prohibiting him from wearing the TIger Hawk, Iowa had effectively signaled the NFL that Johnson-Koulianos was on his own from here on out. So instead, his head was protected by possibly the most incongruous of helmet options, a University of Utah helmet (adorned with stickers of Buckeyes no less). Yep, Mormon U. apparently was not compelled to ban him from wearing their team helmet.
(Johnson-Koulianos' helmet for the NFL Players Association Game. Photo courtesy of SB Nation's Along the Olentangy.)
Make no mistake, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos screwed up. He played with fire and got burned. Badly. A more immature man would play the victim card, blame his head coach, the football experience in general, and implicate the University of Iowa sports machine that profited from his athletic exploits while he dutifully recovered from painful injuries that required him to rely (if not over rely) on medicine prescribed by football doctors and trainers -- medications that were subsequently cited in his arrest warrant, in addition to the marijuana (a drug, it should be pointed out, that is frequently used by people who suffer from ADD, which Johnson-Koulianos has said he does). To his credit, he has not. He wished Ferentz a seemingly sincere Happy Birthday in a tweet on August 1st, and often tweets about his passion for all things Hawkeye. It is worth noting too that there is one aspect of this story that may have a happy ending for Johnson-Koulianos and one would think it would be compelling to the football community, and that is this: the outcome of his legal entanglements could very easily become a completely clean legal record in less than a year's time. His sins however have tarnished the University, the football program and thus Kirk Ferentz, and there is a price to pay for all that.
The question though is this: What is that price?
To me, it seems, at this moment, the price is going to be an opportunity to play in the NFL in the short term, if ever. And if Iowa, or specifically Kirk Ferentz, has any hand in that whatsoever, that is distasteful and disappointing behavior from a program and coach that is rightfully revered by Iowans. Say what you will about his outlandish outward façade, loathe his endless tweets and facebook posts if you like, and feel free to dislike his smug grin in locker-room interviews, but Derrell Johnson-Koulianos has been good to Iowa football and good for it. Kirk Ferentz could only dream he could secure more players with Johnson-Koulianos' ability and passion. Besides, the notion of a baggage-free college kid is comical. If anyone should know this it is Kirk Ferentz, who's own son was cited for using a drug in excess in public. In the curious case of James Ferentz though, the drug was alcohol and the punishment was to miss team activities during the season in which he wasn't going to see the field anyway, his redshirt season. As Mike Hlas said at the time, "Of all the players in the Iowa program, James Ferentz is the one who should have been most cautious at all times in all situations. College kids will be college kids, absolutely."
It's entirely too much to have ever expected Kirk Ferentz, who was overseeing one of the most disappointing seasons in Iowa football history, to have a warm fuzzy feeling in his heart for Johnson-Koulianos. Iowa had just put the finishing touches on a regular season in which they were a dropped pass away from going 6-6 for the year. Key players had stained and distracted the season along the way as it was (see Wegher and Robinson) which only made things more difficult for Ferentz. So at the time of Johnson-Koulianos' arrest Ferentz was in no mood for any more bad player judgement and he reacted as any coach in a foul mood would act. But ironically, Ferentz would be excoriated in the national press just a short time later because of his seemingly cold, distant handling of his players and their families during the rhabdomyolysis outbreak.
It's completely understandable that Kirk Ferentz would choose not to support DJK by providing glowing reviews to the NFL peeps when they inquired. After all he was unlikely to provide good reviews before Johnson-Koulianos was arrested and thrown off the team. But did he go out of his way to disparage Johnson-Koulianos in such a way as to make the NFL erase him entirely from their plans? I'm not sure and that uncertainty upsets me and puts Kirk Ferentz in a guarded light for me. See, I'm the father of an unreserved, headstrong child who's prone to being experimental and audacious (like her old man I often boast), and while my only child happens to be a daughter who does not play football I am still left to wonder if I would put my dearest possession in the care of a man who might have blackballed DJK. Because it's very clear to me, at some point college kids will be college kids.