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Semi-tough: Kirk Ferentz Irons Out an Old Football Identity For His New Iowa Hawkeyes.

Five weeks in, the 2012 version of the Iowa football team may have found its identity -- by looking to the past.

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Reese Strickland-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

In 1977 film director Michael Ritchie, director of such films to that point in his career as Downhill Racer, Bad News Bears, and the critically acclaimed The Candidate, turned his artistic sights on sportswriter and author Dan Jenkins' best seller Semi Tough: A Novel. Semi Tough is a hilarious story about two Texas football players who suit up for the New York Giants, one of whom is hired by a literary agent to record his daily life in vivid detail (for the purpose of writing a tell-all book) as a football player about to play in the game's biggest spectacle, the Super Bowl. Ritchie adapted the novel to the screen.

The movie starred Bert Reynolds who was at the peak of his box office powers in the late 1970s, and Kris Kristofferson. I bring up this movie because it was, really, my first exposure to the "culture" of football, however satirical. Ritchie, who would go on to an okay career as a filmmaker and direct films such as the Fletch series and several successful sports comedies, took a host of liberties to contemporize the film and one of the plot devices he included has always stayed with me.

In the film version of Semi Tough Ritchie parodies Werner Erhard's "Erhard Seminars Training," more commonly knows as "est" training. Est training was a popular new age course that targeted people who were in emotional distress, especially if that distress were perceived to be due to some traumatic past experiences. But est became so popular among the new age set that many people paid (big bucks) to enroll in the training whether they were in emotional pain or not, just to say they'd done it. By the mid-1970s it had become a movement, with courses popping up all over the U.S. and Europe; it had become, in some social circles, as a status symbol to undergo the training.

The training itself was a cocktail of behaviorist psychology, self-help exercises, Scientology, Zen Buddhism and even building blocks of Dale Carnegie's motivational seminars. The program was wildly expensive, which only added to its allure, and very manageable as it was conducted over a weekend. Many celebrities and public figures were drawn to it and openly discussed its influence on them. Ritchie included the whole est phenomenon (it was just that, a phenomenon as its popularity lasted about a decade) in the movie version of Semi Tough and it was, to me, a wonderful inclusion.

Ritchie seized on the humorous contradictions Jenkins had beautifully spotted in his novel, that professional athletes often lived these dual and often conflicting identities between their playing and non-playing identities. The movie is dated now, but well worth seeing to watch the way in which Ritchie humorously lays this conflict bare using the est phenomenon.

Just recently I was reminded of the movie version of Semi Tough as I reflected on how this Iowa season has unfolded. Like many of you I've been sucked into the dramatic ebbs and flows of this flawed but still undefined season. It's been interesting because when I view this season to-date with a clinical eye I see this team, and Kirk Ferentz in particular, slogging his way through a similar identity crisis process to that of Marvin 'Shake' Tiller (played by Kristofferson) from the film Semi Tough. It is not until Shake enrolls in and completes an est course that he becomes self-confident and able to bring together his personal identity with his playing identity. In the movie, of course, this allows him to have better romantic relationships, be a better father, a better teammate and the like. The Hawkeyes and Kirk Ferentz are not going through an est seminar obviously, but they are going through something that est seminars tried to simulate -- a very intensive experience in which the participants are forced to confront their truest nature and make peace with it so as to improve their self-perception and live a more honest, uncluttered life (psychologically, if not in reality).

When longtime KF ally and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe (KOK) left the Iowa Hawkeyes in the early spring, it seems to me now that what left with him was a considerable amount of Kirk Ferentz's comfort and identity for the way in which he prefers to play offensive football. I was struck at the time that Kirk did not send KOK off with fanfare and immense gratitude (I even posted on it), the likes of which he did with Norm Parker. Instead, he admitted to being surprised and suggested he was not comfortable with having to replace him. This put KF in the stressful position of having to replace his longtime, highly compatible OC on the fly (as well as a DC, even though we now know that consternation about his DC never really existed as Norm's replacement was groomed by Norm and sitting right underneath KF's nose).

It took KF some time to find Greg Davis and with that hire a number of people in this community (not the least of which was yours truly) began dreaming of new offensive formations and up-tempo football, the likes of which Colt McCoy ran at Texas under the designs of Greg Davis. Davis himself openly talked about "his" offensive philosophy and how it would be integrated at Iowa. Along the way he did reveal though that core principles of KF's run game would stay intact and he would blend offensive philosophies. If you go back and read the game thread from Northern Illinois you'll see we all ignored that second part, especially when Iowa came out on its first series against the Huskies with pace and without a huddle. But flash forward to Minnesota and you will not see much pace, almost entirely gone is the no-huddle so prominently discussed by Greg Davis and even KF in the spring and in August. Today Iowa is a power running football team, which huddles up conventionally after each play, and is focused on time of possession as a key metric of success. KF even said as much yesterday in his press conference,

QUESTION. Have you guys toyed anymore ‑‑ I'm not going to get an answer here, but I'll ask it anyway -- the no huddle, hurry up. There's different tempos there. The Patriots ran, I think, 89 plays last week. Have you guys started to delve into that a little more?

COACH FERENTZ: I mean, not really, to answer the question. We're not the Patriots, and we're really not Indiana. They were up tempo [against Michigan State]. So if you get the effectiveness ‑‑ again, we don't play the way they play -- what they did in the first half was awfully good, but in the second half they didn't have the ball very much. So there's pluses and minuses to everything, but we have to be who we are.

"...but we have to be who we are."

There it is. I know it may seem like a throwaway line at the end of a long sentence, toward the end of a long press conference and to lift it up and hold it to the light might seem excessive or at least a rhetorical trick. But, to me, it is very hard not to hear that --- thinking back to the moment of departure by Ken O'Keefe --- and not envision a man who is coming to the close of a a transformation away from and now back to his truest self.

We discussed in game threads and along the way in many posts how Greg Davis's passing game was not getting it done and how Vandenberg was regressing (a criticism I have forwarded on many occasions) and all of this was an effort to talk ourselves into figuring out what was wrong with this offense, an offense we all thought would be the strength of this team. Instead, we have a defense that is carrying us and, ironically, one that plays an almost identical style of play to what we became accustomed to under Norm Parker. Are there differences with Parker the second? I would say yes, but they are minute and certainly not the kinds of differences that suggest Iowa has a NEW defensive identity, at all. Offensively though we started this season as something we apparently no longer are --- a pass first team, with tempo and pace and a running game that would feed of the success of that scheme. Who we are now? Well, I think it is cementing itself and it is this: we are a run first team that milks the clock, and will utilize play-action to burn defenses that stack the box. Sound familiar?

It might be that Kirk Ferentz and Greg Davis see the immense and very surprising talent of a walk-on running back who is statistically dominant, the improving run blocking of the offensive line, while also taking stock of the slowish development of the receivers and think it only makes sense to leverage our established strengths, and ruthlessly so. But that would seem to be ignoring the identity question. Brian Kelly might have this same problem and answer it the same way, but he might not enjoy any part of the solution and consistently resist urges to chuck it all over the yard. Kirk Ferentz, on the other hand, feels like he found his favorite jeans. Logic is part of it, but not the juicy part. Yes, the all-world tight end is not dominating. Yes, the wide receivers have had their problems holding on to the football and more recently running the right routes. Yes, when Iowa relied primarily on its passing game their QB was sacked repeatedly and even now that he is experiencing excellent protection he's completing passes at a low percentage. And, yes, they've unearthed a monster running back with quickness and vision unlike they thought they possessed on the roster. But, we saw this last year too. When Vandy shredded the Pittsburgh defense with the no-huddle it was proclaimed that this new weapon was here to stay. It stayed for one game, and not even four quarters, when Penn State overwhelmed it with excellent defensive pressure and coverage. Outside of literally a couple of more times, it was scrapped. I think it has been scrapped yet again too. I think Kirk Ferentz, the true and real Kirk Ferentz, is a zone run first, play-action pass, time-of-possession offensive coach.

Let's accept this for a moment or for at least the next game. What exactly does this mean? I think it means Iowa is going to try to win this weekend with muscle and (wait for it) superior technique and execution. It is going to try to win this game in the trenches. It is going to try to leverage its weight room training and its fortuitous find at running back and grind out first downs, make field goals, cover punts, and win a defensive battle. I think it means Iowa is going to try to do this the rest of the season, too. Sure, they'll try to get their passing game to improve. Those early season changes in route running and reading defenses and audibling in and out of passing plays at the LOS are not going to be overhauled, and to be sure Iowa is still going to use shotgun and five-wides on occasion. But, passing the ball to set up the run is not happening. Passing as a core identity is not going to be who Iowa is. Iowa is going to be a back to basics team, and that means Iowa is going back to its true identity, the identity of its leader and head coach for over a decade.

Iowa is going to be, as Kirk said yesterday, "who we are." Iowa is going to be Iowa.