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Monday: The Iowa Way Must Change

We learned over the weekend the Iowa Way has a deeper cultural meaning than was previously known. It’s time for that to change.

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Last Tuesday, the nation mourned the death of George Floyd in solidarity.

For the last 21 years, the Iowa Hawkeyes have been led by Kirk Ferentz. During that time, Ferentz has instilled a culture within the program. As outsiders, we see only a portion of that culture, but from our vantage point, that culture has been about hard work, putting the team first, building better men and turning under the radar recruits into NFL prospects. It’s The Iowa Way.

It’s never been The Hawkeye Way or The Iowa Football Way, always The Iowa Way. Perhaps not coincidentally because the culture of the program is a reflection of the state itself. Iowans pride themselves on their work ethic and Iowa Nice ways. The Iowa Way fit the state as much as it did the program Ferentz has built.

Over the last week, we’ve learned there’s much more to The Iowa Way, including aspects outsiders could never truly know about without voices from the inside speaking up. In a program notoriously tight-lipped — with freshmen off limits to the media and Twitter prohibited for players across the board — we only ever hear the much practiced company line when media members do get access to Hawkeye players. Even after players leave the program, it’s uncommon to hear criticism of the coaching staff and unheard of to see complaints about the culture. Any rumblings are often followed by caveats regarding playing time, off field issues, or other anecdotes that might explain away why the player speaking up may be disgruntled. There is almost never listening from the other side.

That appears to be changing. Over the weekend, a slew of former players took to social media to point out the darker side of The Iowa Way.

That started last Wednesday when former center and current Chicago Bear James Daniels responded to a tweet from The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman regarding players potentially kneeling for the national anthem this season.

The lack of details naturally provoked questions and speculation among the fanbase.

A day later, Daniels responded to the same thread with another comment that spurred plenty of conversation but had few details.

From there, a slow trickle of stories and anecdotes from former players began to come out. At first, it was largely about the culture in Iowa City and with the Iowa City Police Department.

But on Friday, the floodgates opened. Former defensive lineman Faith Ekakitie, who also had a traumatic encounter with the Iowa City Police Department during his time on campus despite no wrongdoing, provided the first real insight into some of the foreshadowed cultural issues inside the Iowa Football program.

As a fanbase, this was a shocking development. Chris Doyle and the Iowa Strength and Conditioning program has been integral in the success of Iowa Football over the last 20 years. The Hawkeyes don’t land a lot of high end high school prospects and are instead known for landing 2-star or other low-rated and lightly-recruited players who lack prototypical measurable for their position. Some guys aren’t prototypical size, others not prototypical speed, but whatever the reason, Iowa is able to land them because the competition isn’t steep. Then Doyle and his staff go to work overcoming those deficiencies and building an under-recruited athlete into an NFL prospect.

That was The Iowa Way.

It was a point of pride for Hawkeye fans. It was a cause for hope. In a state of 3 million people and two Division I football programs, Iowa is likely never going to be a landing spot for a plethora of talent. But with Doyle’s program, Iowa didn’t need to. They could simply build it.

But that process came with a cost.

Over the last 72 hours, we’ve heard stories from dozens of former Iowa players. They are not the full story, but they are stories about members of the Iowa Football staff that need to be addressed. By and large, the stories have come from players who played at Iowa over the last decade, but this is clearly not a new issue. They involve the strength and conditioning staff, but also now offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and defensive coordinator, defensive backs coach Phil Parker and assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Seth Wallace.

Terrance Pryor, LB 2008-2011

Jordan Lomax, DB 2011-2015

Maurice Fleming, DB 2012-2015

Anthony Gair, DB 2012-2016

Jaleel Johnson, DL 2012-2016

Aaron Mends, LB 2014-2017

Akrum Wadley, RB 2013-2017

Cedric Bowell, DB 2016-2017

Manny Rugamba, DB 2016-2017

DJ Johnson, DB 2018-2019

Note: These are only a portion of the players who have spoken out.

Everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s experience was different. There has been some back and forth between former players who experienced different things from different coaches. Some players had different takeaways from the same experiences. That’s life. That’s football.

If something is said or done that can be interpreted in a racist way, it shouldn’t be said or done. Period. Player after player above shared examples of instances inside the Iowa Football Complex that were unacceptable. That speaks to the broader issue at hand. Bigger than individual experiences with Chris Doyle or Brian Ferentz or Phil Parker or anyone else, there was a culture at Iowa which put players in a difficult place. Many clearly felt offended, attacked, or worse. There was no framework to address those instances in real time, and players felt they could not come forward.

There was a flaw with The Iowa Way.

As former offensive lineman Woody Orne (2009-2011) put it, this was something all players experienced. The Iowa Way was about pushing players to the limit and molding them into the model of a man the program valued. While that has sent extraordinary numbers of players to the NFL, largely under-recruited players, it also ignored the cultural differences that made those players individuals.

Beyond the cultural insensitivities, The Iowa Way also seemed to ignore the mental health and educational needs of its players.

On Sunday, former defensive lineman Jack Kallenberger, whose brother Mark is an offensive lineman in the program currently, shared his story on Twitter. Jack is a white athlete and his issues inside the program were not about race, but of demeaning treatment from a coach (who was later clarified to be assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Seth Wallace).

The issues within the program are systemic and cultural. They are bigger than the Iowa Football program, but they are there nonetheless.

Since these former players have begun to speak up, head coach Kirk Ferentz has addressed the issue three times publicly. First, on Friday, Ferentz released a statement:

On Saturday, as the stories increased in frequency and depth, Ferentz made a video address via social media, paired with a written statement. He thanked the players for speaking up and expressed regret for the situation. He also announced Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle would be placed on administrative leave effective immediately and that current players would be allowed to return to Twitter for the first time in his tenure to have their voices heard as well.

On Sunday, Ferentz hosted a Zoom call with the media to further address the issues at hand. Ferentz again thanked the players for speaking up and bringing the issues to the forefront. He announced the formation of an advocacy group which will be led by Mike Daniels and that athletic director Gary Barta will coordinate the external investigation into Chris Doyle, who released his own statement just prior to the call.

Central to Ferentz’s message is that, despite a number of the former athletes stating he is not the problem, the solution starts with him. There have been no instances reported where Kirk Ferentz was the central figure making insensitive or inappropriate comments, but the culture, The Iowa Way, was his. He began instilling that culture 21 years ago. It’s been wildly successful, but it’s clear now that it’s flawed. Now, Kirk Ferentz is vowing to change it. That starts with listening without reservation or prejudice, accepting the anecdotes with empathy and understanding rather than defensiveness.

But this issue is bigger than Chris Doyle. It’s bigger than Brian Ferentz or Phil Parker or Seth Wallace. It’s bigger than Kirk Ferentz and the University of Iowa football program. This is a cultural problem within the Hawkeye Football program, but it’s also a cultural problem in college football and our country.

It cannot be solved by Kirk Ferentz or Hawkeye Football, but it’s a great place to start. For all its pitfalls, college football is a melting pot of diversity and should be a place of acceptance. In a state that is 91% white and only 4% black, the Iowa football roster is 46% black. The coaching staff is 36% black. There are people in the program from all walks of life with all sorts of life experiences. There is no better place to listen and learn from one another than inside a football program. It’s not where it ends, but it’s where it begins.

Changing The Iowa Way starts with Kirk Ferentz.