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Just how far will nepotism take Brian Ferentz?

Questions beyond the playing field now surround Iowa’s fourth-year offensive coordinator

Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

There is no football program in America more insular than the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Kirk Ferentz, a head coach for 21 years at the school, is the longest-tenured coach at the FBS level and amassed enough political capital to do just about anything, and has done so in order to create a culture of continuity.

His son, Brian, is Iowa’s offensive coordinator. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker, quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe, and the now-departed strength & conditioning coordinator Chris Doyle all came to Iowa CIty with Ferentz in 1999 and have been around each other long enough to call themselves brothers.

Ferentz has recently come under fire as a result of the “serious racial bias” in the program which has largely centered around Doyle. An independent investigation, led by Kansas City law firm Husch Blackwell, is examining the program’s culture.

While Doyle bore the brunt of these allegations, Brian Ferentz has been named too many times to overlook, and his rise to power speaks to what Kirk has created. His relation to the head coach enabled him to be hired with minimum credentials to both roles he’s taken at Iowa — offensive line coach in 2012 and offensive coordinator in 2017. Without the relation, where would Brian Ferentz be?

Documents obtained by SBNation reveal a previously unreported 2006 DUI, which highlights the genesis of his career — his lauded time with the New England Patriots — as not one of Brian’s aptitude but his father’s connections.

When Kirk accepted the Iowa job in 1999, Brian was a high school junior. He later joined the Hawkeye football team in 2001 and had a career marred by injuries, including a staph infection. He was a good enough player— he started his senior year — but off the field was a different story.

Brian was among many scholarship Hawkeyes who received subsidized housing despite having scholarship money cover the costs. According to Iowa court records, he accumulated seven tickets* between 2000 and 2005. None of them are particularly damning but certainly indicative of someone who did not adjust his actions based on the consequences of them.

(Ed. note: these are not parking tickets but traffic violations like unlawful passing of a school bus)

It culminated in a DUI while on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad during the fall of 2006. Documents obtained by SBNation from the Gwinnett County Sheriff confirm Brian Ferentz was charged with a misdemeanor DUI. After being pulled over for failure to maintain lane, Ferentz blew twice Georgia’s legal limit. He was later found guilty of the DUI in September 2007 according to the Gwinnett County court database. In a document relating to the 2007 arraignment, he listed his employer as the Atlanta Falcons despite “fizzling out” with the New Orleans Saints earlier that summer.

His playing career was over.

Back in Iowa City, Kirk Ferentz was managing his first round of culture issues.

City Boyz, Inc. happened just before the 2007 season. Each of Dominique Douglas, Arvell Nelson, and Anthony Bowman were arrested for a string of crimes, suspended from the team, and eventually dismissed.

Yet the most heinous act was Iowa’s handling of the alleged sexual assault by two football players of a female student-athlete in October 2007. Patrick Vint of Go Iowa Awesome detailed the organizational response in “The Chronicles of Gary Barta:”

[A] letter from the victim’s mother to the UI on November 19, 2007, detailed the following allegations: The day after the alleged assault, UI assistant athletic director Fred Mims met with the victim and her father. Also in attendance for meetings with the victim and her father that morning were Gary Barta, Kirk Ferentz, the victim’s coach and other UI Athletics staff. The victim was told that she could opt for criminal (i.e. call the police), ”formal” (i.e. a Title IX investigation), or “informal” (i.e. internal athletic department) action, and that UI Athletics would act “swiftly and effectively” to remedy the issue in the event she chose the informal process. The victim’s mother indicated that the victim was “really encouraged to try the informal route first.”

Kirk’s lack of patience at the time is evidenced by his response to the alcohol-related arrest of his second son, James, in the fall of 2008:

I was extremely disappointed to learn of James’ very poor decision making on several levels. This offense will be treated seriously and his punishment will include immediate and total suspension from all team activities. In addition, he will be required to attend counseling sessions and fulfill substantial community service obligations over the next six weekends. I realize this is a severe penalty but it’s just given our current circumstances. The fact that James is also my son only complicates an already tough situation.

Ferentz’s political capital was at an all-time low, especially with three straight years (2005-07) of on-field mediocrity culminating in a 19-18 record. Now was not the time to risk any remaining bit of goodwill to bring Brian onto the staff as a grad assistant, the normal pipeline for young coaches under Ferentz, and risk a University background check raising the DUI flag.

So Kirk did what he had to do. He set Brian up with a job outside of a crumbling Iowa infrastructure which allowed the timing on the DUI to lapse amid good behavior. (For reference, Broderick Binns had a DUI in 2010 but was hired as a GA in 2014.)

In a blog, Brian describes a call from Scott Pioli, then the Patriots’ head of personnel as the start of his new career. “I figured he was a guy who knew a lot about evaluating talent, and if he was offering me a job in scouting, then my playing days might be numbered,” Ferentz said.

The plan worked. Brian progressed with the Patriots from scouting assistant in 2008 to, eventually, tight end coach - a group which included Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. After the 2011 NFL season, which ended in another New England Super Bowl, Brian’s coaching resume - 1 year as assistant TE and 1 as TE - had exceeded the bare minimum of past assistant coach hires by Kirk.

There were early hints that year of his eye looking towards Iowa, telling The Gazette, “I get to do a lot of great things, be in the big arenas. But I’ll be chasing the feeling I had here the rest of my life.”

The timing of Iowa’s post-2011 staff changes was executed only to get Brian onboard. A recent Kevonte Martin-Manley tweet detailed the unfair shake of then-wide receivers coach Erik Campbell, reigniting the debate.

Ken O’Keefe departed on February 3rd after several top coordinators were hired. Kirk Ferentz was never going to hire any of the risers in 2012 — Matt Canada, Tom Herman, and Kliff Kingsbury — or even promote from within to grant someone like Campbell free reign to hire as he saw fit. Instead, Kirk hired Brian two weeks after New England’s season ended in the Super Bowl.

It wasn’t until February 27th, a month before spring practice began, that Greg Davis was hired to lead Iowa’s offense to conclude hiring.

This is how nepotism works and the wheels were put in motion for what Iowa is faced with today.

Brian’s time as offensive line coach was somewhere between okay and good, if largely unremarkable. He turned down an NFL offer in 2014. Ahead of 2015, he was made run game coordinator and Iowa showed a more diverse array of running plays in their 12-0 regular season. The offensive line won the Joe Moore Award in 2016 when LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley both exceeded 1,000 yards on the season. Three linemen were drafted over his five years at the position, down from an average of one per year the prior 13.

Greg Davis retired at the conclusion of the 2016 season.

In another nepotistic move, Brian was quickly named offensive coordinator with little outside consideration. His resume, in terms of length and accolades, is below all other coordinator hires Kirk has made.

There’s a case to be made the backfill to Brian as OL coach, Tim Polasek, was more qualified than Ferentz. He had 14 years prior coaching experience including 5 as offensive coordinator. He was part of multiple FCS national championship teams. Closer to home, his NDSU offense bludgeoned Iowa’s defense in 2016 to the tune of 239 yards on 4.9 yards/carry. (Iowa had 34 on 1.4 in the 23-21 NDSU upset)

Ferentz’s tenure as offensive coordinator has been largely mediocre. By points and yards he is neither better nor worse than either of his predecessors. Iowa’s winning percentage is up to 69% with Brian as OC; they were 60% under Davis. Conference win percentage is down marginally to 56% from 60%.

Yet his behavior has been highly unusual and out of line with past coordinators.

In 2017, Brian had a rare press box blow-up at the replay official during halftime of a game against Minnesota. He faced no consequences since Gary Barta, his direct supervisor, trusted the younger Ferentz “got it.”

The rhetoric was fine and dandy but the end result? Brian returned to the field where poor behavior is more easily contained.

And yet the behavior hasn’t changed. Brian has gotten no less than two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the sideline. It’s more than I can remember from any assistant coach in the black and gold. How would Kirk Ferentz treat a player who cost his teammates 15 yards, let alone 30, for something completely controllable?

With little staff turnover since the 2017 hires, Iowa’s continuity was spun as a positive on the recruiting trail, spearheaded by Iowa’s director of recruiting and Kirk’s son-in-law, Tyler Barnes. Instead, it had the opposite effect as Doyle became entrenched and apparently above reproach. The Doyle-centric culture enabled Brian to cater to his less professional tendencies.

Accusations of Doyle’s behavior — crossing the line from demanding into demeaning, often across racial lines — led to his separation. Those levied against Brian have not faced similar scrutiny.

Akrum Wadley’s mom, Sharonda Phelps, detailed incidents where Brian, then running backs coach, made untoward comments about robbing a store:

Phelps later mentioned Kirk brushed off these concerns when brought to him. She recorded a Facebook video with additional accusations about how Ferentz unnecessarily spoke ill of Wadley to teammates and NFL teams.

Cedric Boswell mentioned a time Ferentz belittled him after Boswell got a tattoo in tribute to his city.

What has been uncovered puts Noah Fant’s limited playing time during the biggest moments of the 2018 season in a different light as well.

By naming Brian as the positional coaches of both Wadley and Fant, Kirk Ferentz was enabling a punitive environment against them.

So what is there to make of Brian Ferentz’s coaching career? His first stop was one borne of the Ferentz-Belichick-Pioli ‘95 Browns connection. He was hired onto Iowa at a time which pigeonholed the staff and has seen himself promoted through attrition with limited on-field success.

Brian’s behavior reads, at minimum, like a guy with a sophomoric sense of humor who thinks it’s okay to bully his subordinates. He’s added to an environment where his colleagues do not feel enabled to raise player concerns. He has displayed rare outbursts beyond reproach. In his near-twenty years around high-level football, he’s chosen Chris Doyle as his emotional role model, whose tactics have had him separated from Iowa.

His toxicity, even if it is unconscious, has negatively impacted those around him. Yet he has continually skirted consequences because his boss is his father who enabled his behavior and career.

Ahead of the independent investigation concluding, it’s worth wondering: will Kirk have to cover again for his son’s inadequacies?