There are lots of descriptors that come to mind when thinking of the Kirk Ferentz era at Iowa. The Hawkeyes often pride themselves on being hard-working, blue collar and family-oriented. But when you think about Iowa football over the last 50 years, the one thing that really stands out is stability. The Hawkeyes have had just two head coaches since 1978 and Ferentz, who arrived in 1999, is the dean of college football.
But it’s not just the head coaches in Iowa City that provide stability. Since the arrival of Ferentz, the assistant coaching staff has also been remarkably stable. Over the last 9 months, that has changed more than at any other time in the Ferentz era.
The turnover began last summer with the departure of long time strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle. His 2nd in command, Raimond Braithwaite, has been serving as the interim head S&C coach since that time, but no full time replacement has been named.
Now, with the 2020 season officially in the the rearview mirror, Iowa finds itself looking to replace a pair of assistant coaches who have moved on to new roles. Former offensive line coach Tim Polasek is now the offensive coordinator at Wyoming, while former running backs coach and offensive recruiting coordinator Derrick Foster is now with the Los Angeles Chargers.
So, who will Iowa be looking to in order to replace those two openings on the coaching staff? Ferentz no doubt has a short list of candidates from his interviews the last few times he has had openings, including when he hired Foster in 2017, as well as when assistant defensive line coach Jay Neimann was hired two years ago.
Here’s a look at some potential candidates who could find themselves on that short list.
The first thing fans like to do when an opening comes up is run down the list of former players or coaches who have gone on to other destinations in the coaching ranks. It’s a logical thing to do. Iowa isn’t the easiest place to recruit talent either at the high school level or in the coaching ranks, so finding someone with some sort of a connection to the region or the school itself is a good place to start. We’ll do the same.
One of the top names that has seemed to come up every time Iowa has had an opening over the last several years is former Hawkeye AJ Blazek. Unfortunately for both parties, the timing has never quite lined up.
Blazek is a 2002 graduate of Iowa who then spent his next three years as a graduate assistant under head coach Kirk Ferentz. He’s spent the better part of the last two decades since slowly climbing the coaching ladder with one common theme: offensive line.
From 2005-2008, he was at Fort Hays State first as an offensive line coach and then as an offensive coordinator, before departing for Winona State. In 2009 he took over as offensive line coach before eventually becoming co-offensive coordinator, offensive line and tight ends coach in 2011 and 2012. In 2013 he departed for Western Illinois where he followed a similar trajectory: offensive line coach then run game coordinator.
In 2016 he took the offensive line job at Rutgers and was again promoted to assistant head coach and OL coach for 2017 and 2018 - just before Iowa was looking to hire an OL coach. In 2019, Blazek went to North Dakota State as offensive line coach and remained in that role until this offseason.
Since season’s end, he has taken two jobs. First, he was announced as offensive line coach at Wyoming, just before he accepted the same position at Vanderbilt. Would he take a third job in a matter of months? It seems unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility.
Another former Hawkeye who’s name has been thrown around as a potential candidate this time around is Mike Devlin. Devlin is ‘92 grad of Iowa who was an Outland Trophy finalist and All-American in his playing days. His time in Iowa City also overlapped briefly with Kirk Ferentz’s tenure as offensive line coach under Hayden Fry.
Devlin went on to have a 7-year NFL career before turning to coaching. He started his career as an offensive quality control coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2000 and was promoted to assistant offensive line coach in 2001.
In 2004, Devlin took on full offensive line duties at the University of Toledo, where he stayed for two seasons. Then it was back to the NFL as tight ends coach beginning in 2006. He stayed in that role until 2013, when he took over as offensive line coach, where he stayed for two seasons. Then, in 2015, he took the same role in Houston. For the last five seasons, Devlin has been the offensive line coach for the Texans.
However, he was let go this offseason and is thus available for the first time while Iowa has an opening. Whether he would be interested in heading back to the college ranks remains to be seen, but it’s a name that has been mentioned.
Perhaps a bit less talked about than Blazek or Devlin, former Hawkeye Mike Goff is relatively new to the coaching ranks. A ‘98 grad of Iowa, Goff spent more than a decade in the NFL, including making SI’s All-Pro team in 2005 with the San Diego Chargers. That career came to an end in 2009 and the following year, Goff entered coaching.
The began as a volunteer assistant at San Diego State working with the offensive line in 2010. After two seasons with the Aztecs, Goff moved on to USC, where he was an assistant offensive line coach for four seasons.
In 2019, Goff moved up to a full time assistant coaching role as offensive line coach for Western Kentucky. He’s spent the last two seasons with the Hilltoppers. According to his official profile at WKU, Goff, “helped develop WKU’s offensive line into one of the best groups in the country. PFF College ranked the Hilltoppers 20th in the FBS as an offensive line, including No. 1 in pass-blocking grade, while surrendering a pressure on only 12.7% of their pass-blocked snaps, which was the eight-lowest percentage in the nation.”
So, in short, the resume isn’t nearly as long or impressive as Blazek or Devlin, but Goff has some moderate experience and an Iowa connection. Perhaps a name to keep on the list for a future opening.
One dark horse candidate is Army assistant coach Matt Drinkall. Drinkall is a Bettendorf native who walked on at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz before suffering a career ending injury. He went on to spend three seasons as a student coach before ultimately graduating from Western Illinois. That’s where his coaching career truly began.
At WIU, Drinkall spent two seasons as tight ends coach before departing for St. Ambrose in Davenport. He would spend six seasons there, ultimately becoming offensive coordinator. In 2014, Drinkall departed for Kansas Wesleyan, where he took over as head coach. He would spend four years in the role, ultimately getting the Coyotes to the NAIA semifinals.
In 2019, Drinkall moved to become an assistant at Army. He’s been there the last two seasons assisting with right ends. Drinkall is another relative long shot, but a name to remember.
The final long shot to note is David Raih. But Raih differs from the other long shots in that he’s got loads of experience at a high level, he just doesn’t seem likely to take a demotion to return to his alma mater.
While AJ Blazek is in a similar position in that he just took a role at Vanderbilt, Raih’s situation is complicated by the fact that he’s now the offensive coordinator at a P5 school. Back in January, the former Hawkeye made his return to the college ranks after being let go by the Arizona Cardinals after two seasons as wide receivers coach.
Prior to Arizona, Raih spent five years in Green Bay coaching receivers, the perimeter and as an offensive line assistant. He got his start in the NFL in 2014 after a year at Texas Tech. The Red Raider gig was preceded by two years under Kirk Ferentz, where he was an offensive line graduate assistant.
Raih is a long shot, but would have been an excellent hire had he not accepted a role at Vanderbilt before the openings in Iowa City existed.
While fans like to dream of former Hawkeyes, and having some connection is always helpful for a program in the middle of the midwest, most of Iowa’s recent hires have had no prior experience inside the program. That’s likely due in part to the limited outside experience by the existing staff, as well as the added benefits that come with a diversity of experience.
So, who else could be an option? Let’s take a look.
Anthony Jones Jr. is candidly a shot in the dark. He has no connection to the Iowa program and seems unlikely to come north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But the same could have probably been said about Derrick Foster when he was hired.
Jones Jr. is currently the running backs coach at Memphis. In his time there, he’s coached the likes of Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard and Antonio Gibson - all in the NFL. He’s been with the Tigers just three seasons, but made the AFCA’s 35 coaches under 35 list.
Prior to joining the Memphis staff, Jones Jr. spent six seasons as a high school coach in the Memphis area. Unfortunately, that’s where he’s originally from and getting him away from the area would likely be difficult. But more money and an opportunity to boost his profile would certainly be something to think about.
In a similar vein to Jones Jr., Sean Fisher has no real connection to the Iowa program, but made the same AFCA list for coaches under 35 in 2020.
But while Jones Jr. is Memphis born and raised, Fisher has more ties to the Midwest and Big Ten country than he does Tennessee-Martin, where he’s spent the last two seasons coaching running backs, special teams and as a recruiting coordinator.
Prior to UT-Martin, Fisher spent two seasons as an offensive quality control assistant at Indiana after a season coaching cornerbacks at Davidson in 2016 and tight ends at James Madison in 2015. Before JMU, Fisher spent two seasons at Ohio State, working with special teams in 2013 and the offensive line in 2014. Before that, he was a high school QBs coach Plant, Armwood and Saint Petersburg High Schools in south Florida.
Perhaps best of all, Fisher spent his college days at Mount Union, where he was the QB on two national championship teams in 2005 and 2006. His offensive coordinator was... Matt Campbell.
Another long shot, but an interesting one to be sure.
While not on any national top coaches lists, Nic McKissic-Luke checks one box that has seemed important to coach Kirk Ferentz in recent years: he’s spent time at Northern Illinois.
McKissic-Luke is currently the running backs coach at NIU, where he’s been for just one year. He came to DeKalb under new head coach Thomas Hammock after four seasons at Youngstown State, where he coached running backs and was special teams coordinator.
Prior to YSU, McKissic-Luke spent three years as running backs coach at South Dakota State and was at Benedict College for five years in a similar role. He started his coaching career in 2011 in the first of two summers in a coaching internship with the Arizona Cardinals.
Importantly for Iowa’s recruiting trajectory, McKissic-Luke is a native of Alabama. He started his college career with the Crimson Tide before transferring to Alabama A&M, where he rushed for more than 2,000 yards.
Finally, in keeping with the trend of Northern Illinois ties, perhaps the most realistic option on this list is Thad Ward.
Ward is currently the running backs coach at Temple, where he’s been since 2019. He came to Temple by way of the University of Illinois, where Ward spent three seasons as running backs coach under Lovie Smith. Prior to joining Smith’s staff in Champaign, Ward was the receivers coach at Northern Illinois.
This is where things get interesting. Ward was at NIU from 2013-2015. During that time, current Iowa receivers coach Kelton Copeland was the running backs coach in DeKalb. Current Iowa linebackers coach Jay Niemann was also the defensive coordinator for the Huskies at that time.
Prior to his time at Northern Illinois, Ward spent a season as receivers coach at Western Michigan following a year at Gardner-Webb where he was receivers coach and passing game coordinator. That came on the heels of six seasons at Western Illinois where Ward coached running backs.
He got his coaching start at Florida A&M before spending two years coaching high school football at Tallahassee Rickards from 2003-2004.
He played at UCF, graduating in 2001 following an all-state high school career in Florida, so he should have recruiting connections like we’ve come to know and love about Copeland.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of potential candidates. In fact, it’s more likely Iowa’s two hires are not mentioned above. But speculation is an excellent way to pass the time while we wallow in a basketball loss. So, who else should be added to the above?