Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz: Offseasons will include training about race relations
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz believes there is a healthy racial climate within his Iowa football program now, and that it is up to him to see that it persists.
“Whatever we did learn and whatever tweaks, changes, we may have made, we have to live by that now. Make sure that we are consistent in our actions,” Ferentz said at a Wednesday news conference.
“We also need to be consistent with our dialogue to make sure that if there are things that get off the tracks or something else needs to be addressed or discussed, we need to have those conversations and not wait.”
Ferentz is entering his 23rd year as the Hawkeyes’ head coach, and the previous one was marked not only by the COVID-19 pandemic but by allegations from former players that they were demeaned or treated differently based on race. A subsequent investigation by a law firm found truth in those statements, although it placed no blame on Ferentz himself. Thirteen former Hawkeyes, all Black, have filed a federal lawsuit claiming racial mistreatment denied them the opportunity to reap the full benefits of their athletic scholarships while at Iowa, naming their onetime coach as a defendant.
Ferentz said last summer that he had a “blind spot” when it came to how some of his Black players felt about their time as Hawkeyes and has pledged to change the culture to make it inclusive for all. He loosened restrictions on use of social media, relaxed a dress code, allowed his players to speak out about the need for racial justice and even let those who chose to to kneel during the playing of the national anthem this season as a demonstration of those beliefs.
He said the next phase is “to keep the dialogue going.” That means bringing in speakers to educate coaches and players about bridging the racial divide.
Ferentz said his staff has met more than once with former Hawkeye football player Broderick Binns, who is now director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the entire athletic department. One session last week went on for an hour and 45 minutes, Ferentz said. He called it “powerful.”
Ferentz said he wants Binns to make racial sensitivity training for players and coaches part of the offseason routine for the football team, much like weightlifting and skills work.
Ferentz builds top-25 recruiting class, works around ban on campus visits
Ferentz announced the completion of his 2021 recruiting class Wednesday, with two additional names: running back Deavin Hilson of Des Moines North and center Michael Myslinski of Jacksonville, Florida. That brings the total of signed Hawkeye recruits to 19, and, as always, Ferentz pronounced himself thrilled with the quality of athletes. It’s a class that ranks in the top 25 nationally (No. 23, officially, by 247Sports).
But there were challenges brought on by the investigation of racial bias and a pandemic that prevented schools from their traditional weekends of hosting prospects. For Ferentz, that meant that, whatever his coaches were telling athletes and their parents about an improving culture, they couldn’t come and see it for themselves. Instead, Ferentz found ways for the recruits to talk with current players on the phone or computer.
“The most significant thing is when they have a chance to visit with players in the program and can answer their questions and tell their stories a little bit,” Ferentz said. “Having those guys shoot them straight and tell them what's going on.”
Des Moines North's Hilson impresses with desire to earn college degree
Hilson picked up his Iowa offer despite his high school playing only two games last fall due to COVID-19. Ferentz said he first became intrigued by Hilson while watching him play basketball a year ago.
Ferentz and assistant coach Jay Niemann spoke often with Hilson’s mom, Regina Turner, and his high school coach, Eric Addy.
“The message was very consistent. It was positive. And everybody that he's been around really believes in him,” Ferentz said.
Turner, at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, was an all-state selection in football as a junior. So there was a body of work to examine. But Des Moines metro schools rarely produce players who get long looks from Division I recruiters. It wasn’t until last week that Iowa decided to offer him a scholarship, a moment that thrilled Turner, who always wanted her son to be a Hawkeye.
Hilson also impressed Ferentz with his desire to get a college degree. Early in his high school career, he let his academics slide, and that also may have kept some schools from pursuing him.
“He dug a little bit of a hole for himself. I think maybe when he figured out there were better opportunities beyond high school, that's when he really got in gear. To me, that's certainly a positive,” Ferentz said. “That's what we are looking for is that effort, that commitment to getting something done and going after a goal and achieving it. I think that's a good trait for everybody to have and regardless, it all spills over to whatever you're doing.”
Braithwaite in line to get permanent job as strength and conditioning coach
The only member of Ferentz’s staff to lose his job over the allegations of racial mistreatment was longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle. His contract was bought out by the university at a cost of $1.1 million, and he admitted no wrongdoing.
Doyle’s assistant, Raimond Braithwaite, took over on an interim basis in June and is now overseeing his first winter conditioning program for Iowa football players. Cody Myers is Braithwaite’s top assistant.
Ferentz said Wednesday it is still the intention to give Braithwaite the job on a permanent basis.
“Our players have really responded well to them,” he said. “We are looking forward to a great out-of-season and looking forward to Rai and Cody's leadership moving forward.”
Ferentz, recovered from COVID-19, is eager to get the vaccination
Ferentz went public with his COVID-19 diagnosis in December, as the Hawkeyes were preparing for a pair of football games that never happened (Michigan and Missouri both had to bow out over coronavirus outbreaks in their programs). He said Wednesday that his wife, Mary, caught COVID-19 from him. Both have recovered.
Ferentz, 65, said he will not hesitate to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as his “expiration date comes up.” He is eligible now because of his age, but there’s no urgency for him to be vaccinated since he so recently had the virus.
“I'm certainly no medical expert but all the smart people I talk to, there's no doubt in my mind … I'm going to take advantage of that and keep our fingers crossed afterwards,” Ferentz said. “I think everything any of us can do to help put a damper on this thing, it's what we should do.”
Several other Iowa coaches also contracted COVID-19 but were never publicly identified. The Hawkeyes never had to postpone or cancel a game because of issues within their program, finishing with a 6-2 record in an abbreviated Big Ten Conference season.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.