Leistikow: How Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz will approach making two important football hires
Kirk Ferentz is a thinker, and he rarely is in a rush to make major decisions.
And the replacements of two assistant coaches, both on the offensive side of the football, qualify as two major decisions. The 23rd-year Iowa coach can’t afford to make bad hires to replace good hires Tim Polasek (a four-year offensive line coach who left to become Wyoming’s offensive coordinator) and Derrick Foster (who left to become the running backs coach, the same role he held at Iowa, with the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers).
To get a better idea of how Ferentz might proceed, I reached out to retired longtime assistant coach Reese Morgan. Try not to be too jealous, amid minus-30 wind chills here in Iowa, as Morgan shares his insight from the Phoenix area — where he’s been since early December with wife, Jo, surrounded by grandchildren, though Iowa City remains home.
The process will be meticulous and challenging for prospective coaches.
As we talk, Morgan recalls a somewhat extreme vetting process following the 2016 season, the last time Ferentz was charged with multiple on-field assistant hires.
“He wanted to make sure we got it right,” Morgan says. “… I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is rough.’”
Ferentz had three openings then, following the retirement of offensive coordinator Greg Davis and the forced departures of running backs coach Chris White and receivers coach Bobby Kennedy. Those were misfires in the hiring process (my words, not Morgan's).
So, in early 2017, Ferentz tasked assistant coaches to be part of the rigorous hiring process. They concocted their own questions and put candidates on the spot in challenging situations. Ferentz wasn’t looking to embarrass anyone, but much like in recruiting, he wanted to make sure to identify possible red flags as well as key personal traits.
“Coach is looking for someone who’s a good person,” Morgan says. “The guy’s got to love football and have a passion for people."
Though he only had three openings, Ferentz found four future coaches that stood up to that process.
The first coach Ferentz brought back was a known commodity in Ken O’Keefe. His longtime offensive coordinator would coach quarterbacks and help his son, Brian, acclimate as a first-year offensive coordinator. He also hired Polasek from North Dakota State, who brought renewed passion and intensity to the offensive line. And he brought in Kelton Copeland from Northern Illinois to coach receivers, and that’s been a home-run, transformational hire. Iowa’s receivers room went from the weak spot on the team to maybe the best it’s ever been in 3-4 years.
Another guy that interviewed well during that process? Foster, a little-known assistant coach from Samford University.
“Everybody on the staff loved him,” Morgan says. “Coach said right there, ‘If we have another opening, we’re going to hire him.’ It didn’t really matter what position. He was that strong of a candidate.”
A year later, when the NCAA approved a 10th on-field assistant, Foster was brought on board with full confidence. He would coach the running backs, and Brian Ferentz took over the tight ends.
Knowing that Kirk Ferentz found success in early 2017 with some heavy vetting, don’t be surprised if he goes back to that process this time around.
The offensive-line coach doesn’t necessarily need offensive-line experience.
That was true with Polasek, who was previously an FCS offensive coordinator. And Morgan himself coached the O-line for nine years (from 2003-11) after three years as recruiting coordinator/tight-ends coach and decades as an Iowa high school head coach.
“The technical knowledge of coaching the offensive line … is something that Coach feels that anybody who’s a good teacher or good coach can do and adjust,” Morgan says.
It’s well-known that Ferentz occupies as much practice time as possible with the offensive line. Not in a controlling way, but because that’s what he loves to do. Ferentz can be seen escaping his CEO role for a few minutes to work with tackles on their pass-blocking drops or technique. Ferentz’s knowledge of the position — that was his primary area of focus with Iowa (1981-89) and in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens — means he can make hiring a good personal fit and a good recruiter as higher priorities.
“The offensive-line position at Iowa is a revered position,” Morgan says. “You’ve got the best offensive-line coach in college and the NFL as your head coach.”
Ferentz will likely hire at least one minority candidate to fill the two openings.
“I am almost 100% sure that’ll happen,” Morgan says. “And there could be some shuffling on the staff that could happen, too.”
Given this past summer’s outside investigation into the Iowa football program found a culture that "perpetuated racial or cultural biases,” Ferentz must make sure his new hires bring diversity and fresh outlooks to his staff.
Systemic racism, particularly in the criminal-justice area, came to the forefront of a national conversation in 2020. This is a particularly important time for young men of color to have advocates and who understand what it is like to be Black in Iowa.
With Foster’s departure, three of Iowa’s remaining eight on-field assistants are Black — special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods, defensive line coach Kelvin Bell and Copeland. All three are not only terrific coaches but applauded as great mentors for 18- to 22-year-olds.
Morgan also stressed the importance of continuing the inroads Foster has helped make in the Sun Belt region. Foster was Iowa’s lead recruiter for Atlanta-area product Tyler Goodson, who picked the Hawkeyes over other major offers and became a first-team all-Big Ten running back as a true sophomore.
“We had a really strong connection in Florida and Georgia. I think Derrick really established himself (there),” Morgan says. “I would assume Coach wants to keep those connections going. Skilled players, especially running backs and receivers ... those guys are so valuable. They can make an offensive line great.”
There’s no hurry and, as Morgan mentions, there could be reshuffling of roles to find the best collective fit.
When Ferentz went about replacing Morgan, who retired in March of 2019 (but has been helping the program as a consultant — producing opponent scouting reports, for example), he didn’t announce a new hire in Jay Niemann for nearly two months.
But it would make sense to wrap this up before the start of spring practice in late March. The offensive line, in particular, is looking for two new starting tackles and has a bevy of young roster talent (13 of the 19 offensive linemen on the spring roster are classified as sophomores or younger).
Although, knowing Ferentz, he wouldn’t mind being the interim offensive line coach for a few weeks.
“He’s going to take his time,” Morgan says, “He’s as interested or more interested in the person than the position.
“He always has a plan.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.