IOWA CITY – Two days before his 65th birthday, Kirk Ferentz borrowed a phrase commonly used by Iowa football players he coaches to describe the next challenge of his coaching career.
“Our players always talk about leaving the jersey in a better place, and that’s my commitment to do the same thing with this program,’’ the 22nd-year Hawkeye coach said Thursday following the release of a report which said Black players within the Iowa program felt “isolated, targeted and unwelcome.’’
The independent review of the Hawkeye program conducted by the Kansas City-based law firm of Husch Blackwell echoed many of the complaints of racial disparity inside the program lodged by former Iowa players over the past two months.
It found the program’s foundation of discipline and accountability and “Iowa way’’ philosophy created an atmosphere where many Black players felt pressured to “conform to a mold that appeared to be built around the stereotype of a clean-cut, white athlete from a Midwestern background.’’
The report said that perpetuated an environment which facilitated what current and former players described as the accepted bullying and demeaning of athletes, especially Black athletes.
Husch Blackwell based its conclusions on interviews with 111 individuals, including 45 current and 29 former Iowa players and 36 current and former members of the Hawkeye football staff.
The interviews illustrated “several clear themes,’’ including a belief shared by current and former players that clears Ferentz as being at the core of Iowa’s issues.
“In sum, the program’s rules perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity,’’ the report concluded. “The program over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety and maintained a culture that allowed a small group of coaches to demean players.’’
Ferentz called that situation unacceptable and during a Thursday news conference apologized to players impacted.
“This review brings us face to face with allegations of uneven treatment, where our culture that mandated uniformity caused many Black players to feel they were unable to show up as their authentic selves,’’ Ferentz said.
“I want to apologize for the pain and frustration they felt at a time when I was trusted to help each of them become a better player and a better person.’’
The 26-page report cited numerous changes occurring within the program since the issue was first raised on social media by former Hawkeye James Daniels on June 3, viewing many as positive steps.
“The players expressed a hopefulness that these improvements will continue and result in sustained action that will improve the program,’’ the report said.
Ferentz insists that will be the case.
“This can’t become yesterday’s news,’’ Ferentz said. “It has be something we work on every day moving forward.’’
In the weeks since more than three dozen former Hawkeye players went public raising questions, Iowa football players and coaches have engaged a multiple discussions on issues raised and an advisory committee consisting of former Hawkeyes has been formed to advise Ferentz on ways to improve the culture of the program.
Team rules, including a previous ban on the use of Twitter, have been relaxed and the Football Leadership Group was expanded from 12 to 24 players to create more inclusion.
Iowa also removed the subject of the majority of complaints from players, strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Doyle, from that role and signed a separation agreement with the university.
The Iowa athletics department also named Broderick Binns as the executive director of diversity equity and inclusion.
Ferentz said Doyle was removed from this job because he believed it would have been difficult for him to perform his duties moving forward.
In retrospect, Ferentz said he likely put too much responsibility on one person in Doyle.
Tasks within the structure of Iowa’s strength and conditioning program have been delegated to multiple people now, a system designed to broaden the input players are receiving.
In addition to its report, Husch Blackwell provided Iowa with four “personnel reports’’ that include additional information on current and former employees singled out during the interview process.
Complaints from former players singled out offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and linebackers assistant Seth Wallace as well, but no additional staff changes are expected according to both Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta and Ferentz.
While not naming any names, Barta said any additional punishments for current staff members who were the subject of the personnel reports would be handled confidentially under terms of Iowa law.
He did suggest that mentoring and counseling were among options.
Kirk Ferentz said he believed in all members of his coaching staff, adding, “If there’s anybody in our program right now that’s not changed from two months ago then they’re just not paying attention.’’
Barta credited blunt discussions with former players in recent weeks and critical comments laid out in the report as beneficial in the long run.
“Getting direct and critical information, criticism, is sometimes difficult to hear,’’ Barta said. “But, we needed to hear those things, and we need to get better.’’
He said he is “grateful’’ that the former players chose to speak up and bring the issues forward, illustrating what he sees as the root of the problems being addressed.
“The ‘Iowa way’ is described by many, especially our African-American student-athletes, as the white way. … In the report is also a reiteration of Kirk’s desired definition for the Iowa way: Earn a degree, maximize football success and have fulfilling college experience,’’ Barta said.
“Clearly, there’s a disconnect between the vision Kirk has for the Iowa way and what he wants it to mean and the way it is being experienced by some of our student-athletes, and in particular our Black athletes. That’s an area where we need to focus.’’
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