Listen, Learn and Advocate: Inside the Re-Branding of the Iowa Culture

Mar 1, 2021 | Program Development

By Mike Kuchar
Co-Founder & Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs


Wednesday, June 3, 2020, is a day cemented in Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz's memory just as permanently as his wedding anniversary and the birth of his five children. This one, however, is significant in a more dubious distinction. It was two days before the first tweet that questioned racial disparities within the Iowa football program, composed by former Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels. It was when two separate, but current, Iowa football players (one senior and one first-year player) reached out to Ferentz directly to petition him in allowing them to tweet their feelings about the social unrest occurring around the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Sure, they knew about his longtime Twitter ban policy, but they didn’t care. They wanted to be heard. So, after calling a staff meeting to discuss it, Ferentz allowed players to make their statements about how they felt. Little did he know what would come next.

The allegations started to pour in. Over 60 former Iowa players spoke publicly about a football culture they say demeaned their racial identity. It resulted in the firing of former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and an ongoing lawsuit involving 13 black former players that claim they suffered racial discrimination under Coach Ferentz's watch. It rocked the longest-tenured coach at the FBS level to the core, making him completely question his purpose as a coach. “You coach 21 years thinking we had a little bit of grip on things, but you don’t,” he said. “There is always a better way to do things and always something to be learned.”

Looking back, he should have known. They all should have known. Maybe they did. There were signs. In January 2011, 13 Iowa players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, a stress-induced syndrome that can damage cells and cause kidney damage, following a strenuous squat workout led by Doyle. Offensive coordinator and Kirk’s son, Brian Ferentz admitted days before the scandal broke that they didn’t respect the Twitter platform enough and they weren’t doing enough to support the African-Americans demographic on their roster. A roster where over thirty percent is African-American, at a university where black students represent only 3.3 percent of the student body in a city that is 82.5 percent white. “If you’re a minority here in Iowa City, you can stick out,” the younger Ferentz told me. “It’s the corn belt.”

But admittedly, Iowa was mired in its hubris, wrapped up in feeling good about themselves fresh off its first 10-win season since 2015 that culminated in a 49-24 win over USC in the Holiday Bowl. “Anybody that was on the field that night would have assumed this was a healthy team with a healthy culture,” Kirk said. Yet here they were, several months later, a proud program marred under the alleged dredge of inequality. It left Ferentz feeling blind-sighted and searching for answers. So, he did what any competent coach does. In a moment of despair, he put his ego aside and re-connected with his network, personally calling 25 of his former players dating back to his inaugural season in 1999. He was only a few calls in when he got the answer he was afraid to hear. A former Hawkeye great turned NFL coach (we'll let you connect the dots) told him, "The answers are in your program. Talk to your players." It was the push he needed to begin the process of re-evaluating, re-branding, and re-committing his program's culture. Not sure of what he would encounter, he prepared his staff for the worst, sending a mass text that Saturday morning on June 6th when he said bombs were flying off. “I told them I wasn’t sure what the days ahead were going to bring here, but it’s going to be rough. Whatever the issues are, we are going to work through this.” But before his staff went to work on repairing its culture, they had to be willing to listen, unequivocally, to the concerns of their players. So, on June 8th (three days after the tweet that shocked Hawkeye nation), staff and players held a town-hall meeting once players came back to campus. It drew 100 percent attendance. Some players, including veterans, walked out, leaving Ferentz to wonder if he’d even have a job again. “It hit me smack in the face,” he said of the experience.

He decided to approach the concerns as he would preparing for game week. Once the team meeting concluded the roster got segmented into six break-out sessions to continue the dialogue. The staff was segmented in the same way and were asked to track and record information from each of those sessions where players openly admitted they didn't feel they can be themselves and shared their stories. Once the players left, the staff compiled all the feedback, threw it up on the whiteboard, and engaged in the same exercise the following day in leu of workouts. Soon, the dynamic shifted from damage control to damage repair as they began to work through these issues. Call it a watershed moment, but it was a meeting that served as the basepoint for several of the call to actions below that Iowa instituted. “We got a lot of candid feedback about how guys were feeling and what they were asking us to consider,” Ferentz told me. “What really came out of this whole thing is to re-evaluate some policies or expectations and modify those.”

This re-branding was approached on two levels- immediate and long-term. The immediate items on the table got altered quickly while the long-term modifications are continuing to be developed.

Immediate Modifications:

Repeal of Twitter Ban

Step one was lifting the Twitter ban, a policy which Coach Ferentz admitted was “one of the stupidest policies” he had in place. “My sole purpose in not having guys tweet was to keep them out of Twitter jail, that predictable sequence where someone says something emotionally and four hours later they grant an apology or statement that someone wrote for them,” he told me. “But that week made me realize that it is a fight not worth fighting right now.” Instead of spending time worrying about them getting into trouble, he decided to spend more time and energy investing in education. This reform came with a free expression for players who are permitted to tweet about what they choose, providing they understand the consequences. “We figured, why not open it up and just emphasize the educational part?” he said. “It’s the same thing we do when we have players talk to the media. We try to equip them and make sure they understand that you can’t take things back. That changed how we look at it.”

Repeal of Dress Code Policies

This newfound freedom of self-expression carried over into the physical domain as well, where Coach Ferentz lifted prior bans like wearing earrings and baseball caps in the facility. He said it was a policy instituted more in the vein of uniformity when he took over in 1999; something that he clung to far too long. “Twenty-two years ago, the earring thing was important because we had 100 guys going in 100 different directions when I got here,” he said. “I realized it’s not so critical right now. We looked at how to be welcoming so these guys feel comfortable in their own skin in the building. I wanted to make sure we work on the things that are important to this program and to this team at this point.”

While many African-Americans claimed they were targeted because of their appearance, citing a double standard in the “Iowa Way,” assistant coach Brian Ferentz credited how this one change empowered all players to be themselves. “The guys that I saw the biggest shift in how they dress or acted were white kids,” he told me. “When we reported back for camp this fall, I noticed a difference in how they presented themselves. It was more than I was used to seeing. I think it became more of a generational thing more than a racial thing.” The staff struggled with the balance of power that lied in the management of individual freedom of expression while adhering to a collective display of solidarity. “Yes, our rules were restrictive but they were done for a reason,” said Brian Ferentz. “The lines can’t get blurred between being an individual and being a good teammate. If you want to come in here and have tattoos on your face, then I’m good with that as long as you show up every day and you’re a good teammate.”

The fight against inequities went beyond racial bounds. In the past, players were publically shamed for missing class or academic meetings in front of the team. Their names would be posted right on the main bulletin board in the locker room. Gone are those declarations, and Kirk Ferentz has even gone as far as to modify the point totals that are generated in the Hawkeye championship model, the off-season program where incentives and disincentives are measured in a competitive format. “We looked at the grading scale and found we were probably being unfair in how we gave out points,” he said. “So, if a guy missed something like a meeting he might lose 500 points yet if he did an hour of community service he’d only get a 100 point incentive. We put those things more in balance with each other.” He even went as far as to adjust the rigorous strength and conditioning policies that Doyle had in place by re-classifying the bodyweight categories for skill players (QB, RB, WR, DB), semi-skill players (TE’s and LB’s), and linemen in the program, extending the margins from four to six pounds in each grouping. It opened up the margin for error in a previously tight window.

The Long-Term Modifications:

Re-Branding of the Core Values

Next came the continuous soul searching, and it started with re-evaluating the program's core values. "Smart, Physical and Tough" had been the identity of Iowa football since Kirk Ferentz took over in 1999, but did players know what those words meant? Many had no idea. “Our signage hasn’t changed since my playing days,” said Brian Ferentz who graduated in 2003. “We never defined them. It seemed everybody had their own take on it.”

So, in an attempt to streamline the messaging, the elder Ferentz began holding hour-long culture talks with his staff this off-season on re-branding those three core values. He asked each staffer to provide their definitions of each of those words. Each interpretation was put on the whiteboard for talk-throughs. "I always equated toughness to be more mental than anything else; the ability to do the right thing for the team,” said Brian Ferentz. “But not everyone on the staff felt that way. I would not have known that in the ten years in which I’ve coached here because we’ve never done it. We had to define things better and have clearer expectations of our standards. We had to tighten the message down and clearly define that.” This same exercise is being conducted with players. “Your players and making sure they understand why these things are important,” Brian said.

Diversification of Leadership Groups:

The Iowa players that spoke out continually claimed that communication is the major obstacle in the program, where players are hesitant to come forward about the problems they experience. They desired a platform where they can openly express themselves without fear of consequences. The pathway came in expanding the leadership group this summer from 14 to 22 players with the expectation that additional personalities will beget more a more eclectic dialogue. The criteria of entry were no longer seniority or experience-based. Instead, it now consisted of those players that were most vocal in those town-hall breakdown sessions.

Topic lists shifted as well, from rudimentary issues like what to wear on game day, to issues of identity, awareness, and bias. There wasn’t one complaint about how hard the team works or the expectations in practice. Instead, the focal point was more about how messages were being delivered. “It was clear that we crossed the line from being demanding to demeaning,” Kirk Ferentz said. These sessions became a continual reformation on these issues. Are they getting resolved? Are they still on-going? It was a continual process of soliciting and retaining information from a more racially diverse grouping. “If you have an environment where players don't feel like they can bring up an issue, that's a problem," he said. “It gave us a better forum for talking about the things that we heard from our players. And more importantly, it gave them ownership.”

While Iowa always had a leadership council in place for years, a newly formed Advisory Committee which consisted of 11 former players, became a soundboard for Coach Ferentz to get a better feel for how the program was perceived publically. “It encouraged me to ask more questions, better questions,” he said. “What I learned is that guys on your team were afraid to say some things. But the further guys are away from their playing days, the more candid they become. I learned things through them that were valuable and that gave me exposure to things I missed.”

The Path Forward

While Ferentz is the first to admit this culture shift is still a work in progress, he credits these initial modifications for finishing an abbreviated season with six straight wins, despite starting 0-2. “The work that we did in June set the table for us to move forward,” he said. “It enabled us to operate like a football team and focus on beating our opponent.” While the staff admitted the day-to-day grind in-season supplanted some dialogue regarding these issues, once players reconvened after semester break in January, racial inclusion was the first topic on the agenda. “If we don’t stay on top of that then what did we learn,” said Brian Ferentz. “Nothing. Before, I think our culture may have been designed to eliminate people.” Kirk Ferentz calls this past season one of the most gratifying seasons he’s had as a coach. A sentiment that would be hard to believe back in June. Yet he realizes his job of communicating and advocating is not over. It’s a continual process that he learned the hard way can’t be neglected or assumed, not for a minute. “One promise I made to our team was that, we made changes with great dialogue, but we are going to take a midterm and finals on this, too,” he said. “We are going to continue on this path of dialogue and operate in that way. I want feedback and if there is anything that we said we are going to do as a coaching staff and we are not executing it, that’s on you guys to let us know. I have to keep talking and keep asking.”

Maybe this time, they will tell him.