Howe: Willies Story Complicated, Not Uncommon

An Iowa press release Tuesday hoped to achieve the narrative that Derrick Willies left the team to be with his ailing father. While it was a factor in his decision, other issues played a role. And as usual, one of them was a lack of playing time.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Degrees vary, but there always is more to the story. And that's the case with wide receiver Derrick Willies deciding to leave the Iowa program midway through the season.

The university released a statement Tuesday morning quoting coach Kirk Ferentz saying the freshman requested a transfer to be closer to his ailing father, also Derrick Willies, who resides in Arizona. The Head Hawkeye reiterated in the opening to his press conference that afternoon it being the reason for Willies' departure.

Asked if Willies expressed displeasure in not seeing the field much this fall, Ferentz said: "Not to me, no."

So, we know that part of the story. Life trumps football. Kid wants to be with his sick father.

Had everything else added up, the story ends there. And there are plenty of cases where athletes leave a team to be with ill family members.

But, again, there are obvious signs that issues beyond the father's health played a role in Willies leaving. The most telling example was when Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, a friend, said there was more than one reason. They spoke Monday night when Willies told Beathard he was leaving.

"I think (a lack of playing time) was one of the things," Beathard said. "I guess he wasn't getting the reps that he wanted to get and that was maybe one of the reasons (Willies decided to leave). But there was a lot of stuff that went into it."

Without talking with Willies directly, it's impossible to quantify how much weight each reason factored into his decision. That certainly won't preclude people from doing so, however.

The anti-Ferentz crowd will lean towards the lack of playing time being the driving force in Willies leaving. It's plausible but not definitive. Warming the bench is the main reason players transfer but dismissing his father's poor health as a factor is rather repulsive.

Having said that, one must wonder if Willies would leave Iowa behind for good if he were seeing the field more. Ferentz said this about the father's health:

"I think he's fine.  He's got some issues that have been concerning, and my understanding is the prognosis is good."

That reads like the elder Willies is likely to recover. Perhaps his son could visit him, see if he becomes healthy and then return to the Hawkeyes.

"If he has a change of heart in the near future, that would be fine," Ferentz said.  "But I'm not counting on it.  It kind of came out of thin air (Monday) night, but we'll see how it goes.  He's a young person, and we'll certainly honor his wishes if he chooses to leave."

A couple more red flags pop up in that comment. The coach saying the player could have a change of heart intimated that the decision to leave wasn't a no-brainer even though the father his sick. Referring to Willies he's a young person, well, could mean he acted hastily.

Which brings us to person who broke the news that Willies was leaving Iowa. That would be Willies.

Monday night, on Willies Instagram, it read: "It's been real Iowa, things are just moving on to a different chapter in the story…"

While the words are open to interpretation, he doesn't come off as someone grieving for an ill parent. It sounds more like a person leaving to find a place where he's happier, almost like a gorilla has been lifted from his back.

"He didn't feel like it was right here and he wanted to move on to the next chapter in his life," Beathard said.

Junior Tevaun Smith added some fuel to the fire Tuesday by posting on his Facebook page "I wonder who's next?" Fans took that to mean he expected more transfers. In truth, it was cryptic and he could have been referring to gubernatorial race in Iowa.

When asked about the post, Smith just smiled. He could also have been trolling for a reaction from people. He did say he was not surprised that Willies left, which put him in the minority of those connected to the team informally polled about it, including Ferentz.

What's most interesting about this story is that the fan outcry over losing Willies far exceeds what he's accomplished on the field. The hype was created from a strong spring game. That he stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 200 pounds with an ability to beat his man deep added to the intrigue. Not many of those guys have come through Iowa, ever.

"I think it's a huge loss," Beathard said. "He's a good athlete, a good player. He's the type of receiver you draw up. He's huge. He can jump. Yeah, I think it's a big loss."

Critics will bark about Ferentz hurting the program by not playing Willies, one of his best options. It's a common refrain for the naysayers.

Coaches don't always play the best guys but they try to. Sometimes they just get it wrong. They're imperfect.

If the staff felt Willies gave the Hawkeyes the best chance to win this year, he would have been on the field more. Coaches don't intentionally sit their best players because of playing favorites or honoring seniority as some folks would charge. Right or wrong, their decisions are made with the best interest of the team in mind.

The hope is that Willies finds a place that makes him happy. He's got his whole life ahead of him. Academically, he carries a 3.0 GPA in Engineering so the potential stretches beyond the gridiron.

A difficult upbringing, at times, has prepared him. He moved from California to Iowa twice. He lived with a guardian his senior year of high school not with his parents.

Perhaps that made it easier for him to move on this week. While there is more to the story, some parts of it we may never know.


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