The Big Ten wrapped up its annual football media gathering Thursday morning in Chicago. I left Iowa City at 3 a.m., arrived in the Windy City at about 6:30, and spent two hours with conference coaches and players. I was able to obtain some great information that I hope will make our second magazine another good read.
A nap was the first thing on my mind when I returned home at about 2:30 this afternoon. But instead, I gathered some tidbits that I wanted to get to you guys before I signed off.
Here are some highlights from the conference. I hope you enjoy them:
TOUGH LOSS - The toughest moments here were when Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz remembered his high school coach and mentor Joe Moore, who recently passed away. I asked Kirk why he took a chance on Bob Sanders when other Division I schools thought that he was too short. Like a dummy, I was thinking that Bob also played for Coach Moore.
It triggered emotion in Kirk and he fought back tears. A little while later, another reporter, unaware of what happened to me earlier, asked Kirk to describe how Joe Moore impacted his life and what he meant to the Iowa coach. Well, that threw poor Kirk over the edge. I felt bad for him because there were other national reporters there that probably weren't sure what was going on. It took Kirk about 36 seconds before he could respond to the question. Think about that. Count to 36 right now and think about the poor guy trying to compose himself. It really gave you a sense of what Joe meant to Kirk. Once Kirk regained control of his emotions, here is what he said:
"(Moore is) just a very unique person. The guy to me is a coach's coach. He took great interest in his players. I never met a guy that was more caring, more giving than him. Obviously our relationship changed a bit when I was fortunate enough to work for him in 1980 as a graduate assistant (at Pittsburgh). He's a very demanding guy to coach with, just like he's a demanding guy to play for. But he was able to be demanding because he gave back so much. It was a result of being with him in 1980 that opened the door for me to come to Iowa in '81. He's been my mentor since that time. We had a very special friendship as well."
The description of Moore's coaching style sounds an awful lot like Kirk's approach.
NEW MEN ON CAMPUS - Ferentz said that three to eight true freshmen could see the field this season. Running backs A.J. Johnson and Albert Young were mentioned as candidates in the spring, after backup Jermelle Lewis tore his ACL. Those guys came in this summer to learn the system and still appear to be the most likely newcomers to see the field.
But it's not a given.
"First of all, those guys have to be ready to play," Ferentz said. "They have to demonstrate that they know what they're doing. If you've got a guy out there that misses a blitz...It's always nice if they know their assignments. The quarterbacks always appreciate that, especially in pass protection."
Kirk also indicated that true freshmen Drew Tate and Eric McCollum will be given an opportunity to compete for a backup role at quarterback.
"(Finding a No. 2 quarterback behind starter Nathan Chandler) is one of the bigger focuses for us right now," Ferentz said. "I'm pretty sure that Nathan is our guy. Right now, I'm not sure who our No. 2 is or would be. I think it's wide open. And I wouldn't eliminate any freshmen from that either."
Tate (6-0, 170) and McCollum (6-0, 175) have been in Iowa City for parts of this summer to work on learning the offense. Tate threw for 12,180 yards and 113 touchdowns during his prep career in Texas. McCollum was named Mr. Football in South Carolina last season.
Kirk indicated that Tate is the more polished of the two freshmen because he came from a passing offense that saw him attempt 1,576 tosses as a prep.
"(Tate) can throw the football. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but I think he's a great competitor. He's confident. That's probably one reason why we might roll him out next year. Again, that's going to be a tough task.
"What really impressed me during the recruiting process was that (Tate) didn't care who we were recruiting outside of Chris Leak. If Chris Leak was coming, he wasn't coming. He had that kind of confidence. That shows me "A" he was confident, and "B" he was smart. If Chris Leak did come, it probably wouldn't have been smart to come."
Here are Kirk's comments on some of the other freshmen:
Champ Davis: We're not quite sure what his best position is going to be, whether he's going to be a tight end, a fullback or an outside linebacker. We recruited him as an athlete. We're going to start him out at fullback and see where that leads.
James Townsend: I think that it is realistic (for him to play right away). I really do. He's a big guy. We like him. He'll have an opportunity.
George Eshareturi/Richard Kittrell: You just have to see how a younger guy stacks up against an older guy (in terms of them playing right away). In the trenches and at the quarterback position, that's where age usually shows up a little bit.
Herb Grigsby: We're thinking receiver with him right now. We recruited him as a receiver. That was our primary focus on that one. Time will tell if he's ready this year. He's not the biggest guy in the world. It's a little bit like Jovon (Johnson) last year though. Jovon, not that he's a giant now, but he was really tiny.
And finally on the freshmen: "Hopefully none of the freshmen are starting," Ferentz said. "That's the way I would want it. But if they are starting, hopefully it's because they did a good job. But if a guy can come in and be on that second or third team, you get valuable experience. The tradeoff is that you lose that fifth year."
RETURN GAME - Iowa still is searching for kick returners after losing C.J. Jones to the NFL and Lewis to injury.
"That's our biggest question with C.J. graduating," Ferentz said. "We'd love to put (running back) Fred Russell back there, but people might question my intelligence, not that they're not already doing that. That's something we're going to look hard at this camp.
Kirk still is thinking about strong safety Sanders, the fastest man on the team.
"He doesn't politic to much with me," Ferentz said. "I'm considering that real strongly. I've had a few people look at me funny on that one also. It's a fine line. I don't think you can be too conservative. You don't want to be foolish either."
Sanders is not above offering his prediction.
"I think it's going to happen," he said. "I just have this feeling that they're going to put me back there in the beginning, maybe to see what I have. I'm telling you, if they give me a chance, they put me back there one time, I'm staying back there.
"I don't care (about the injury risk). Once you get to a point to where you start worrying about getting hurt or I start to protect myself, that's how you get hurt. I'm just looking to do it. If I end up getting hurt, it was meant to happen.
Sanders arrived at Iowa weighing 180 pounds at 5-8 1/2. He ran a 4.65 40-yard dash.
He know tips the scales at 205 and runs a 4.3. He attributes it to hard work and strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle showing him how to properly run the 40.
Sanders said that he would have walked on at Iowa if the school had not offered him a scholarship.
PHYSICAL SPECIMENS - You could see the results of Doyle and his staff by looking at Sanders and left tackle Robert Gallery (6-7, 320), Iowa's player reps here on Thursday. The Hawkeyes were among the most impressive looking athletes in attendance.
In fact, Iowa could not find a suit coat to fit Sanders.
"They tried to give me one," Sanders said. "They had a bunch of them over at the (football) complex. None of them would fit. Either it fit me up here (in the chest) and the arms were too long. Or it didn't fit me (in the chest) and the arms were perfect. It was crazy."
Gallery showed up wearing a nice suit that measured 52-long. He had to have the pants specially tailored.
Gallery returned for his senior season despite having the opportunity to be a first-round NFL draft pick last April.
"I'm pretty confident in saying that he would have been," Ferentz said. "I don't think that there's any question about it. I think that there's a very strong chance right now that he'll be one of the top 5 guys in the draft next year."
STAYING PUT? - A reporter asked Ferentz if the increased scrutiny of college coaches would push him back to the NFL, where he was an assistant for six years. He interviewed with Jacksonville Jaguars in January before pulling out of the running.
"I really don't see the intense scrutiny of college coaching pushing me to the NFL," Ferentz said. "On a professional level, I really enjoy what I do. There are examples of things (going on in pro sports) that I don't miss.
"You look at a guy like (former Illinois basketball coach) Lon Kruger, who I think is a pretty good coach. Now, he's an assistant with the Knicks. He went down to save the Atlanta (Hawks) organization, and it didn't work out. My guess is that he's a pretty good coach, but there are so many variables involved.
"I like our coaching situation. I like the age of the young guys that we get to coach. I like their attitudes. On a personal level, I like the fact that my kids are being able to develop some roots. They know where they go to school. They know who their classmates are. I'm in a good place. I'm in a place where they want to have a good program and they support it."
BACK TO THE BEUTJER: Nobody received more attention for the first hour of the press conference than Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer. And most of it came from the Iowa media.
Beutjer left the Hawkeyes just before the start of the 2001 season after being involved in an altercation with then roommate and teammate Sam Aiello, an offensive lineman.
Buetjer said that he had not talked with Ferentz or Aiello since he left Iowa. Ferentz and Beutjer sat about 12 feet apart from each other here on Thursday.
A reporter asked Beutjer what he would say to the Iowa contingent here if he had the chance.
"I would congratulate them on last year and wish them good luck this season," he said.
Beutjer went on to say that he was petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility based on documents he had showing that Iowa mishandled his situation with Aiello. He did not elaborate, but said that more information on the incident would be available.
Ferentz said that he had no comment because he didn't know the contents of the documents.
"From my vantage point, this is probably a bigger story to the media than it is to anybody else," the Iowa coach said. "And I know you guys have to report on this stuff. But just like last season, that's a long time ago."
Ferentz was complimentary of Beutjer.
"I think Jon and Sam are both excellent people," he said. "That whole thing, that was probably the most unfortunate incident. To me, that's ancient history.
"The only regret that I have is that there was a splitting, a parting of the ways. That's unfortunate. The good news is that it's worked out for both parties. That's fortunate. I wasn't sure that was going to happen."
CLEARING THE AIR - One might question why Aiello is still on the team after he was involved in another off of the field incident this spring. He allegedly stuck a pool cue in someone's eye in a downtown bar.
Benny Sapp was removed from the team before last season after his first publicly known incident with police downtown. Iowa indicated that Sapp, who transferred to Northern Iowa, had been in trouble before while with the Hawkeyes.
"The only thing that I would say is, and I hope people would understand, I probably have a lot more knowledge about each an every individual player on our team than the average person might," Ferentz said. "I try to make every judgment as fair and equitable as I possibly can. Obviously, I've got to justify a decison I make to my bosses. But the only group that I'm really concerned about in terms of how they perceive things would be our players. We're not going to have good team moral if our players don't think that I handle things fairly and justly.
"I think Sam's a good person or I wouldn't have him on our football team."