O'Keefe Hides from Public Eye

Iowa Offensive Coordinator Ken O'Keefe rarely meets with the press. He's a private guy that avoids the spotlight whenever possible. He came out of hiding on Monday at the team's annual media day, and he did his best to deflect any opportunity to toot his own horn. He's an interesting study. And Senior Writer Rob Howe takes a look at Iowa's man behind the curtain in this HN.com premium feature column.

You get the feeling that taking a pitchfork to the eye would rank as a more pleasant experience for Ken O'Keefe than talking about himself. Perhaps that's why Iowa Football Media Day represents the equivalent of a root canal for the Hawkeye offensive coordinator.

"Hey Coach, you ever think about becoming a head coach again?" a reporter asked during O'Keefe's session in the dentist chair on Monday.

"The only thing that I'm concerned about right now is just helping this football team get to where we need to go this season," he said sternly. "I was a head coach in high school and college for 16 years, and I can honestly say that I haven't thought about it a whole lot."

Just when O'Keefe thinks he's handled the mob, the same question is asked in other words. He waits a couple of seconds and replies:

"What's that have to do with this season? We're not interested in that. It's about us right now. It's about these (players) here. If you want to ask me about guys that I'm coaching, that's great. But the other stuff, you're just wasting your time. You keep getting the same answers."

O'Keefe's brash answers and unrelenting drive to stay on a "we" rather than "me" course rubs some journalists the wrong way. They pound their notebooks in frustration, mumbling under their breath as they walk away, "Why the heck won't this guy talk about himself?"

Well, it hasn't happened yet. And it's not likely to happen in the near future. Iowa may be able to break the rock, but there's no breaking this guy.

We in the media get two cracks at him a year – once on media day and the other at the bowl game. Other than that, he's out of the picture.

Iowa center Brian Ferentz laughs when told that O'Keefe held up his guard through another media day.

"I can't tell you what he's really like because obviously he won't share that with you guys," Ferentz said. "But he's not the stone that he appears to be with the media. There's a reason that he's a good coach. He's real personable. He has a great sense of humor, and he knows football.

"As far as with us he maybe opens up more than he does with the media. But he's a private person. That's a good way to say it. I don't think that he likes dealing with you guys very much. I don't think that's a slight on you guys, but I'm sure it's not his favorite thing to do. It's kind of like juicing a stone, I guess."

Or extracting blood from a rock…or spotting Big Foot…or getting those little rings on the pop bottles at the carnival. You get the idea.

His aversion to the media aside, O'Keefe has earned the right for respect as a football coach even if he doesn't want it out there for public consumption. In 2002, his offense set a single-season record for scoring (37.2 points per game). His 2001 posted the fifth best figure (32.6).

O'Keefe, 52, has achieved success with a new starting quarterback in each of his six seasons with the Hawkeyes. Last year, he lost his top three running backs and still managed to help the team win its second Big Ten Championship in three years.

So, coach, you must feel proud of those accomplishments.

"This is our stuff," O'Keefe said. "This is Iowa. It's what we do. Kirk has put together a great culture for our program and instilled great chemistry in our staff. It's a lot of fun to be part of it. It's exciting to work with guys with the football knowledge that they do. Everybody has input into what we do. We have a great line of communication, especially during game day, and it pays off. These guys work as hard as anybody that there is, and I feel fortunate to coach with them all."

In a nutshell – "It ain't about me."

Perhaps, the non-pat-on-the back mentality in O'Keefe was formed at an early age. His father was an iron worker and his mother waited on tables.

"I can't remember half of the stuff that I hear, but I once heard "Humility before honor,"" O'Keefe said. "That sounded like a pretty darn good thing to remember. We try to remind our guys about that an awful lot as well. There are a lot of great football teams. There are a lot of great coaches. The world is full of good things."

In other words – "I'm nothing special."

Perhaps no Iowa coach on the current staff has received more criticism than O'Keefe. From people bashing the bubble screen to armchair quarterbacks second guessing numerous play calls, media has called him out and fans have roasted him on message boards.

O'Keefe said he reads some of it, but most of the time it flies right passed him unless his daughter brings it to his attention.

"Any place that we've been since I've been a kid, the offensive coordinator is always getting the criticism," said Brian Ferentz, whose father Kirk is the Iowa head coach and longtime friend of O'Keefe.

"Everybody thinks they can call the offensive plays. Nobody calls the defenses, right? That's just natural that he takes most of the criticism, but he certainly doesn't deserve it. He has a great offensive mind. We run great schemes. We have great game plans. As far as the criticism goes, I'm sure it doesn't bother him too much. He's not the type of person that's real worried about what's being said about him. He's more concerned about making us a better football team. He's done a real good job with that."

While O'Keefe shies away from the glory, it's easy to tell from talking to those he teaches that he's a quality coach and human being.

"He doesn't want the attention," wide receiver Clinton Solomon said. "He's not flashy. He's not interested in the spotlight. He's interested in doing his job. And he doesn't want any more credit than any of the other coach's on offense or defense."

Solomon said that the offensive coordinator welcomes input from his players. It's not my way or the highway.

"He talks to you like you're a person," Solomon said. "He has his moments, but most of the time, he's calm, cool and collected. A lot of coaches like to holler, but he's calm about the situation."

Said running back Marcus Schnoor: "Coach O'Keefe is a great guy. He's just a down to earth guy that likes to sit in his offense and break down film so he can create new plays and write scripts down for practice. He's not really an outspoken guy. The few words that he does have are words of wisdom."

Adapting to the circumstances surrounding him has proven useful to O'Keefe. With the running back injuries last season, he threw out his philosophy of establishing the run to set up the pass and handed the reins to true sophomore quarterback Drew Tate. Tate received the accolades and credit. The coach was an afterthought, just as he likes it.

"The system stays what it is, and that's why guys are able to master it fairly fast," O'Keefe said. "You've seen a bunch of different quarterbacks step in and do a really nice job. It's not overly complicated. It's a pretty simple thing. You're always going to have a chance if you can take care of the football and make a few big plays. You'll have a better chance if you can run the ball."

But just as O'Keefe settles in to football talk about the team, he is asked if he ever thinks about the responsibilities associated with being a head coach, like dealing with the media. He must have been offered some opportunities to run a program with his success at Iowa.

"I don't know what I've had," O'Keefe said. "We're just concerned about what we're doing here. We want to talk about the Hawkeyes 2005. At least that's what I want to do."

Nice try. Next.

Please don't read this and create an image in your mind that O'Keefe is combative wretch. He's just a guy that refuses to talk about himself, no matter how hard you try to get him to do so.

"This is college football," O'Keefe said. "It's really about the players. And the best spokesman that we have for our program is Kirk Ferentz. That's what it's all about as far as I'm concerned. We're just working and trying to get a little bit better everyday. It's that simple, guys. I know you don't believe it. That's really what it is."

OK, coach, we give up. You win. Talk to you again at the bowl game.

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