Question: What's better than hanging out talking a little football with Norm Parker and Ken O'Keefe on an early April afternoon?
Answer: Not a whole heck of a lot.
Parker, Iowa's defensive coordinator, and Hawkeye Offensive Coordinator Ken O'Keefe met with the media Tuesday afternoon in a rare treat for us scribes.
We usually get these guys on media day in August and again at the bowl game. Outside of those opportunities, it's Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and select players for the journalists, and as a result, the fans.
It's a shame. Both guys entertain exceptionally well. And it's not that they won't talk to the media, they just aren't requested much during the season. Maybe that should change. Those of you that attend Fanfest likely would agree.
After Ferentz delivered his short State of the Hawkeye Union Address to kick things off Tuesday at the Hayden Fry Football Complex, O'Keefe calmly stepped to the podium and was asked by Sports Information Director, Phil Haddy, to open with a brief statement before taking questions. Upon finishing his comprehensive rundown of the offense, O'Keefe looked over at Haddy, smiled and said, "how's that Phil?"
Fans and media (including the author of this piece) have maligned nobody more during this staff's seven plus years than they have O'Keefe. Like Brian Ferentz once said, everybody thinks they can call the right offensive plays. Nobody gets mad at the defensive calls.
However, O'Keefe has worked minor miracles with the Hawkeye offense since he got some horses. And even those horses have rarely ranked with the Ohio State and Michigan corals when they walked on campus. Who else in the country has taken teams to bowl games in years where Ramon Ochoa leads in receiving or Sam Brownlee gains your most yards on the ground?
Listening to O'Keefe on Tuesday allowed a glimpse into the secret of his success. He demands a lot of his players and expects more.
Asked how first-team quarterback Drew Tate had faired this spring, O'Keefe shocked some in the room by stating "Drew's done OK." He continued on by saying Tate needs improvement on deep routes - corners and posts - and in ball placement. The coach wanted to see an upgrade in his senior's general leadership up to the line.
Information has trickled out of spring camp saying Tate has performed brilliantly. Apparently, O'Keefe hasn't been the one releasing those reports.
Listen, believe that Tate is good, very good. Also know that O'Keefe knows his leader can be better. And the coach is going to let the media do some of his work by saying what he said here on Tuesday. O'Keefe will lean on Tate as much as he can to get results.
As for Tate's heir apparent, redshirt freshman Jake Christensen, who some already have anointed as the second-coming of Ken Stabler (My apologies for the ancient reference. I'm old), O'Keefe built his greenhorn up by saying the lefty knows the system and "survived his first week of blitz pick-up without any mental trauma." The coach then added that the toughest thing for a young QB is feeling the speed of the game and that he "had a long way to go."
O'Keefe isn't going to sugarcoat things, and as the quarterback coach, he's going to be hardest on that position. Good. It's much better having that than having someone come out and blow smoke up our behinds and those of his players.
O'Keefe also shoots straight and doesn't play favorites. He referenced a few times on Tuesday how it's about "finding the right guys to put on the bus and then getting them in the right seats." So, if an Army all-American like Trey Stross proves ready to play this season, he'll play. If somebody like Andy Brodell or Eric McCollom or Jason Manson or Kennon Christian or James Cleveland shows he is more prepared, he'll play. You can leave your stars at the door.
You left your 15 minutes with O'Keefe on Tuesday feeling enlightened as to the strengths and weakness of each player in the mix to play this season. Some examples:
• Scott Chandler catches the ball exceptionally well but still needs to improve his blocking.
• Shonne Greene needs work on his pass receiving.
• Damien Sims could use to polish is blocking skills.
• Kalvin Bailey runs and catches very well for a fullback, but has to brush up on his blocking.
• Somebody from the wide receiver position needs to emerge as a leader.
O'Keefe also clearly stated that it seems like his unit his feast or famine when it comes to experience, especially on the offensive line. "When the first unit is in there, it's OK, it looks like we're cooking with gas. When they're not in there, it's a little ugly and rough around the edges."
While O'Keefe projected a more serious, business-like approach to his portion of Tuesday's press conference, he chuckled as he left the room and Parker took center stage. Norm started out by admiring the media's fancy recording equipment sprawled out in front of him, "saying, I think I'm going to take some of these. Like they say, when you go to a wedding, it's best to come back with a better coat."
While O'Keefe lays out critical opinions, Parker tends to view things in the best light possible. That's not to say that O'Keefe is negative just that Parker projects the calming influence of a grandfather. And why not? He'll be 65 very soon.
You should definitely feel better about the linebacking and cornerback positions after listening to Norm. He poured compliments on outside man, Mike Humpal - "I'm a big fan. He's smart. He's a good athlete. He was a two-time wrestling state champ and made the state finals in the high hurdles. I think he can be outstanding, better than good." Let's go out on a limb and say that Norm knows what he's talking about when it comes to linebackers.
Charles Godfrey also received high praise from the defensive coach. After playing corner and safety his first two seasons, the true junior moves to corner full-time. "He was a jack of all trades and master of none. It's helping him to settle into one position. He's had a good spring."
Mark it down. Humpal and Godfrey will become fan favorites this year. Both are hard-nosed, athletic guys that understand the game.
While Norm ran down the list of positives, somebody broke in with a question about concerns. "The whole defense concerns me; if we're as good as we've looked. This is only practice. They could get in a game and choke. I don't think they will, though."
Parker appears as healthy as he has since the spring of 2004, shortly after which he spent months in and out of the hospital due to complications from diabetes. During that process, he lost his best friend and son, Jeff.
"I feel good," Norm said Tuesday. "I just look bad."
When he rolls out the self-deprecating humor, you know he feels good.
"I wish I was 40 again so I could do a different job," he joked.
What would that be?
"I'd be a reporter."
Yeah, there's nothing like spending a Tuesday afternoon in early April with Norm and Ken. There are Maury.
You sit. You listen. You admire.
Either one of these guys would make a great head coach. We're just lucky they like it here and have short memories.