Howe: Fernetz Continues Proactive Approach

With a year's worth of off the field issues still haunting his team, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes opened spring practice on Tuesday looking to emerge from the dark cloud. Ferentz discussed hiring a life skills mentor to improve education on his squad. Columnist Rob Howe weighs in on the idea and looks for a sign that the troubles might be coming to an end.

A dark cloud still hovered over the Iowa Football Complex on Tuesday as spring practice got under way. A calendar year's worth of off of the field missteps by Hawkeye players once again was addressed as Coach Kirk Ferentz met the media to essentially kick off the 2008 season.

Hard news reporters that normally wouldn't cross the street to attend a football press conference showed up as they did in January to grill the coach. Only this time, the questions were less combative, and much less time was spent on the transgressions than one might have guessed based on the last media meeting with the coach.

Ferentz repeated much of what was already said after each of the other embarrassing acts. There really wasn't much more to say. They've continued to increase their education of the athletes and have been proactive in attempting to fix the problems.

Ferentz tossed off of the team Arvell Nelson and James Cleveland after they were arrested on drug possession last month. He conceded that the punishment scale for certain behavior has intensified. He really stressed his disappointment in repeat offenders, such as the two players mentioned above.

"The conclusion I came to in February, is if you're dealing with repeat circumstances, that's hard to understand," Ferentz said. "To me, it's either a problem, or they just don't' care.

"We've had players that have had problems. We haven't had a lot, but we've had them. They've worked hard to address them. The guys that have conquered problems have wanted to get it done. The other aspect is that it might be a guy just doesn't care enough, or he doesn't get it. Either of those two scenarios isn't good, it's hard to work with guys that don't get it or don't care enough. It's the same thing as a football player. If it's not important enough to you, it's going to be hard to be good."

Ferentz cut off at the pass much of the potential media questions surrounding mistakes made off of the field Tuesday by waving goodbye to Nelson and Cleveland. The main press conference focused a lot on football.

Now, in the press conference after the press conference – AKA On The Side – journalists inquired more about the poor behavior. Refreshingly it focused a lot on the ideas being tossed around within the staff and with AD Gary Barta on how they can better educate the athletes.

Ferentz talked extensively on Tuesday about creating a staff position for someone to mentor players. This would not be a chaperone that would accompany athletes when downtown, but rather a person meeting with players one-on-one to discuss issues away from football.

The mentor also would organize educational seminars for the team, especially groups of younger players. The program does this during camp and other times, but this would be more of a year round endeavor.

It's smart, not foolproof, but smart.

I know I probably sound like my father (and some of yours) but in this ever-changing, complicated society, why not invest in helping these guys make the right decisions? You have academic advisors, why not a social one?

Ferentz said that they have folks on NFL staffs that perform these tasks. While college players don't enjoy as much free time as their pro counterparts, they certainly, in many cases, aren't quite as mature or have they been away from home before.

Many of these guys come from much different environments than they find in Iowa City. Coming here from Detroit, Houston or Miami is a lot different than moving from Dubuque, Des Moines or Decorah.

As Ferentz said, nothing excuses behavior like alleged drug possession, theft or assault. It might have been too much for any life counselor to get through to the Facebook Four. But maybe he or she could have redirected one or two of them.

Ferentz also shared the responsibility for the legal woes with his players. While the leadership council did a better job in 2007 than a year earlier in promoting a strong on-field work ethic, improvement was needed in off of the field support.

"Guys have to look out for each other," Ferentz said. "If you see somebody's going to do something stupid, somebody's got to be not afraid to step in and say, "That's not right, that's not going to cut it." That's part of accountability."

I've heard stories through the years of meetings where a player or a group of players make it perfectly clear to another player veering off track that he needs to straighten up. If not, there would be consequences. That happened when the Hawkeyes went a series of off of the field issues in 2001.

"We reestablished the culture the way we wanted it to. It turned somewhere in the summer of 2002," Ferentz said. "I think it's probably fair to say we're in a similar circumstance. At some given point, the culture has to change. At some given point, I hope we can look back and say the line of demarcation is here. I hope we're looking backward, not forward. If it doesn't, we're not going to be successful. It's not going to be acceptable."

The demarcation line to which Ferentz referred was the removal of Benny Sapp in summer camp of ‘02. The starting cornerback pushed the envelope through his time at Iowa and finally went over the edge with a publicized downtown arrest.

I remember speaking with Benny at his Pheasant Ridge apartment the day he was booted. There was a look of fear and disbelief in his eyes that this was happening. The party was over.

Sapp pleaded with Ferentz and then AD Bob Bowlsby to reinstate him. They denied the requests and he finished up his college career at Northern Iowa. He recently signed with the Minnesota Vikings after three seasons in Kansas City.

The incident also shocked his former Iowa teammates, who were tight with Sapp. If he could get run out of town, they needed to watch their step. And they did. Iowa went on to three straight Top 10 finishes beginning in '02.

I'm not ready to sit here and predict that type of run complete with a BCS bid this fall, but I got the sense on Tuesday that the dark cloud was lifting. If the Nelson-Cleveland incident can be the Sapp final straw of '08, it can do nothing but improve the Hawkeyes' chances on the field this fall.

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