There's a father vs. son storyline, former player meeting former coach and one spurned running back
A.J. Blazek was an all-Big Ten offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes in 2000 and now is in his first year as Rutgers' offensive line coach. (Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics)
Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann will be coaching against his son’s team when the Hawkeye visit High Point Solutions Stadium. (Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics)
Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Ben Niemann (44) tackles North Dakota State Bison running back King Frazier (22) at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Iowa seniors A.J. Blazek (left) and Kyle Trippeer show their emotions after defeating Northwestern in 2000. (The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Ben Niemann (44) deflects a pass to the end zone on a 2-point conversion attempt by the North Dakota State Bison in the second half of a college football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Ben Niemann (44) tries to get some yardage after catching an interception during the second half of their college football game against the Iowa State Cyclones at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Ben Niemann hasn’t seen his new house. He doesn’t even know if he has a room in his new house.
The Iowa junior does call his parents’ home in Piscataway "our" house. Whatever happens Saturday, Iowa’s outside linebacker still will be Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann’s son.
Football does this from time to time. It takes an army of people to play football against another army of people. There are strange intersections every Saturday.
This game is visceral for the Niemanns. What in the wide world of sports does Lou Ann Niemann wear to this thing?
“You’d have to call her and discuss that,” Jay Niemann said. “We’ve discussed it. I’m totally going to leave that ball in her court. I told her, she should be all mom on this one. If that means she’s wearing Hawkeye black and gold, I’m good with it.
“Bottom line is she’ll get to see me coach more games, but she’ll only get to cheer for her sons playing college football for a limited amount of time.”
Jay’s parents — who happen to be Ben’s grandparents, you know how families work — will cheer for someone when No. 25 Iowa (2-1) travels to Rutgers (2-1) for the schools’ Big Ten opener at High Point Solutions Stadium. There also will be an aunt and uncle coming in from Texas for the game.
Ben has never been to New Jersey. The timing of Jay Niemann’s hire came just as the spring 2016 semester started. There was school and winter workouts. Of course, football coaches want to get to their place and roll up their sleeves.
So really, no, Ben doesn’t know if he has a room at his parents’ new place.
“I think so, I’m not really sure yet,” said Ben, who’s in his second year as a starter. “I have my house here and I have a storage unit with some stuff in it here, so I don’t know how it’ll all shake out honestly.”
Drill just another thread deeper and you’ll see that Jay Niemann has two sons on the Iowa football team. Nick is a true freshman linebacker who’s redshirting this season. Back in 2013, Ben committed to Northern Illinois, where Jay served as defensive coordinator.
Iowa called. And then Jay Niemann called Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. As you might imagine, it was a little uncomfortable for Ferentz.
“On one hand, it made sense for him to come here,” Ferentz said. “On the other hand, it was kind of like I was asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage in some ways, except I was stealing something.”
Spin the drill another thread. Rutgers head coach Chris Ash is from Ottumwa. He grew up an Iowa fan and was given a football signed by all-American Iowa quarterback Chuck Long as a Christmas present when he was a kid. Ash, a Drake graduate, would eventually go to work on Long’s staff during his time as head coach at San Diego State.
Keep drilling. Here’s a good one.
Rutgers' offensive line coach is A.J. Blazek. You might remember him as one of Ferentz’s first recruits. Blazek planned his visit to Iowa the weekend before Ferentz was officially named head coach in December 1998. When he made the visit, he met with Ferentz, who had yet to hire a single assistant coach.
“When he showed first up as a recruit, he had an Arizona baseball cap on,” Ferentz said. “I didn’t think that was real smart. And I’m pretty sure he had cowboy boots on, too. Like we would never look at his shoes to figure out that he’s really not 6-4, one of those deals. You’ve got to give him credit for trying. The hat I can’t explain. I continue to tease him about that.”
When Blazek arrived at Rutgers he had flashbacks to those first days at Iowa.
“It’s a carbon copy, it’s unbelievable how similar the cultures are,” Blazek said. “We spent six months this spring getting guys to buy into that culture. For us, it’s been identifying the guys who want to jump on board, who want to be coached everyday and who want to get better.”
This might not be great news for Iowa people, but Blazek has already picked out his Bob Sanders, who, you could definitely argue, single-handedly changed Iowa culture into championship level in the early 2000s.
His name is Lawrence Stevens, a backup strong safety who stands 5-8 and weighs 185. He made an impression in fall camp and has earned some special teams time.
“When we really turned — I think Kirk would tell you and I know (strength coach) Chris Doyle would, when Bob Sanders had the big hit on a kickoff return against Michigan State in 2000,” Blazek said, “that’s when it turned.
“I pulled Larry aside last week and said, ‘Hey big man, you have no idea what kind of position you’re in. This guy (Sanders) turned our program around. For me, that’s the fun part. I identify the characters. We’ve got to find a Matt Roth. We’ve got to find a Brad Banks.”
Blazek played two seasons and then stayed four more as a student assistant and a graduate assistant. Blazek helped coach Iowa O-line coach Brian Ferentz when he played O-line for the Hawkeyes. Blazek also played with Iowa tight ends coach LeVar Woods. Blazek also served as graduate assistant for Iowa D-line coach Reese Morgan.
So, yes, it’s going to be weird.
“It’s going to be really weird,” he said. “If football is a family, which it is, this is like my dad and my uncles and my brothers. Coach (Kirk) Ferentz is where the foundation of all my beliefs as an O-line coach come from. For me, this is the fun part. I get to show them I’m trying to teach it. I get to put my product out in front of them, which is fun.
“I also have Jay Niemann to go through it with, because he feels weird, too.”
Akrum Wadley doesn’t feel weird.
The Iowa running back is from Newark, N.J., about 15 minutes from Rutgers. You know where this is going. No, the previous coaching staff at Rutgers did not offer Wadley a scholarship coming out of Weequahic High School. He talked to the special teams coordinator at one point, but no offer.
Before the question could even finish ...
“Yeah, yeah, that, ” Wadley said about that fueling his fire this Saturday. “It’s going down.”
Wadley does have a long list of family and friends coming to the game. When he went to ask a few teammates for extra tickets, they were more than happy to help. He didn’t have to trade his jersey number or anything.
“It’s all love on this team,” Wadley said with a laugh. “They don’t have any family in Jersey, so why not?”
It’s all love in this game. Kind of.
In one breath, Ben Niemann says “You can’t lighten up no matter who you’re playing. You want to put the nail in the coffin.”
And then in the next, “He’s my dad at the end of the day, it’s obviously a weird situation. We’ll get through it.”