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IOWA CITY — A year and a half after the University of Iowa Athletics Department formed an alumni advisory committee in the wake of players alleging the football program fostered a culture of racism and bullying, head coach Kirk Ferentz last week abruptly dissolved the volunteer group.
“I have come to a decision that this is an appropriate time to dissolve our committee as it stands currently,” Ferentz wrote in a Tuesday email to the 10-member group of football alumni who have worked since summer 2020 to improve the program’s culture. “As we start a new calendar year and prepare to move forward with our preparation for the 2022 season, I am giving thought to how we restructure the committee/board in a way that best serves our program moving forward.”
Ferentz’s decision to dissolve the group came after a contentious meeting Oct. 18 and after committee chair David Porter, former Hawkeye offensive lineman, suggested to the group in a chain of text message Jan. 2 that it’s time to “bring in a new head football coach, football staff, and athletic director.”
In the chain of messages, Porter said Ferentz is “loyal to a fault” and will “fall on the sword for his son and his staff because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. I disagree.”
“The only way I see to save his legacy, protect the program, help those kids, and continue to move forward at the same time is for Kirk to retire,” he wrote.
Ferentz declined The Gazette’s request for an in-person, phone or online interview. He said in an email provided by a spokesman that he decided to “evolve” the committee in November — after the contentious meeting but over a month before Porter’s message — and communicate the decision in January.
"Dave Porter did not share his sentiments with me directly,“ Ferentz said in the statement. "I was surprised and disappointed by his comment and wish him the best moving forward. His comment had no influence on the decision regarding the advisory committee.”
Ferentz also said he’s “tremendously appreciative of the time and dedication of those volunteer members who shared ideas and best practices.” And, he said, the program learned through its work with the committee that “we can be a team and celebrate players as individuals” and that “communication builds connection and understanding.”
On Friday, three days after the committee was disbanded, UI Athletics announced Ferentz signed a contract extension through the 2029 season. He'll earn $7 million annually before performance-based bonuses — $6 million of which is guaranteed. Under the contract, the UI would pay Ferentz between $42.5 and $48.5 million, depending on the month, if it were to terminate him in 2022 without cause.
Hawkeyes Athletics formed the football advisory committee shortly after current and former players began airing grievances with the program in June 2020. Their accusations of disparate and racist treatment were compelled by the national racial reckoning George Floyd’s murder sparked in the summer of 2020, and by Ferentz’s handling of kneeling during the national anthem.
In response to Ferentz’s assertions his players should either stand or kneel as a team, Chicago Bears offensive lineman James Daniels — who played at Iowa from 2015 to 2017 — said via tweet, “If the team collectively decides to kneel, this will bring about a cultural change for both Iowa football and the state of Iowa which I believe is long overdue!!!”
That kicked off a barrage of social media reaction, with at least 55 former Iowa players and one current player — most African American — sharing accusations of racist treatment and behavior.
More than 20 former players mentioned longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle or the “weight room” as a problem. In response, the program placed Doyle on administrative leave pending an investigation, and then announced a separation agreement to pay Doyle 15 months of salary, topping more than $1.1 million.
Doyle was on Ferentz's first staff in 1999 and was one of two assistant coaches to stay for the first two decades of Ferentz's tenure. And while the summer 2020 unleashed a public onslaught of pent-up player emotions, UI Athletics for years had been investigating and was aware of alleged disparities.
In July 2020, the St. Louis-based Husch Blackwell law firm interviewed 111 people — including 45 current players, 29 former players and 36 current and former employees — and in a report dinged the football program’s “Iowa Way” philosophy.
The 28-page report found program rules “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.” It also determined staff “over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety and maintained a culture that allowed a small group of coaches to demean players.”
‘Safe and protected’
The advisory committee that began meeting in summer 2020 included 10 football alumni — seven Black and three white players — plus Ferentz, who also participated, Porter told The Gazette.
Aligned behind a mission to “uphold the standard of excellence that is expected at Iowa” and help Ferentz identify opportunities to support a “culture of diversity, acceptance, and inclusion for all members of the program,” the committee began by meeting weekly and was making progress, Porter said.
Ferentz, in the statement last week, told The Gazette the committee’s work compelled him to relax some team rules, including the dress code, and to reach out to players more often.
“During the season we now dedicate time to getting to know one another much better — those individual stories are necessary to build understanding,” he said.
Addressing the issue of kneeling during the national anthem, a point of contention in 2020, Ferentz indicated his stance has changed. While most players stand, some kneel.
“Their teammates have their hand on the player’s shoulder,” Ferentz said. “This is a sign of support and understanding and a good example of respecting the individual while being a team.”
But meeting with the committee became more challenging as the football season approached, so the group started convening monthly. They’d discuss issues players brought to them, and they considered methods for handing conflict, addressing mental health needs and ensuring mentors are in place for the athletes.
As some of the program’s pillars had left — like longtime Associate Athletics Director Fred Mims — Porter said the committee aimed to ensure players had staff they could go to and a system in place for those wanting to raise concerns.
“Our overarching theme was making sure that when kids go through the program they feel safe and protected,” Porter said, noting all teenagers are intimidated to leave home for the first time. “Fear and intimidation is an issue we want to make sure we can address.”
They discussed starting a mentor program and bringing someone in from outside to talk with athletes “without fear of reprisal.”
“That’s a big deal having that,” he said, although it never happened.
But the further the program got from the 2020 complaints — even with an ongoing discrimination lawsuit 13 former players later filed — athletics staff interest began to wane, Porter said.
“For a while we were making good progress,” he said. “But as you get further away from the initial situation and issue, people tend to lose focus on why we were formed in the first place.”
Porter said he and his committee, however, remained resolute.
“That’s not how my mind works,” he said. “I’m looking at it as, ‘OK, we’re still here for this reason. And it hasn’t been done yet. It’s not all done, and isn’t all fixed.’”
On Sept. 20, 2021, Porter sent Ferentz an email in advance of their upcoming committee meeting during the Hawkeyes’ October bye week. The meeting was to involve Ferentz and 13 coaches.
“Here is the question for the coaches to answer in preparation for our meeting,” Porter wrote. “What is your role in creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive (DEI) environment and what have you done to help foster that environment?”
Ferentz, in response, provided Porter with team goals, training rules and consequences for unexcused absences, as requested. But he asked about “punting on our staff’s involvement until December?”
“These guys are pushing hard each week and the bye week will be a needed and welcome break,” Ferentz wrote amid the season. “An opportunity for our staff to be with and get reacquainted with their families is important to me, as their opportunities have been very limited since early August.”
Porter said bumping the meeting would set the wrong precedent and “sends the wrong message to the kids, parents, coaches, staff, UIFAC, and the football alumni.”
When the meeting occurred, it didn’t go as planned, Porter said. Because while some coaches produced a full response to the one question they were asked, he said, many came with no response.
Non-responses ranged from coaches suggesting they let someone else deal with it to rebuffing the need to address the issue because, “We’re all white,” Porter said.
“That’s the toughest thing for me, not having a response or not being prepared,” he said. “They had one month to answer one question that they already had the answer to.”
But the intent was never to attack the football staff, according to Porter. “Causing a shift in the way a person perceives the world, the way a person thinks, generally is not done with a sledgehammer,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you have to be somewhat delicate.”
Tensions also flared when the group discussed team rules, and committee members aired concerns about a lack of focus on education.
“Football is going to be over somehow and some day, and these kids are student athletes, they’re students first,” Porter said, adding that one of the coaches said frankly during that discussion, “College football is all about money.”
After the meeting, Porter said, the committee consensus was concern about the lack of preparation. Ferentz told Porter in a follow-up conversation his staff felt attacked and disrespected.
“They felt like we were being accusatory. I don’t know why, it didn’t happen,” Porter said. “They felt we were being disrespectful. It didn’t happen. We gave them one month to answer one question they already had the answer to, and they didn’t come prepared.”
Ferentz and Porter were supposed to reconnect about next steps after the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl game. But, Porter said, “We didn’t get the chance.”
Nine days after Porter sent his group message suggesting the best path forward was with a new head coach and athletics director, Ferentz sent his email dissolving the committee.
Porter said he doesn’t know if the two are related, but he’s concerned about the committee’s dismissal because of work left to be done.
“There is no plan,” Porter said about next steps for the committee’s mission. “He’s going to give it thought. … I wish he would have given it thought and had a plan in place before he dissolved the committee. That’s Leadership 101.”
Ferentz said he encourages former players to continue to provide feedback, but he did not provide any next steps for the committee.
“While the formal committee will no longer meet regularly, the input and direction they provide will be welcomed in our program,” Ferentz said in the statement. “Our former players help guide and support our present and our future.”
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