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IOWA CITY — The hardest job Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said he’s ever had was coaching girls’ basketball at Worcester Academy.
Ferentz was fresh out of college when current Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe offered him a job coaching the offensive line and defense at a boarding school in Worcester, Mass. O’Keefe was 24 at the time, building his coaching staff when he heard about Ferentz, who had been helping with the freshman football team at UConn after graduating.
At a school like Worcester, coaches wore many hats, and O’Keefe said the selling point for Ferentz was not his ingenious football mind, but the fact he could teach English literature.
“I joke that I became functionally illiterate as soon as I started coaching,” Ferentz said in June. “But at one time, I could actually teach a class for 30 minutes.”
The added challenge to that was athletics director Tom Blackburn tasked Ferentz with the job of being the head girls’ basketball coach because there was no one else to do it.
“What did I know about girls or women? Nothing,” Ferentz said. “It was intimidating, plus I knew nothing about basketball.”
He remembered Sarah Bard, now Sarah Sullivan, the team’s point guard, was one of the best players on the team. Sullivan said she had Ferentz as not only her coach, but her academic adviser and English teacher.
“He didn't want us just hanging around after school before practice, so we had that mandatory study hall, which everybody griped about,” Sullivan said over the phone in July. “We were largely untalented, many of us very giggly. But he never let anything get in the way of his ability to coach and desire to coach and at least tried to bring out the best in all of us.”
Those mandatory study halls bonded the team, Sullivan said. His serious demeanor and belief in playing more than one sport are two things that haven’t changed.
“I remember going to him with some grand idea like, ‘I think I just want to focus on basketball.’ I played soccer and other sports, too,” Sullivan said. “He just looked at me and not in a rude way, said, ‘No, Sarah, you need to keep what you're doing, play all the sports and have a good time.’”
The funny part, looking back, is seeing how far not just Ferentz, but also the rest of the Worcester Academy football coaching staff went. Sullivan said that Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle was in high school there while she was, and actually taught her how to shoot a basketball.
Ferentz, who was there from 1978-1980, coached alongside former NFL and CFL head coach Mike Sherman, who was there from 1979-1980. O’Keefe worked there from 1978-1984. Joe Philbin, now the Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach, was a Worcester Academy player in 1980.
O’Keefe laughs thinking back, because as head coach, he was the more serious character compared to his younger colleagues on staff. Now, more than 40 years later, he said he’s studying Ted Lasso, an Emmy-award winning comedy, to add more humor to his news conference interviews.
Worcester was a fun experience for a young group of coaches who never dreamed of a career past high school football coaching. But the job was demanding, so much so that O’Keefe said he and his wife didn’t take advantage of a weekend trip to Boston, which was just an hour away from Worcester.
“We (the coaches) were in the dorms and I also helped run the dining hall,” O’Keefe said at media day in August. “I taught U.S. history to foreign students and Phys. Ed. I coached football and baseball ... we never got out of this place. We had dorm duty on weekends.”
Sherman’s English class was across the hall from Ferentz. His personality targeted him for the occasional prank, like stealing his morning lesson plan on Shakespeare.
“I’d get my lesson plan on my desk, get everything ready for the day and then I go get a cup of coffee, and then I'd come back and my stuff would be gone,” Sherman said. “I’m a first-year teacher and to have these kids who are all very, very bright, you can’t teach William Shakespeare in front of the class when you have no notes.”
Ferentz laughed in his office at the Hansen Football Performance Center this summer, thinking about what else he did to prank Sherman. One time, he and fellow teacher and coach John Bridge also stole Sherman’s keys at a home football game and forgot to give them back, going back to their dorm up the hill to crack a beer when Sherman showed up at the door.
And when it came to who was the tougher English teacher — no one has been able to confirm. Sherman noted he made his students write daily in their journals, and he collected them spontaneously every so often to hold them accountable.
“I think Kirk and I were about the same,” Sherman said. “I was an offensive line coach and offensive line coaches are usually grinders. Linebackers and defense have a little more freedom and spontaneity. I was more structured, probably, being an offensive guy.”
Ferentz said what he learned from his experience coaching girls’ basketball was that the lessons are the same no matter what you coach and, girls or boys, kids wanted someone to look up to — someone to teach them life’s lessons in addition to playing a game.
Sullivan said while these coaches seem larger than life to most people, Ferentz, to her, was just another person who goes through all the same ups and downs like everybody else.
“Fast forward to the present, I am married to a football coach,” Sullivan said. “I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for a coach's passion, you know, not only for the game, but also to nurture human beings. That’s how it was for Coach Ferentz and the Worcester Academy.”
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