By Marc Morehouse
(Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski (left) and head coach Kirk Ferentz greet defensive lineman Mitch King after King forced a fumble against Purdue on Saturday in Iowa City. Ferentz said working with this year’s Hawkeyes has been especially enjoyable.
IOWA CITY — He said it in August, before the season had any shape to it. He said it again during a three-game losing streak. He repeated it this week.
Coach Kirk Ferentz has been consistent with his proclamations of love for this year’s Hawkeyes.
“I’ve said this pretty much from Day 1, this team has really been enjoyable to work with,” Ferentz said. “That’s the thing that strikes me. The attitude’s been great, the work ethic. We’re getting great leadership from our seniors. Others, as well. But it’s just been a delightful team to work with. To me, that’s where it all starts.”
But what does that really mean? How does it manifest itself? Ferentz offered a couple examples.
The Hawkeyes spend their Friday nights before home games at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Cedar Rapids. NCAA rules allow only 70 players to make the trip. With last weekend being senior day, an underclassman volunteered to relinquish his spot to fifth-year senior offensive lineman Austin Postler. It gave all 16 seniors a chance to make the trip and see a video that was made by the class.
“That’s just how they’re thinking,” Ferentz said. “Austin hasn’t started a game here, obviously, but he’s working as hard as anyone on the team. He’s respected by everybody. Guys are thinking of each other that way.”
Ferentz declined to identify the player. So did senior guard Seth Olsen. He thought the anonymity of the gesture sort of says it all.
“It gives you the sense that no one guy is bigger than the other,” Olsen said. “I’m not going to say the guy’s name and I think maybe it’s cooler that he remains anonymous. I think that’s just one example of how each guy is important.
“When I heard about if first, it was kind of like ‘Rudy,’ people are laying their jerseys on the desk so Rudy could play. I think it’s interesting and a cool thing to think about with this team, how we’re all brothers.”
Quarterback Ricky Stanzi didn’t even know about the unselfishness until he was told by reporters.
“That’s something that just happens,” he said. “No one is expecting to get praise for it. They’re doing it because they know it’s right and they have respect for each other and the whole team. When you have things going on like that, it’s going to be enjoyable for everyone.”
Also, a little history might lead you to understand why Ferentz has enjoyed this group so much.
Look at last November at this time. That was when the Abe Satterfield and Cedric Everson rape allegations at Hillcrest Residence Hall hit the news. A very public investigation was the lead story on nearly every front page and TV newscast in the state on Nov. 14 last year.
Then, on the following Saturday, the Hawkeyes were knocked out of a sure bowl trip with a 28-19 loss to Western Michigan at Kinnick Stadium.
Last year’s off-field troubles, believe it or not, shaped this year’s team, which stands 7-4 (4-3 Big Ten) going into the regular-season finale this weekend at Minnesota (7-4, 3-4).
It was a long, painful cautionary tale of what not to do, how not to be.
“We’re policing ourselves better than we have in the past,” senior defensive tackle Matt Kroul said. “We talk more among each other with problems. When we can handle that internally, it helps (Ferentz) out greatly. It’s something he doesn’t need to be worrying about. He can worry about coaching football, that’s his job.
“I think that translates to him liking to coach this team maybe more than some of the ones in the past.”
The other example Ferentz mentioned involves senior defensive tackle Mitch King.
The last few weeks, King, one of the marquee players on this year’s team, has lobbied defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski to allow fifth-year senior defensive tackle Anton Narinskiy to start one game in his career.
Narinskiy has seen some playing time this season. He’s in the books for two tackles. Yet, he’s universally respected.
Narinskiy’s family moved to Ohio from Russia several years ago. The family had their struggles. When you’re on a team for five years, your story is shared.
Your story, and you, connect to whatever it is that makes a team.
“I don’t know if you know much about his background. I don’t know if you’d want to know some of the stuff I know,” Kroul said. “He came here when he was 8 and didn’t speak an ounce of this language. He did his own thing. Look where that kid’s at.”
Narinskiy has a master’s degree in accounting. He’s teaching a managerial accounting class at Iowa this fall. He hasn’t seen the same payoff on the football field, but his teammates know what he’s put into his spot as a reserve defensive lineman.
They know it matches what Kroul and King put into their careers.
“He’s taking his CPA to make a good amount of money in this country,” Kroul said. “He was always over 4.0 (grade-point average), like 4.1s or 4.2s. With all that, he’s been successful in athletics.
“You think you’re having a bad day, but then you look at that kid and what he’s done to raise himself and where he’s put himself and the position he’s in … It’s something that you respect. Hopefully, I can have the life he’s geared for himself.”
It’s not a monumental gesture on King’s part, but it is part of the underlying fabric.
It’s the essence of the 2008 Hawkeyes.
“That’s not for Hollywood and stuff like that,” Ferentz said. “These are guys just doing things because that’s how they feel. The camaraderie, the concern about teammates, things like that, has really been really exemplary.
“That makes it enjoyable. Those are the things you can just kind of sense when you’re around this group.”