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Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz admits ‘blind spot’ on black players’ issues, vows to improve environment
6:25 PM ET
  • Adam RittenbergESPN Senior Writer

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    • College football reporter.
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
    • Graduate of Northwestern University.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz admits he had a “blind spot” in not spotting problems that made black players feel mistreated or uncomfortable in his program, but he expects things to change moving forward.

Ferentz on Friday said Iowa’s program is on a better path following several emotion-charged team meetings, the formation of an advocacy group including 11 former Iowa players and more openness regarding communication within the program and player expression outside of it.

He announced no additional personnel changes a week after former players began speaking out about mistreatment black players faced in the program.

Strength coach Chris Doyle, who has served throughout Ferentz’s 21 years as coach, remains on paid administrative leave pending an external review. Athletic director Gary Barta is expected to provide an update of the review next week. Doyle, the focus of the former players’ criticism, is the nation’s highest-paid strength coach at $800,000 a year. He has denied any unethical behavior or bias on the basis of race.

“The biggest question to me is, why the blind spot?” Ferentz said. “And I think every person has a blind spot. I’m sure every leader has a blind spot. The former players were very forthcoming. They were very direct, and just pointed out some things that perhaps gave me a new awareness. And I think Monday’s meeting, Tuesday’s meeting followed up with that light. So the key here is to try to create an environment where everybody feels free to talk and say their mind, and know it’s going to be weighed and valued and measured.”

Ferentz deferred commenting on Doyle, citing the external review, but said keeping Doyle in the weight room, given the scope of the allegations, “just wasn’t a workable environment.” After meeting Monday and Tuesday, Iowa players began voluntary workouts Wednesday with assistant strength and conditioning coach Raimond Braithwaite.

Ferentz didn’t address any specific allegations from former players or their parents but apologized for an environment where “the coaching style by some was at times demeaning, and created unnecessary frustration and anxiety.”

“If you have an environment where players don’t feel like they can bring up an issue, that’s a problem,” he said. “I feel like I let those players down by not creating that environment where they did feel comfortable and sharing more about their experiences, bringing that to our attention, while they were here. Our coaches feel the same way, and we’re committed to making sure that never happens again.”

Running back Ivory Kelly-Martin said communication is the major obstacle in the program, where players are hesitant to come forward about problems they see or experience.

“There was this feeling where you have to walk on eggshells,” Kelly-Martin said, “where you couldn’t really be yourself or when you heard something, you couldn’t really say it because maybe you’ll get attacked, too.”

Ferentz called his longtime policy prohibiting players from social media “stupid” but said he did it to protect players. On Monday, defensive back Kaevon Merriweather tweeted that fans need to support the team if it chooses to kneel during the national anthem before games this season. Ferentz, who previously opposed kneeling for the anthem, said players may decide to stand or kneel, as long as they do so together.

“The statement was really for the Iowa community, to let y’all know that our team, we are together as one and we expect our fans to be there with us every step of the way,” Merriweather said Friday. “We want you to support any decision this team has made. We haven’t decided on kneeling or not. But any step we do decide to make as team, we want your support, backing us every step of the way.”

Place-kicker Keith Duncan said he doesn’t blame Ferentz for missing problems that affected past players, saying that players see more than coaches and need to be willing to come forward. Duncan, a fifth-year senior, said he has never been part of a more unified team than the current one following the meetings this week.

“I would not want any other coaches to be here right now,” Duncan said “We came here believing in Coach Ferentz, believing in our other position coaches and we still do. … There has never been a trust issue. It’s just partially communication. But I trust 100 percent every single coach in our building.”

While Iowa focuses on moving forward, a group of parents of former players is planning to speak out about problems within the program, especially for black players. Sharonda Phelps, mother of former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley, spoke out earlier this week on Facebook Live about her frustrations with Ferentz and the Iowa coaching staff. Phelps and other parents are working with Pre-PostGame, a sports advisory firm, to discuss their experiences.

Pre-PostGame’s Robert T. Green said the parents want to speak out after Ferentz said he didn’t know about issues black players experienced at Iowa.

“This is not a one-person thing, a two-person thing or a three-person thing,” Green told ESPN on Friday. “There are several receipts and time stamps that will say everything [Ferentz] said to the world is not factual. Some of the things that will come out soon, it only applied to African-American athletes.”

Ferentz on Friday said he didn’t apologize to former players he has talked with over the past week, but accepts blame for any who had negative experiences at Iowa.

“I’m responsible for anything that happens here,” he said. “That’s my accountability, that’s my responsibility, I’m the head coach. So anything that happens is a failure. That’s on my desk. That’s my issue to deal with.

“I can’t do anything about what’s happened. What I can do is try to do a better job moving forward.”

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