IOWA CITY – They discuss it sparingly. It’s sparked on the short walk to the field before practice. It could happen on a bus ride to West Branch. It might come up on a Sunday morning breakdown of game film.
Most of the time the focus is geared toward the field, scattered with 16, 17, and 18 year-olds in helmets and shoulder pads. But in these brief moments, some of the staff, consisting of five former Iowa Hawkeyes, reminisce about the good times when they took the field as 20, 21, and 22 year olds.
“(Regina assistant coach) Jason Dumont played against Eddie George on the Ohio State Buckeyes when they had the big offensive line. My first year at Iowa was just brutal. It was brutal,” Regina head coach Marv Cook said. “And then(Regina assistant coach) Alex Kanellis was telling a story about him and Pat Angerer was trying to tackle Shonn Greene, when Shonn Greene was there as a running back. That as before he was the big strong physical running back, but Alex basically found out that day when he tried to tackle him.”
OK, maybe not the best of times, but they make for great stories to eat up time of the bus. They are stories that are being told around Iowa. Regina might be the mecca for former Iowa players coaching in the high school ranks, but around the state staffs are sprinkled with Hawkeyes.
There is longtime veteran coaches like Matt Hughes, who played in the pros and coached in college, now at Iowa City West. And there are first years coaches like Tim Hanna, almost three decades removed from wearing the black and gold now on the staff at Cedar Rapids Prairie.
No matter their journey, the GPS inside them guided them back to high school.
“We’re very competitive guys, you know. We still taking part in the sport we love,” Hughes said. “We’re probably a little too old to stills strap on the pads but we can still use our brains for something to help kids get better and just be a part of the team atmosphere.”
The Wall Street Journal called Iowa “The Harvard of Coaching” in an article last year. There are 16 former Hawkeyes at the helm of a Division-I program, tops in the country. But that doesn’t consume the countless coaches in the high school ranks, within and outside the state.
It’s more than just a trend or coincidence. It can be viewed as Iowa breeding coaches, but when talking with the offspring of the program, it’s a quality that is embedded well before playing at Kinnick Stadium.
“This is just my guess, but I think it might have something to do with who Iowa football recruits. I think with the Hayden Fry era and probably even the Kirk Ferentz era, guys who love football. They love football. The coaches know hey this guy might be undersized but, he’s going to give his absolute best. One-hundred percent effort,” Western Dubuque assistant coach and former Hawkeye Mike Elgin said.
The coaches know He’s going to do what it takes to get it done on the field. That love for football, I don’t think it’s necessarily grown. I think it’s who you are. And to bring those people into Iowa football, and for those people to go coach after, it’s just kind of the nature of the person. A Hawkeye.”
The program recruits Iowans more than any other state. It’s become a unique Hawkeye circle of life: Get recruited, play Iowa football, graduate, get into the high school coaching ranks, tutor future Hawkeyes under the skills and practices learned at Iowa.
And it’s not something that’s experienced across the country. Hughes grew up in Texas, one of the most fertile high school football plateaus in the nation. As a five-year-old he watched game film with his dad. His grandfather was a football coach. Hughes was destined to be coach, but also to be a Hawkeye.
He’s now passing those traits that were engrained in him as a toddler, onto potential Hawkeyes and coaches.
“There are so many life lessons that you’re taught in sports that you can pass on and will help you in the real world today,” Hughes said. “Things like winning and losing with class. What it takes to have character and class. You know hard work and ethics, things like that, those are things that we pass on to kids that we coach, every day. No matter if it’s 5th or 6th grade football, that I’ve coached, all the way up to coaching at the University of South Dakota, those are things that we teach our kids.”
Talking with most former Iowa football player turned coaches, they flock to the sidelines to relieve the itch that football scratched. The longer they’re on the sidelines the itch moves to a different spot. Instead of football, it’s coaching they crave. Instead of wins on the field, it’s wins off it which makes a truly successful season.
“Football is a bi-product of trying to turn young boys into young men,” Dumont said. “If you can be successful with that, you’re going to have a pretty good football team.”
And so begins the continuous circle.
“I think you play for coach Ferentz and the great coaches they have over there and you have a good experience, and I know for me, the people who impacted my life the most were all football coaches,” Kanellis said. “So when you get done and you leave a great group of coaches like that, you just want to emulate them and do what they did for you.”