Leadership lacking in latest mess
While Kirk Ferentz was on the road recruiting earlier this week, undoubtedly assuring young men and their families how deeply and personally he cared about them, more than 10 percent of his Iowa football team was being hospitalized with potentially serious muscle injuries and kidney conditions.
How much did Ferentz care about those 13 guys?
Not enough to return to Iowa City and see them.
In a story rife with unanswered questions, that is one of the few firm pieces of information: Ferentz kept recruiting while a rather extraordinary health scare permeated his team.
That's leadership. That's compassion. That's accountability.
According to The Sporting News, Ferentz's handling of this situation earned the Big Ten's highest-paid coach some scalding words from some players' parents when he finally showed up at the hospital.
"Kirk took a lot of [stuff]," The Sporting News reported via an unnamed source.
Ferentz and his boss, athletic director Gary Barta, have opened themselves up to a lot of (stuff). Despite interview requests from ESPN.com and other media outlets, as of Friday afternoon they still hadn't uttered the first public word of explanation or defense for whatever caused a mass outbreak of rhabdomyolysis among the Hawkeyes. "Rhabdo," as it's known in the medical community, can be caused by a number of factors, and there have been no public conclusions reached in this case.
(UPDATE: Ferentz issued a statement on the subject Friday at 5:30 ET. Roughly four hours earlier, an Iowa spokesman told ESPN.com that Ferentz was not expected to address situation with his hospitalized players until his national signing day news conference next Wednesday. His statement can be found here.)
But the common denominator for all the hospitalized Iowa players was a series of offseason workouts that seem to have bordered on barbaric. Players reportedly were ordered to do 100 squats and were timed at it. One player reportedly did them in 17 minutes.
These might not have been unprecedented workouts, but they can be characterized as extreme. According to player anecdotes on various social media sites, the coaches hit them with more than they'd previously endured when winter conditioning started last Thursday and Friday.
A family member of one player, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by the coaches against his relative, said Iowa's strength coaches not only put the players through physical hell embarking upon their winter conditioning regimen, they all but dared them to quit.
"Who really wants to be here and who doesn't," was a phrase used, according to the family member's conversations with his relative.
"Who's tough and who's not," was another.
In various media reports, outside doctors, former Iowa players and others in the strength and conditioning field have raised the question of whether the afflicted Hawkeyes in any way brought this ailment upon themselves. Speculation has centered on what the players might have done Saturday or Sunday that led to the mass hospitalization on Monday.
Among the theories that have been suggested: a weekend of partying that could exacerbate dehydration and kidney issues; ingestion of a supplement; or additional exercise such as pickup basketball games.
The players tested negative this week for illegal drugs, according to the family member I spoke to. If drinking over the weekend was a contributing factor, my response is this: Like it or not, that's normal college behavior. If it lands you in the hospital, then the workouts that preceded the drinking were abnormal.
One former player suggested to The Sporting News that the current Hawkeyes might have chosen partying over "recovering and resting like they should have been doing." If workouts in January necessitate a weekend of lying on the couch to recover, something is out of whack. Football players are expected to be exceptionally devoted to their sport, but does that really have to include inhibiting their free time in late January to recover from a workout?
Maybe if the preceding season was bad enough.
"This seems like it was clearly a punitive-type workout after a disappointing season," the family member said, adding that some of the players kept pushing themselves to avoid being labeled a quitter or soft.
Iowa was a preseason top-10 team that stumbled to an 8-5 record, including a number of close losses. That was capped by some high-profile disciplinary issues in December, including the dismissal of all-time leading receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos after his arrest on drug charges, suspension of running back Adam Robinson and the transfer of running back Jewel Hampton.
Rumors were rampant at that time about a drug problem on the Iowa team. Iowa officials disputed those rumors, though Barta did acknowledge that there were some lapses in the athletic department's drug-testing protocol and procedures.
And earlier this month, Ferentz was called to the witness stand to testify in the trial of a former player charged with second-degree sexual assault while a member of the Iowa team.
So after the disappointment of the fall and the embarrassments of December and January, a rigorous winter conditioning regimen intent on attitude adjustment seems quite conceivable. The problem comes when rigorous becomes abusive.
Football coaches have long walked a dangerously fine line between grueling physical workouts and player abuse. Pushing players to the point of sickness and exhaustion is part of the lore and mystique of the game, romanticized over the passage of time. "The Junction Boys," which chronicled Bear Bryant's merciless 1954 training camp at Texas A&M, in many ways demarks the beginning of the Bear's legend.
But the instances where that line has been crossed are troublingly numerous and occasionally fatal.
Fortunately for everyone involved in the Iowa situation, the injuries do not appear to be immediately life-threatening -- yet the players have been in the hospital all week. And consistently positive reports about their conditions might be misleading, according to the family member I spoke with.
"Some of these guys are in really bad shape," he said Thursday, relating stories of poor kidney function, significant weight gain, extremely abnormal test levels and players in lingering pain.
On Thursday, Iowa announced a 90-day investigation of the situation that will involve independent medical experts. While the school is at it, a review of Ferentz's performance seems in order as well.
You won't find many coaches with a better reputation than Ferentz among his peers and among his fans. He has been both wildly successful and wildly popular in Iowa City, compiling an 89-60 record at a school that shouldn't be able to win consistently at the highest level. The reward has been a contract extended last year through 2020 and paying him well in excess of $3 million a year.
Yet when it was time to face the public Wednesday at a news conference to explain what happened to 13 of his players, Ferentz was a no-show. So was Barta. Instead, Iowa pathetically trotted out its director of football operations, Paul Federici, a guy certainly not paid to be the face of the program in times of crisis.
That's leadership, all right. That's compassion. That's accountability.
Even if Ferentz is absolved of any responsibility in this matter, his absence and silence during a troubling week at Iowa should tell recruits and their families plenty about how much he cares for his players.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.