IOWA CITY, Iowa – During the last two decades, few folks in Iowa football have received more criticism than Ken O’Keefe. There was little mourning among the Hawkeye faithful when he left for the Miami Dolphins in 2012.
It probably played a role in him heading to South Florida as a wide receiver coach for friend and former player, Joe Philbin. Maybe he would have stayed had he heard outside praise while Iowa’s offensive coordinator. Shoot, maybe just a little appreciation would have gone a long way.
But, again, his exit was well received, for the most part. His critics felt his successor, Greg Davis, would breathe life into the attack. Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Iowa’s scoring offense ranked higher than 68th nationally just once in Davis’ five years. It was tough to watch in ’12 (111), ’16 (95) and other times in between. He oversaw four of the program’s six worst scoring offenses during the last 16 seasons.
Davis retired in January and was replaced by Brian Ferentz, head coach Kirk Ferentz’s son. He had no experience coaching quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, after four years of tutoring wide receivers in Miami, O’Keefe was moved into an off-field analyst role there when Philbin was fired after the ’15 season. He had coached quarterbacks for 13 years at Iowa.
In early January, Kirk Ferentz reached out to O’Keefe. After the Dolphins were eliminated from the playoffs, the talks advanced. O’Keefe was hired as quarterbacks coach for $540,000 annually, almost double what he was making when he left Iowa City.
The money can’t be discounted as a reason for returning. At 63, O’Keefe might not be far from retirement.
It was more than that, though. Despite the heat he took from fans, O’Keefe raised two kids in Iowa City, grew fond of the state and, believe it or not, appreciated the fans. He found a way not to take things personally.
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“It’s part of the game. Everybody is invested. We understand that. That’s what’s great about being at Iowa,” O’Keefe said during Saturday’s team media day.
He rarely, if ever, displayed animosity in public during his 13-year run. He was cordial with fans and media alike. Still, as a human, it hurt.
We all want recognition for what we do. O’Keefe understands that most everybody believes they can call a better game than the offensive coordinator. Inherently, you’re doomed.
O’Keefe instead had fun with the armchair coordinators. He said when received phone messages not-so-politely asking him to take a hike, he’d let the staff listen with him and they’d share a laugh. One time, somebody called at halftime to rip him for recruiting future Lou Groza Award winner Nate Kaeding because he missed a field goal early in his career.
“It’s comical. I’d love for the wives of some of the guys that called in and left messages to hear their husbands. We used to have a lot of fun with some of that. You can’t take it personally. We’re trying to do our absolute best, fans are invested and they want to see that as well,” he said.
I suppose that’s the temperament it takes to perform a job under the microscope of public opinion. I don’t think I could do it with half as much class.
There’s probably not much O’Keefe has’t seen or heard. His 41-year coaching career includes stops at every level. His skin is as tough as leather after dealing with everyone from high school parents to fans in the stands to media mopes like myself who have roasted him in columns.
Brian Ferentz takes over his old position with high hopes from Hawkeye Nation. It’s reminiscent to when Davis replaced O’Keefe.
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One thing the new man has going for him, in addition to pedigree, is a mentor who has been through it. It’s an interesting dynamic, to say the least.
The difference now is that O’Keefe will working much more anonymously than he did his first time through here. The vitriol will be directed at Brian Ferentz. Not that he needs it, but O’Keefe can help with that as well.
While O’Keefe was around for social media, it’s taken off during his time away. It’s opened more doors for fans to lash out.
So, does O’Keefe anticipate sitting around with Brian and chuckling at the critics? He smiles at the thought.
“Hey, we’re all big boys and we’re all invested. It’s always good to get input.”