Leadership Lessons From Kirk Ferentz

It was the cold, blustery winter of 2014.

We just got handled by Tennessee in our bowl game and the University of Iowa football season came skidding to a disappointing 7-6 finish. It felt like every big game we needed to win, we didn’t. The future was bleak. Our mindset as a Hawkeye community was poor (my version of speaking for every Hawkeye fan).

Words I’d use to label our 2014 play were: boring, slow, close to the vest, predictable, tight and unimaginative. Not fun words when describing your football team (or anything in life for that matter).

Coming into this year, I looked at our schedule and said, we’re maybe…8-4. Even the national pundits would tell you this isn’t a GREAT year for Iowa football looking at our schedule (no matter how you want to argue it now).

I thought this was it for Captain Kirk. Goodbye Kirk Ferentz…we’ve had fun.

I loved this guy, but we’d gotten stale. My support was wearing thin. This past August, in my mind, it was likely time for a last straw…or resort to a change in leadership. Little did I know, it wouldn’t be a new face in Iowa City. Instead, it would be a rebirth of a terrific career.

Some will argue the change came from desperation. Others will say it is the result of wise leadership. I could argue both, but does it really matter? Action happened. That’s the key. It is ALWAYS the key. Take action. History is marked and defined with leadership and victory being molded in times of desperation.

Below is a list of life lessons I’ve learned from Kirk’s experience and the 2015 season that I’ll never forget.

  1. Ruthless Self Audit: After the underwhelming 2014 season, the Captain sat down with his staff in January 2015 and got brutally honest.  They spent time specifically outlining what they were, what they were not, and where they needed to go. All facets of their team (insert business for correlation) were evaluated for any angle for improvements. Looking in the mirror isn’t easy. No one says it will be. However, looking in the mirror and being honest is 100% necessary.
  2. See What’s in Front of You: In January, the staff named C.J. Beathard the starting QB for the upcoming 2015 season. Bouncing the two-year starter Jake Rudock. One of the first words you could use to describe coach Ferentz is “loyal”, but this move had to be made and he knew it. The offense is more explosive. C.J. can drive the ball down the field and the team needed a jolt of energy. He got it.
  3. Never Forget What Got You There: I’ve had friends argue nothing changed. To an extent they’re right. We still run the ball first. We play sound defense. We’re a team first, not “me” first unit. It’s who we’ve always been including trips to two Orange Bowls, wins against: LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia Tech. But I think this is really key. We didn’t change everything. We made minor adjustments and tweaks to “better” the process.
  4. Don’t be Afraid to Dream Big: Coming off a 7-6 season the thought wasn’t simply to “get better”, although that is a common theme of the program and my blog. They wanted more. They were wiling to earn more as a unit and did so by thinking big. (Side note – I would’ve never guessed they would be sitting at 10-0, but who the hell did?)
  5. Common Thread: The entire team read and took ownership of the principles in the book, The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success and Happiness I encourage you to read it. Two things stand out to me between this year and last. Mind you, I’m not an analyst, but play along. Number one: explosive plays. Last year, we were last or near the bottom of the B1G Conference. This year, we’re at the top. Number two: turnovers. Always turnovers. This year, we’re taking the ball away. While last year, we were giving it away like candy on Halloween.
  6. Listen to the Troops: The kids (I call 20-year-old, 250 lb. ripped athletes) wanted to try an alternative uniform. Something sexy.  Something bold. Two things you wouldn’t find in the list of “top 20 words to describe Kirk Ferentz”. But the staff spoke up. They asked the coach to get out of his comfort zone. Last weekend, we experienced the new “Blackout” uniforms. P.S. – I thought they were average at best, and if I would’ve been invited to the design meeting we would’ve really crushed it with the good folks at Nike. Maybe next time. No charge!

If these things don’t speak to change, I don’t know what does.

I once read a story about one of the best facial plastic surgeons in the world.

What do you think of when you think of facial plastics? Peeling someone’s face off? Me too! Yikes. However, this doctor would do no more than 6-8 “minor” adjustments and would only move facial tissue mere millimeters to “unlock the beauty” the patient was seeking. The result from all of his patients post-surgery is a resounding “turn back the clock” feeling of 10+ years. How is this possible? Shouldn’t my face be frozen?

The key to this surgeon’s success isn’t radical reconstruction. He won’t do that and has never believed in it. The key is making minor tweaks, but making them flawlessly.

I’m sorry for thinking it was the end coach, or for feeling like you were on your way out. Thank you for being willing to accept and implement change (even if it’s been minor). I know I won’t want to change when I’m a 60-year-old man. It will serve as a lesson to me, and I hope to all reading this. I’m also aware we won’t win forever.  But right now we’re 10-0.

Even in the toughest of times, when victory seems unattainable, positive changes can be made.


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Five Lessons from Mr. Keeney on Father’s Day

FIve Lessons on Father's Day

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share with all of my readers five key lessons my Dad taught me, especially on Father’s Day.  The list below contains life lessons and I’ll never forget them as long as I live.

Furthermore, now that I’m an expecting father of another Keeney boy, I hope to pass them on with the dignity knowing they came from my Dad.

For those of you who don’t know or haven’t met my Dad, here is a picture of the two of us goofing off nearly five years ago on Beth and I’s wedding day.

Beth and Zac's Wedding Day

Bernie Keeney & Zac Keeney 2009

As promised here is the list.

Five Valuable Lessons from Bernie Keeney:

  1. Hard Work –  I must start with this quote from Thomas Edison, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  My Dad’s life is a living example of hard work.  Obviously I wasn’t around, but I know he didn’t grow up anywhere near the standard of living he provided to my sister and I.  He got where he did because of a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline.  Nothing was handed to him, and I’ll tell you he wouldn’t want it if you did.  Today, many look for the easy way out.  My Dad will tell you there is no such thing and to stop complaining.  The same effort refocused would yield the results. 
  2. CoachableMy Dad taught me at a young age the need to be coachable.  He continued to remind me of this through my adolescent years and hundreds of athletic events.  I think it’s a great lesson, especially for younger leaders as there is so much to learn from so many.  You have to be willing to listen, especially when the feedback is something you don’t want to hear. 
  3. Lifelong Learner If you’ve ever heard me talk about my Dad, I’ll say he’s a better version of Bob Villa, a true Mr. Fix It.  The only way you get to be this skilled at so many crafts is to have an appetite for learning.  He continues to learn even more now in his retirement.  Every day is a new adventure, a new story to be told, or new challenge.  He’s never backed down from a challenge and is one of the smartest guys I know.  
  4. Tough & Fair My Dad spent his career (30+ years) as an educator.  He had thousands of students, but there were two he looked after more than most, my sister and I.  With each of us he was equally tough and fair.  If we screwed up or were out of line, he was always fair with our punishment.  We always knew where we stood with our Dad and I can only hope to be the same with my son.
  5. SupportiveNo matter the need, Dad has always been there to support.  If I need advice, help on a construction project, a trailer to haul something for a move, or any tool known to man, Dad will be there.  Most of the time it probably didn’t fit in his schedule, but that really didn’t come into his head.  He continues to be there for our growing family and I can’t wait to see what he’ll pass along to his grandson.

I’ll leave you with this.  I believe one of the primary jobs we have as Dads is to provide our kids with a better life than we had.  If I were the teacher and handing out a grade to my Dad, it would be an A+.

ACTION ITEM: If you haven’t already, tell your Dad “Happy Father’s Day”.  If you’re one of the many with their Dad looking down from above, do something to remember him today.