Kirk Ferentz, women’s basketball coach: “It was intimidating, plus I didn’t know anything”


One of Iowa’s head football coach Kirk Ferentz’s first jobs was to coach the Worcester Academy women’s basketball team in 1979. (Photo submitted by Neil Isakson of Worcester Academy Alumni Relations.)

IOWA CITY – The toughest job for Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz has said he’s never been a women’s basketball coach at Worcester Academy.

Ferentz had just graduated from college when current Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe offered him a job as an offensive and defense line coach at a boarding school in Worcester, Massachusetts. . O’Keefe was 24 at the time, building his coaching staff when he heard about Ferentz, who had helped the freshman football team at UConn after graduating.

At a school like Worcester, coaches wore many hats, and O’Keefe said Ferentz’s selling point was not his ingenious football mind, but the fact that he could teach English literature.

“I joke that I became illiterate as soon as I started training,” Ferentz said in June. “But at one point, I was actually able to teach a class for 30 minutes. “

The added challenge to that was that athletic director Tom Blackburn tasked Ferentz to be the girls’ head basketball coach because there was no one else to do it.

“What did I know about girls or women? Nothing, ”Ferentz said. “It was intimidating, plus I didn’t know anything about basketball.”

He remembered Sarah Bard, now Sarah Sullivan, the team leader, was one of the best players on the team. Sullivan said she had Ferentz not only as a coach, but also as an academic advisor and English teacher.

“He didn’t want us hanging out right after school before practice, so we had this mandatory study room, which everyone was complaining about,” Sullivan said over the phone in July. “We were largely talentless, a lot of us very giggling. But he never let anything get in the way of his ability to coach and his desire to coach and at least tried to bring out the best in all of us.

These mandatory study rooms tied the team together, Sullivan said. His serious attitude and his conviction to play more than one sport are two things that have not changed.

“I remember going to him with a great idea like, ‘I think I just want to focus on basketball. I also played soccer and other sports, ”Sullivan said. “He just looked at me and not in a rude way, said, ‘No Sarah, you have to keep up with what you’re doing, do all the sports and have a good time. “”

The fun part, looking back, is how far not only Ferentz but the rest of the Worcester Academy football coaching team have gone. Sullivan said Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle was in high school while she was there, and actually taught her how to shoot a basketball.

Ferentz, who was there from 1978 to 1980, coached alongside former NFL and CFL head coach Mike Sherman, who was there from 1979 to 1980. O’Keefe worked there from 1978 to 1984. Joe Philbin, now the Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach, was a Worcester Academy player in 1980.

O’Keefe laughed as he thought about it, because as a head coach he was the more serious character compared to his younger colleagues on staff. Now, more than 40 years later, he said he’s studying Emmy-winning comedy Ted Lasso to add more humor to his press conference interviews.

Worcester was a fun experience for a young group of coaches who never dreamed of a career after high school football training. But the work was demanding, so much so that O’Keefe said he and his wife missed out on a weekend in Boston, which was only an hour from Worcester.

“We (the coaches) were in the dorms and I also helped run the dining room,” O’Keefe said on media day in August. “I taught US history to foreign students and physicists. Ed. I coached football and baseball … we’ve never been out of this place. We had dorm homework on the weekends.

Sherman’s English class was across from Ferentz. His personality was aimed at him for occasional pranks, like stealing his morning lesson plan on Shakespeare.

“I would put my lesson plan on my desk, get everything ready for the day, then go have a cup of coffee, then come back and my things would be gone,” Sherman said. “I’m a first grade teacher and to have these kids who are all very, very bright, you can’t teach William Shakespeare in front of the class when you don’t have grades.”

Ferentz laughed in his office at the Hansen Football Performance Center this summer, thinking about what else he had done to play a prank on Sherman. He and his fellow teacher and coach John Bridge once also stole Sherman’s keys during a home football game and forgot to return them, returning to their dorm up the hill to smash a beer when Sherman showed up at the door.

And when it came to who was the toughest English teacher, no one could confirm it. Sherman noted that he made his students write daily in their journals and that he spontaneously collects them from time to time to hold them accountable.

“I think Kirk and I were pretty much the same,” Sherman said. “I was an offensive line coach and offensive line coaches are usually crushers. Linebackers and defense have a little more freedom and spontaneity. I was probably more structured, being an attacking guy.

Ferentz said what he learned from his experience as a women’s basketball coach was that the lessons are the same no matter what you train and, girls or boys, kids wanted someone to admire – someone to teach them life lessons in addition to playing a game.

Sullivan said that while these trainers seem larger than life to most people, Ferentz, to her, was just another person going through the same ups and downs as everyone else.

“Fast forward to now, I’m married to a soccer coach,” Sullivan said. “I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for a coach’s passion, you know, not only for the game, but also for nurturing human beings. It was like that for Coach Ferentz and the Worcester Academy.

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