By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Senior Day for the Iowa football team is an annual event in which the names and faces always change, but the message and emotions are always the same.
Senior Day is when resilience, resolve and loyalty are rewarded as each senior gets recognized for staying the course.
Iowa will honor 19 seniors prior to Saturday’s kickoff against Illinois in the home finale at Kinnick Stadium, and each one has an intriguing story to tell.
There is something to be said for finishing what you started, and that’s why Senior Day is so significant and so special.
This week is when we get reminded that Kirk Ferentz is more than just a head coach to his players.
I was reminded of that on Tuesday when I referred to senior fullback Brady Ross as a Ferentz-type player while interviewing Ross. What I meant is that Ross always puts the team first, always focuses on the next challenge and never gets too high or too low, just like his head coach.
“Being referred to as a coach Ferentz-type player is the biggest compliment anybody could ever give me because he’s a model guy,” Ross said. “He’s a guy that’s worth emulating.”
Ferentz was told about two hours later what Ross had said about him and Ferentz first responded with a self-deprecating joke as he often does when the subject is him being praised.
“He runs with linebackers a lot, so he might be a little delusional,” Ferentz said of Ross, who actually came to Iowa as a walk-on linebacker from Humboldt.
Those in the room burst into laughter, but then Ferentz got serious and addressed the one thing that he likes most about coaching, which is building relationships.
“It's the best part about coaching. It always has been,” said Ferentz, who is in his 21st season as the Iowa head coach. “The worst part about being a head coach is it's hard to be as intimate with all your players as you were as a position coach.
“Just the nature of what we do unfortunately or what head coaches have to do. It's a bigger classroom. But yeah, the fun of coaching has always been the people you work with on a daily basis. It's a lot of fun to celebrate, believe me. That's the best part of it.”
Adversity also helps to strengthen the bond between players and coaches because they both rely on each other to persevere and to cope.
“But as sick as this may sound, there's something about those lows, too,” Ferentz said. “The highs and lows are just -- they're hard to compare to anything else you experience in life. Something you go through at those times with people, the people you care about and the people that have worked really hard and invested, yeah, there's a real special bond that forms.
“I think that's what sports are all about. That's the best part with sports from my standpoint.”
Ross came to Iowa without a scholarship and will leave as a highly respected team captain, who had to overcome the loss of his father to suicide in July 2016 at the age of 50.
The tragedy occurred about a month before the start of Ross’s redshirt freshman season at Iowa, and yet, he found a way to persevere and to keep forging ahead.
Ross found strength from his family, but also from his football family because there are few things stronger and more unified than a college football team that has the right chemistry, character and leadership, and it starts at the top with the head coach.
I asked Ross on Tuesday if Kirk Ferentz has helped to fill a void that came from Ross losing his father at such an impressionable time. You often hear that a head coach is sort of a father figure, and Ross certainly needed love, guidance and support to cope with such a horrible tragedy.
“I think the head coach is an extremely positively influential person if you ask anybody on the team,” Ross said. “I think everyone who’s ever played for him is just a much better man for having played for him.
“And I don’t think I’m unique in that respect whatsoever. I think that’s true for everybody who’s ever played for him.”
Ross is part of a senior class that has won 32 games, including two bowl games, and finished undefeated against Iowa State.
The class has a rare three-year starter at quarterback in Nate Stanley, a rare set of twins from tiny Moville in northwest Iowa in Levi and Landan Paulsen and a highly energetic and outspoken defensive end from Chicago in Amani Jones.
Defensive tackle and Detroit native Cedrick Lattimore is also part of the senior class, and he couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out.
Sure, he would’ve liked to have won more games, but Lattimore will forever cherish the journey that he is about to finish.
“I love it, my senior year is going so good,” Lattimore said. “I’m enjoying every bit of this.”
The journey is not always a joyful experience, though, and nobody knows that more than Stanley as the starting quarterback.
His career has been filled with tremendous peaks and devastating valleys that come from winning and losing big games.
Stanley rarely says very much about anything, but he opened up a little bit on Tuesday about the privilege of being Iowa’s starting quarterback and about being a Hawkeye for life.
“Being a part of this group and this family has been one of the best experiences of my life,” Stanley said. “It gives us the opportunity for many more opportunities down the road. In 10 or 15 years, if I called up Levi or Landan, or anybody on the team, and I said, hey, I’m going through this. I have this problem, they would drop everything in a heartbeat and go help.
“And that’s the best feeling in the world knowing that you have 10, 15, 20, 100 guys that you can lean on. And it’s something that helps a lot of guys get through a lot of touch situations in life.”
Stanley then brought up Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston, whose brother died recently, and how the Spartan community has rallied around him, especially head coach Tom Izzo.
“I see a lot of similarities between Tom Izzo and coach Ferentz, just the way they truly care about their players,” Stanley said. “And when you have somebody like that, and you have teammate like he has, and like I have to lean on, it can help you through some of the darkest times in your life.”
As for Amani Jones, he could’ve easily left Iowa after losing his starting position at middle linebacker during the first quarter the 2018 season opener against Northern Illinois.
He could’ve blamed the coaches and made excuses and left in search of more playing time.
But Jones was determined to stay the course and to finish what he started at Iowa.
He also wanted to set an example for his young son on how to be accountable and show him that quitting isn’t how you overcome adversity.
“Because I don’t quit at all,” Jones said when asked why he didn’t transfer. “If I’m committed to something truly, then I need to get it done. There is no backing down.”
The challenge for the seniors on Saturday will be to channel their emotions and to not let the big picture distract from the task and hand, which is trying to defeat a vastly improved Illinois squad.
Ross said he hadn’t even given much thought about Senior Day because he is focused solely on the game.
“I have no idea, I guess we’ll find out,” Ross said of what he expects his emotions to be on Saturday. “But I do know where my emotions have to be about 30 seconds after that and that’s not there at all. That’s on the game.
“So that’s what we’re focusing on right now. I’m sure it’ll be a great experience, but we want to make it an experience worth remembering with a win. We have tough group coming into Kinnick trying to beat us. So that’s our mindset."
Spoken like a true Kirk Ferentz player.