In a profession that seems to relocate roughly 25 percent of its ranks on an annual basis, terms like "loyalty" and "stability" are defined radically downward. Any two football coaches who spend 13 years together on the same staff may as well be married. Which is why, even amid the usual game of musical chairs that clogs up the headlines every winter, the departure of Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe for the Miami Dolphins stands out: After more than a decade of delegating to the same two men on both sides of the ball, Kirk Ferentz is suddenly forced to replace both of his long-time coordinators at the same time.
O'Keefe's exit comes almost two months after veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker announced his retirement due to complications from diabetes (Parker had part of his left foot amputated at the start of the 2010 season), leaving both roles vacant for the first time since Ferentz replaced Hayden Fry as head coach in 1999. O'Keefe and Parker were his original hires. Thirteen years later, the fruits of their collaboration include 14 All-Americans, five first-round draft picks, four top-10 finishes, two BCS bowls, a share of two Big Ten titles and the most unlikely Heisman finalist of the last decade, which is not a bad run for an administration that went 1-10 its first year and 3-9 its second. Ferentz has never been a head coach without them, and considering he's known about Parker's retirement since (at least) early December, he's obviously not in any hurry to move on:
During Wednesday's signing day news conference, Ferentz was asked Wednesday if had settled on a hire for defensive coordinator.
"I think we're on the right path, I feel pretty good," he said. "Just in a nutshell, we moved like a tortoise again, kind of like '99 [when he hired his initial staff at Iowa]. There were a lot of different scenarios I wanted to run through my mind. . . . Unless you have to do something, why do something?
"Give yourself some time to think the different scenarios out. I've been through a few of them. I think we're getting to where we want to get."
Depending on who takes his place, Hawkeye fans may not be as enthusiastic about O'Keefe's exit as they'd imagined. In Miami, he'll be reuniting with new head coach Joe Philbin, who was also part of Ferentz's first staff at Iowa (he coached the offensive line through 2002) and actually played for O'Keefe — as well as young assistant Mike Sherman, the Dolphins' new offensive coordinator — at Worcester (Mass.) Academy in 1979. If that reunion lasts 13 years, it will involve Super Bowl rings.
As for Ferentz, he's at a crossroads: For the first time since the very beginning of his tenure, he's forced to contemplate exactly what he wants on both sides of the ball, and to consider a radical departure from the conservative, "pro style" offense and vanilla, blitz-averse defense Iowa has favored throughout the Ferentz era. Can the stodgy, no-nonsense Hawkeyes he built in his image ever embrace the spread, or man-to-man coverage? If so, now is probably the only opportunity.