Last summer, while Iowa Football was being investigated for racial bias and the mistreatment of student-athletes, the program formed an advisory committee comprised of alumni. Former offensive lineman and current Chicago real estate broker David Porter stepped forward as chairperson.
Ten months after taking on the task of making the Hawkeyes more inclusive and equitable, Porter met with HN to discuss the work done so far and what’s ahead. He and the rest of the committee members have volunteered their time to helping an outfit they love.
Q. Going back to when you were asked to be the chairperson for this committee, did you know what you were getting yourself into and how much work needed to be done?
David Porter: I guess the short answer is no. I didn’t know fully what I was getting myself into. I just knew that we were struggling. By we, I mean, the football program was struggling, and I could probably use my skills to help.
Q. Did you know that there were struggles before James Daniels and other former players spoke out last summer or did them speaking up alert you to there being struggles?
DP: There were, I’m gonna say, rumblings. You would always hear something here and there, but nothing to the extent that James Daniels and those other men came out with. It was a lot of the stuff that was always dismissed because it sounded like typical stuff I heard when I was there, so I was like, OK.
Once I was done playing football at Iowa, I had to deal with life. Two daughters to raise, work, a wife, employees, etc… I did not make it back to games very often. So I wasn’t really involved in the program’s day to day. So no, I didn’t know everything.
Q. When you were asked to chair the committee, what was your approach and objective from the jump?
DP: My objective was to understand the landscape and to address every opportunity to get better. The approach was literally just to fine-tooth comb everything. So go back and strip everything down, gather as much information as I could before I took the first step.
Initially, we started with everyone’s “why” on the committee. Why are you on this committee? Then we came up with our mission statement. Then is it was okay, these are things that I identified. These are things that I’ve seen. Let’s look at this stuff. Let’s look at the rules. Let’s look at the policies we have in place. What procedures do we have in place? What are the systems we have? I really tried to take a business-like approach to the whole thing.
What are the operational procedures for things that are going on? How do we document things? Do the kids clearly understand what’s expected of them? How do we communicate that to them? How do we communicate that to the coaching staff? How do we communicate that to the administrative staff?
Kirk has a vision. So the question was, How do you get your vision and message across to the assistant coaches, who are your basically your mouthpiece? In talking to Kirk, he understands that these guys are his mouthpiece. They should be speaking the gospel of Kirk. And if they’re not, how is that handled?
Do we have a structured performance improvement plan both for the coaching staff as well as the kids? You start breaking all the processes down, then it becomes how do we do everything? We have a standard, how do we help people achieve the standard? How do we hold people accountable to the standard? How do we teach? How do we lead?
Q. When you started gathering information on all of those points that you just spoke about, and obviously there’s a racial component to this, what did you find out initially and how big of a task or how big of a project do you feel like you were presented with from the start?
DP: I was basically handed an elephant to eat. Eat this whole thing. And I’m like, well, wow, and as I get closer and closer to the elephant, it got bigger and bigger and bigger. I was like, oh my god, how am I gonna eat this whole thing? There’s no way.
I did the same thing I normally do. I just start breaking everything down to one bite at a time. I said, OK, here’s the thing we’re going to deal with right now. And we dealt with that. And then we’re dealing with the next thing. As we just start breaking things down and started addressing those things and clearing them off the plate, it becomes a lot easier to digest, especially over time, with smaller pieces. So, that’s essentially how we did it.
The first part was forming this original committee, and getting the rules set set up for how we’re gonna operate as a committee. Let’s get an understanding of that. Then we needed an understanding of the rules for the football program and the athletic department. Are we operating within the rules? Are there any rules that we need to address to make them more equitable? Yes. OK, great.
So, we went back and started altering those those things. Everything was just adjustments here and there. And you just start building on top of each other. It’s like triage and you’ve got to stop the bleeding before you can move on to the next thing. There are things going on, the kids aren’t happy, there are a lot of emotions involved, and these kids are dealing with a lot. The other side of that is, you have these grown men that have put their blood, sweat, tears, and time and energy into this thing and away from their families and it’s being picked apart. And, you have the alumni on the the outside looking in, like what the (heck) is going on? What are you guys doing with my program? What? We’re abusing kids? That’s not acceptable. Fix it. Now! So you’re dealing with all of those emotions and all of those people all at the same time.
So, it’s just breaking everything down and just continuing to stay ever vigilant with of all the groups involved and ever diligent with my responsibility. Staying the course even when things go sideways on you. It doesn’t always go the way you want. Just keep taking the next step forward, even if it is a baby step, even if it’s just a little more, keep making progess.
Q. It seems like creating the best environment for the student-athletes and coaches is the goal and communication is the key. How were you guys able to listen to the student-athletes’ needs and meshing them with the structure the staff wanted?
DP: I look at it from a parents’ perspective. I have two kids. They fight/argue. And they both have their perspective on what’s going on, and what occurred, and what they want to have happen as a remedy in the future. Each one of these perspectives has merit, It does.
But, neither is 100 percent accurate, at least from my perspective, looking at it from the outside. It became, OK, I see your point for this, but I’m not quite sure your understanding all of the things this person is dealing with. And, I see your point here, but you’re not listening to this person because you don’t understand their perspective based on where they’re coming from.
As we, the committee and I, looked at the type of communication that was going on it was like two ships passing in a night or two people talking to each other in a different language. And I’m like, OK, let’s translate. That’s really what it came down to.
It’s so funny when you think about it. Everybody in this is interdependent of each other. What’s good for the kids is good for the program. And what’s good for the program is going to be good for the kids. It’s all intertwined, and it should be. Everything that the program is doing should be for the betterment of those kids. Because as the kids get better the program gets better.
If the kids are given the tools, the systems and processes that they need, you’re going to produce better humans, and better players. How is that not better for the program? It’s simple. We want these student-athletes to be happy. They’re gonna work hard. It is hard work to become the best version of yourself, and it is uncomfortable. It is a daily grind to get better each day. Understanding the communication style that best helps these kids/student athletes understand what’s happening and why it’s happening, in a way that is relevant to them is huge.
Q. Some of the players used the saying that it was like walking on eggshells around the football facility. They didn’t feel like they had a voice. Then you guys come in and try getting them to open up and tell you everything that’s bothering them. What’s been the process of trying to get them to open up after they haven’t been allowed to be open?
DP: It’s a new day. The hardest thing is building trust that has been broken. It’s well documented how the kids felt after they would go talk to the coaching staff. “Things didn’t change.” “Sometimes it even got worse.”
For us to say to the student-athletes, as soon as we walked in the door, go talk to the coaches now, it’s all good, trust us. They’re going to look at us like, what are you talking about. I’ve heard this before. And, we’re like, no, no, no, it’s different this time. Trust us. And, they’re like, no, I don’t think I will – I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but when you guys are gone, it’s gonna go back to the way it was. Well, hold on. Who said we were going anywhere? Yeah, we’re not going anywhere.
I think a lot of these kids may be used to people just saying things, not listening to them and going in and out of their lives. We’re not going anywhere. We’re listening. We mean what we say. We are Hawkeyes for life, we can’t be fired, there is no place for us to go, and there is no place for us to hide.
So, things have changed. We don’t fully have their trust back, and I wouldn’t expect them to trust everything or everyone right now. That’s asking a lot, especially after everything that’s been brought to light, to ask the kids to trust us right now. We understand. It’s got to be earned like everything else in life.
Q. Where did the committee’s conversations with Kirk Ferentz start last summer, how have they progressed and how often do you meet with him?
DP: When we initially started, we were meeting weekly, for the first month or month and a half. Then we went to every other week. And then we went to once a month when we hit the season. And now we’re still meeting once a month with Kirk.
It all started when Kirk created the advisory committee. It initially had people he chose. Having Kirk choose the committee members, I get that’s how it had to get started. But to have it continue on, there’s no way he can be the only voice choosing the committee members. That’s like having my kids choose their own punishment. Dad, I’ll tell you what I did wrong, and I’m also going to choose my own punishment.
And it’s not that having this committee is a punishment for anything. But, Kirk choosing all of the members of the committee doesn’t look good. He can have the best of intentions in the world, but it doesn’t look good.
So, we changed the structure of how the committee members were chosen. He let us run with it. We created the rules for how the committee is going to be run.
Since then, we have had little turnover with committee members and we have a good mix of Alumni Hawkeye Brothers. We keep minutes and document everything so should a committee member need to leave, anyone that comes on can get caught up with everything we’ve talked about. We’ve had a pretty steady group of guys now meeting with Kirk, meeting with other officials within the athletic department to address opportunities to get better.
Q. I’m asking your opinion here. How open has Kirk Ferentz been to the process needed to get better?
DP: It’s been eye-opening for him. There’s gonna be some resistance, and that’s to be expected, especially when talking about someone’s life work, the culmination of someone’s life’s work.
It’s like, OK, well, we’re gonna change this, this and this. Well, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. We get it, but times have changed. What? Well, it’s been the same all this time. What’s the issue? We had to break down what the issues are and why there are issues.
He’s had press conferences where he said he’s had blind spots to these things. When I listened, I thought to myself, of course – why would be not have a blind spot to it? Who around him was gonna tell him he’s wrong or that things should be changed to go in a different direction? – He could literally run for Governor of Iowa and win in a landslide, without campaigning, just by adding his name to the ballot.
The one thing with our committee that is unique is that nobody in it works for him. Our only interest is those kids and the program. That’s it. He doesn’t pay our salary.
This is all volunteer stuff that we’re doing. We do it because we are Hawkeyes. We don’t get to retire from being Hawks. We’re a Hawk for life. You can’t fire me. You can’t fire anybody on my committee. We’re all Hawks for life.
So, yeah, there was initial resistance. That was expected just given how everything was presented and understanding the situation. But he’s slowly come around to seeing a lot of things. The kids had the option to take a knee or not before games during the national anthem. There was a hard stance on that before and he received blowback on that as well.
There are a lot of things in that program that have changed. We’re looking at the blind spots and opportunities to get better and addressing them head on.
We talked earlier about how the committee got formed, and how many times we meet. Those meetings, some of them are over two and a half hours long. There are times when it gets heated. Like I said, we don’t work for him. I still consider Kirk a good friend. I hope he feels the same with me, especially after going through this process. But we’ve had some really tough conversations.
And a lot of the conversations are about race, white privilege, micro-aggressions, blind spots, perceptions, rhetoric, clothing, understanding, acceptance, inclusion, mental health, etc…
for example…You can say one thing, but it’s perceived a different way by somebody else, and you mean something completely different. It’s just understanding the kid’s or the other person’s perspective. It matters. The onerous is on the adults because kids are kids.
We’ve had to have some tough conversations and there’s still more work to do. These are ideas and beliefs about football and coaching that Kirk has had for a very long time, and he’s done well in football. I wouldn’t expect him to just roll over and undo everything. That’s not realistic and anybody that expected that would be the case hasn’t been paying attention to the kind of man Kirk is. That’s not how it works in football. We don’t just roll over, that’s not how we are built. But, we do take action and it is usually before we start to talk about it.
Q. We’re going through the process of understanding other people’s perspective as a country and society, trying to avoid micro-aggression or racial bias. We saw the disconnect with Iowa Football within the task force and Husch Blackwell reports. For people that still may not understand that conversation, is there an example you can give with something you’ve witnessed or learned about the program?
DP: The best example I can think of to describe it is that you may have a coach from a privileged background that doesn’t understand that when talking to a kid that doesn’t come from a privileged background you have to do it differently, just because of the kids background. You may not think you’re saying something wrong, but you’re saying something wrong for that kid. The same can be said in the inverse. In either case, it is not the kids obligation to make the adjustment. They are just kids. It’s the coaches obligation to understand who the kids are, where the kids are educationally, emotionally and physically, and how to best help them reach the standard
When you bring a kid into the program, there’s an unspoken agreement that we (the football program) accept you as you are and we understand who you are. We have done our due diligence, we have recruited these kids sometimes for years. We’re not just recruiting your athletic ability. Their athletic ability is a major part of why they’re even on the radar, but we have to do a better job of understanding who they are, not just what they can do on the field and Kirk has started putting a system together to do just that.
Q. You’re roughly 10 months into this process, how much do you think you’ve accomplished and how much more work is there to be done?
DP: I served as president of the board for my association. While I was President, I found out there were are all sorts of issues. There were issues with maintenance, repair and operations. Those are things the residents of that association didn’t see, like plumbing and maintenance schedules for the boilers and cleaning the ductwork. Certain jobs needed to be done at certain times and people have to learn how to do them. The staff was not happy and most of our contracts were not in the best interest of the association.
The employees had to be held accountable for the process and by the system we have in place. And, they need to understand what are the standard repercussions if you don’t do it. That way everybody understands what their obligations are. Everybody understands the criteria, how we’re going to do it, why we’re doing it, and what happens if you don’t. We’re going to train you and give you tools to meet our standards. If you can’t meet the standard, now we have a problem.
That’s where I got to with the Iowa Football program. It was making sure we engineered out any ambiguity the football program may have. Let’s engineer out any lack of communication. Let’s engineer out any miscommunication. Let’s engineer out any lack of understanding of the standard or how to achieve it. Let’s engineer out kids not having the tools available to help them achieve the standard.
After you engineer that stuff out and then supply individualized support for the kids. Most of the building blocks to get to where we want and need to be are there to have the system, the process, the tools, and the people in place to start to really address the kids and what they really need. And while we are in the process of doing this, we’re also rebuilding trust with the student-athletes to get them to open up and speak to the coaches, which they hadn’t been doing because they didn’t feel they had a voice that was going to be heard.
And it’s not like we can address these things one at a time. We’re doing a lot of this stuff concurrently. So, in my mind, we’ve made quite a bit of progress and there’s still a long way to go. But we’re committed. It’s always been a trait of the men on this committee. We’re committed to seeing this thing through. Kirk has said he’s committed to it. Our committee has talked to Gary Barta. He said he’s committed to it. Our committee spoke with Liz (Tovar) and she is committed to it. I know Broderick (Binns) is committed to it.
How long is it going to take? I don’t think it ever stops. It’s like asking, when do I stop trying to understand people? Or when do I stop learning? The objective is to get better. One of the constants in this world is change – we know things are going to change. So we just have to stay ever vigilant. We’ve done a lot of the hard work that goes into building the foundation. Once that is set up with the system, the tools, the process, and the right people in place, it becomes a lot easier down the road to start making adjustments.
We’ve put a lot of energy into addressing the foundation with the information that we have. I don’t think It’s ever going to be perfect, but we’re trying to get it right because it’s important. It’s really important. We’re literally talking about kids’ mental health.
I’m not a qualified (mental health) professional. Let them come in and tell us what we need to do. Dr. Kaye Cole is on staff and she specializes in diversity, equity and inclusion as it relates to mental health issues and is an Iowa alumnus. That’s huge.
Also, Ladell (Betts) is back and he understands, from experience, what it takes to be successful in this program and beyond. He’s an Alumni Hawkeye Brother. Everybody on the committee is an Alumni Hawkeye Brother. We love Iowa Football. And not one of us has been paid to do this. This is a labor of love for our program.
Q. How often are you connecting with the current student-athletes and who is hearing them outside of the football complex if need be?
DP: Well, you have Broderick Binns, who is now outside the football facility. You have our committee, Liz Tovar, and Gary Barta and his staff. You also have mental health specialists. Kaye Cole was just brought in as well. Those are the people right now that are set up for them to go to.
They can reach out to any of us (Alumni Hawkeye Brother) whenever they want. We made it known to them that we’re available.
I can’t emphasize this enough – we’re rebuilding trust. They felt as though they lost their voice, their ability to be who they really are. This shift of them speaking up more is not going to happen overnight, but it is happening. They’re starting to talk more. The more that they say that brings things to light for us to help get addressed, the easier it is for us to understand how best to address those things.
But we’re not in the facility. I am not even in the state of Iowa. Most of the Committee members are not in the state of Iowa. The people that are in the facility are the ones that are really telling us what’s going on and that are going to make the biggest impact.
We’ve had two town hall meetings with these student-athletes. The first one, was an eye-opener. You could tell that the kids were frustrated with the situation. They were frustrated on a lot of levels: they didn’t feel they were being heard, they didn’t see any change happening, and the little change that they saw at that time, they were like, yeah, this isn’t real, they were dealing with the media, they were dealing with school, they were dealing with family, they were dealing with their social lives, they were dealing with the pandemic and the new protocols in place, and they were dealing with trying to have some semblance of a football season. These are 17 to 22 year old kids.
The committee went back and discussed our findings with Kirk and he took it hard. Again, these kids don’t believe it’s real. There’s still a lot of pent up stuff because the student athletes in the program didn’t feel they could say what was on their minds without fear of repercussions. They didn’t have safe space. Kirk is creating that now. The more he does it, the easier it’s going to be for the kids to tell him what’s going on. And then it will be easier for him to address the things that are going on.
Q. Do you get a sense that’s the same vibe with the whole coaching staff? Chris Doyle is gone but there were others named in the complaints by former student-athletes. These guys spend most of their time with the assistants, not Kirk.
DP: Yeah, that is a big point. It’s one thing for Kirk to get up there and say something. He follows through, great. But the kids are interacting with the position coaches for the majority of the time. Kirk gets it. He knows they need to be on the same page as him. They all need to be preaching the gospel of Kirk. If they’re not in alignment for what he envisions for the program, an adjustment needs to be made. He flat out said that.
He’s gone back and reiterated that coaching is developing and not demeaning. The kids are OK with being coached hard. But you’re not going to demean them or belittle them. You wouldn’t do that to your own kid.
It’s simple. Coaching is understanding your players and understanding how to motivate them. If you don’t understand how to talk to these kids, or you don’t understand how to motivate them without demeaning them, I personally think that you suck at your job and should go find something else to do.
I was coached by Philbin and Kirk – when he worked with the tackles (Aiello, Gallery, Mcmahon and Me). Were they critical? Yes. But they corrected us. If something wasn’t working for us, they’d have us try something else. They never said we were stupid. If we did something wrong, they’d tell us… Sometimes in a loud voice. And then we’d work on it (a lot). And they paid attention to the details. Then they made us pay attention to the details. They coached us. It was more like they were football consultants.
Ron Aiken, Joe Philbin, Carl Jackson, Norm Parker, Phil Parker, Eric Johnson, Lester Erb, Reese Morgan, and Darryl Wilson – those guys had our backs. They made sure we developed. They coached us. The student-athletes on that 2002 Iowa team held each other and the coaches to the standard. It was our team.
When I came back as honorary captain in 2015 and talked to the team, in my speech I told them that back then we realized it was our program. When we realized it was our program and actually took ownership of it, it was a joy for the coaches to coach us because we were calling each other out, they didn’t have to do it. It became fun. That’s what happens when you trust your coach, feel like your voice is being heard, and are empowered to lead in your program – you take ownership. We had a heck of a coaching staff.
Kirk has said it for a long time. “We don’t just produce good athletes in the University of Iowa Football Program. We produce good men.” That’s the Iowa way that I know. And I don’t know how else you do that without giving the kids the support, the systems, the tools, and surround them with the people that they need to be successful and to meet the standard.
Otherwise, you’re just saying, hey, this is the standard. I don’t know how you’re going to reach it. But, you’ve got to reach it. So, figure it out. No, that’s not how we do it at Iowa. That’s not how it was done for me.
Getting better is not easy. You’re going to be coached tough, but it does not mean you’re going to be, or need to be, demeaned or belittled in the process.