IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa fans celebrated former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe’s departure five years ago almost with glee.
Now, five years later, there’s no parade in Iowa City for O’Keefe’s return as quarterbacks coach. But there is a groundswell of appreciation for O’Keefe’s previous accomplishments and an optimism he can help the Hawkeyes’ stagnant offense develop and grow.
After five seasons with the Miami Dolphins, four of which were as wide receivers coach, O’Keefe returns to Iowa this year. It’s a smart move for the program as it reshapes its offense with a more consistent approach. O’Keefe piloted Iowa through four top-10 finishes, coached a Heisman Trophy runner-up in Brad Banks (2002) and developed a game plan for a Doak Walker Award winner in Shonn Greene.
O’Keefe, 63, joined head coach Kirk Ferentz’s staff as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 1999 and left after the 2011 season. He returns now as a consigliere of sorts for 33-year-old Brian Ferentz as the offensive coordinator. O’Keefe can serve as the right person to develop quarterbacks and provide daily advice as Brian Ferentz grows in his role. It’s a win-win for the program.
“I am excited to return to Iowa as quarterbacks coach,” O’Keefe said in a statement Friday. “I look forward to working with Kirk Ferentz again, and the entire coaching staff. I gained valuable experience in Miami the last five years, but at the same time I am anxious to return to coaching and working with college players, and being back on campus at the University of Iowa.”
O’Keefe knows the Ferentz style of football and the concepts that make it tick. Former offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ horizontal passing game never fit with Ferentz’s physical, zone-blocking scheme. Davis’ system worked best with quick-twitch receivers who could beat guys off the dribble, to mix sports metaphors. O’Keefe excelled by shifting high school quarterbacks into all-Big Ten caliber pass catchers.
Marvin McNutt came to Iowa as a quarterback and moved to receiver. From 2008 through 2011, McNutt generated the most receiving yards (2,861) and touchdown receptions (28) of any Iowa player. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was a high school quarterback who thrived as a receiver under O’Keefe. So did Ed Hinkel. Maurice Brown averaged 18.0 yards per catch and scored 15 touchdowns.
In 2010, Ricky Stanzi threw for 26 touchdowns. In 2011, James Vandenberg passed for 25. Those totals rank third and fourth, respectively, in Iowa single-season history. O’Keefe coached them both. In 2002, Iowa passed for 27 touchdowns, which ranks second. O’Keefe coached Banks that year, too.
With Iowa’s running game down to fifth-team walk-ons in 2004, O’Keefe shifted the offense to quarterback Drew Tate. Iowa won a share of the Big Ten title that year and Tate was named first-team all-Big Ten.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) February 3, 2017
In O’Keefe’s final four years at Iowa, the Hawkeyes averaged at least 12.63 yards per completion. Iowa failed to match that number in any of Davis’ five years. The year after Vandenberg passed for 25 scores and 12.72 yards per reception — O’Keefe’s final year — Vandenberg threw for seven scores and 10.09 yards per completion.
“During Ken’s years in our program, the individual growth and overall performance of our quarterbacks played a major role in the success of our football team,” Ferentz said in a statement. “Ken is a key addition to our staff moving forward. He is an outstanding person and a perfect fit to our staff.”
This isn’t to suggest O’Keefe is a miracle worker. Far from it. He made mistakes as an offensive coordinator and was scrutinized heavily. Rightly so in some situations. But Iowa’s offense moved in concert when O’Keefe was calling the plays. Iowa’s power running game had the same bite it does today. But O’Keefe worked the passing game between the hash marks, especially to the tight end. Dallas Clark, Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki earned all-Big Ten recognition. Iowa tried to use the tight end under Davis. Iowa knew how to use the tight end under O’Keefe.
The Hawkeyes’ play-action passing game with long-striding receivers worked the middle of the field under O’Keefe. Slants, digs and posts were a staple under O’Keefe’s passing attack. Those routes were almost a novelty under Davis.
O’Keefe won’t have final decision-making authority on play-calling this time around. That’s Brian Ferentz’s job. But O’Keefe will be there to assist and cultivate a plan. With five years in the NFL, O’Keefe will help advance the program schematically, not turn back the clock. For the present, it’s the perfect marriage between the past and the future.
If anything, adding O’Keefe makes Iowa more Iowa. That makes it the right move at the right time.