IOWA CITY, Iowa — One cannot write the history of Iowa high school football or of the Big Ten Hawkeyes without including a page dedicated to Reese Morgan.
Morgan, 67, was inducted into the Iowa High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1990 while he was coaching at Benton Community. He earned coach of the year five times, led the Bobcats to three playoff berths and twice devised plans that stopped future Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner.
Then Morgan directed perhaps the greatest turnaround in state football history by leading Iowa City West to three state titles in a five-year span. Before Morgan arrived in 1992, the Trojans hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1976. At West, Morgan was 67-20 in eight seasons.
In Kirk Ferentz’s second year in 2000, Morgan came aboard as recruiting coordinator, then shifted to offensive line coach and currently defensive line coach. Entering his 19th year, Morgan proves his value with the players he develops and the recruits he uncovers.
“He has a rare ability to see things in prospects others miss,” Ferentz said about Morgan. “When he’s high on a guy, it really gets my attention quickly.”
Hall of Fame coach
Morgan grew up in Ohio and played college football at Division III Wartburg College, which is located about 90 miles north of Iowa City. Morgan started as an assistant coach at Benton Community and became the head coach in 1978. He coached Chad Hennings, who later won the Outland Trophy with the Air Force Academy and three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1992, Morgan took over at Iowa City West, which seemed to play more annual homecoming games than any other team in Eastern Iowa.
“This is one of the greatest coaching challenges in the state of Iowa, as great a challenge as any person can think of,” Morgan told The Cedar Rapids Gazette when he took over at Iowa City West. “But I wouldn’t have taken the job and moved my family if I didn’t think the job couldn’t be done.”
First, Morgan had to change the culture. Since opening in 1969, Iowa City West was 49-162-3 and had lost 32 consecutive games before his arrival. Morgan implemented a disciplined system based on crisp execution. Iowa City West ran few plays but would execute them flawlessly.
The practice field at West is located down a long hill from the school and is separated by a gravel road. Once the players crossed that road, they had to sprint. Lifting sessions were at 5:30 a.m. Repetition in practice built familiarity.
Morgan was instrumental raising money for the school to have its own football stadium — which opened in 1994 —instead of sharing one with crosstown rival Iowa City High. In that first season at Trojan Field, Iowa City West won both its first conference title and qualified for the playoffs.
“It wasn’t just a matter of timing and Reese fell into it,” said former Iowa City West, Iowa All-American and San Diego Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding. “He was the timing. He was the one who parted the sea and moved the ships in the right direction. I consider myself incredibly lucky. I came in and he had that thing rocking and rolling and we all benefited from it.
“Practice with a purpose. That quote sums up Reese. Everything that he does he expects of his players, there’s a purpose behind it.”
In 1995, West High was the best high, finished 13-0 and winning its first state title. The Trojans won the state title again in 1998 and 1999.
After the 1999 season, Morgan was ready for another reclamation project in rebuilding Iowa football. He joined Ferentz’s staff after a 1-10 inaugural season and Morgan’s goal was to create a pipeline to Kinnick.
A master recruiter
Morgan’s territory has included Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas. He’s landed plenty of no-brainer players but it’s the gems he’s uncovered that sets him apart.
“It was a smart, intelligent hire by Kirk just from the sense that there was nobody in Iowa high school football more respected than Reese as a person and a football coach,” said Kaeding, who moved from Iowa City West to Iowa at the same time as Morgan. “You immediately put Reese into place as your statewide recruiter and managing all of that. That was incredibly smart. That’s a huge win for the Iowa football program.”
Known as a relentless recruiter, Morgan regularly hops in his vehicle and stops in small towns and large schools everywhere when the calendar allows it. In 2015, Morgan recruited and coached three Iowa starting defensive linemen who came from schools that didn’t offer 11-man football. They included Nate Bazata from Howells, Neb., Drew Ott from Glitner, Neb., and Nate Meier from Tabor, Iowa.
Morgan helped bring in All-Americans such as Riley Reiff from Parkston, S.D., and Brandon Scherff from Denison, Iowa. Perhaps his greatest find was linebacker Josey Jewell, a 2-star recruit from Decorah, Iowa, who nearly opted for Division III Luther College before landing an Iowa offer.
“We were so close to not offering him a scholarship,” Ferentz said. “We really went back and forth. Really the deciding factor was the person that knew him the best on our staff was Reese Morgan. When Reese has a feeling about a player, it’s typically not wrong. Not that it’s going to always turn out like that, but normally he’s pretty right about players that way. So that was kind of the tipping point.”
Jewell started 42 games at Iowa, was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year last year and was a unanimous first-team All-American.
Morgan fights for those players because he sees their value and work ethic. He also knows there’s a tie that cannot be underestimated. The theme Morgan preaches and Iowa embodies is ”a walk-on mentality but a 4-star performance.”
“Really to have the opportunity to recruit in this state is amazing,” Morgan said. “If you have a kid from Iowa, he comes here, he’s an in-state kid, it’s going to mean a lot to him. Not that it wouldn’t mean a lot for anyone anywhere else, but he’s the one that has to go home, he’s the one that has to talk with people. It means a great deal to them. Those guys with that chip on that shoulder.
“You feel humbled and honored to be able to recruit this state.”
Morgan has developed strong relationships with coaches at virtually every school, from old foes to sons of former rivals. When a player is on the list but not quite a priority, Morgan is up front and communicates at every turn. That was the case in 2017 with Iowa City High quarterback Nate Wieland, who ultimately signed with Iowa as a linebacker.
“I’m just as honest as can be with Reese and Reese is the same with me,” said Dan Sabers, coach at Iowa City High during Wieland’s recruitment. “He told me, ‘Right now we’ve got some guys we’re rating ahead of him right now.’ Just keep looking. It was able to happen at the end.
“Reese Morgan is an outstanding man. He’s who I deal with. It’s been a tremendous relationship. He’s going to be straight-up with me, and I’m going to be straight-up with him, and we’ll go from there.”
Morgan is just as honest with the players he recruits.
“That’s something you really kind of admire and that’s why he’s good at recruiting,” said Iowa senior defensive end Parker Hesse. “He doesn’t put on a face or try to be something he’s not to recruits just to try to get you in the door.”
Even with in-state walk-ons, Morgan remains proactive. He called current Iowa defensive lineman Jack Kallenberger regularly to check up on him while he was in junior college. Kallenberger struggled academically in high school, and Morgan pressed him on his grades.
“He’d check up with me about once a week and he’d just ask how classes and workouts were going,” Kallenberger said.
A master teacher
At heart, Reese Morgan is just a football coach teaching a macro game at the micro level. Every inch matters and the teaching never stops.
“As a position coach, sometimes it drives you nuts,” Hesse said. “Our meetings are always going 10 minutes over time. No matter what you do it’s not good enough. Your hand could be a little bit better. Your hand placement. Your feet could be more underneath you, your first step. But that’s what you want in a coach. You want a coach who believes in you who believes you can get better and has a ceiling for you that’s higher than anything you thought for yourself. You want him to hold you to those standards.
“When you think of a coach like that, he really cares for his players and he really cares for their development. That makes him really fun to play for, and I think what makes him a good coach in terms of what he puts on the field.”
Morgan also is known for his own work ethic, which often gets mentioned among the coaches and players.
“He would always give us a hard time because we’d go lift weights before school and it would be 5:30, 6 o’clock and he literally would be the one opening up the gym,” Kaeding said. “He’d give us crap, ‘I’m up before you and it’s minus-5 degrees out.’ He always kind of prides himself in being the first guy in the office. It’s almost an ongoing joke about who can beat Reese to the office.”
Best coach I've ever had. Grandpa Reese exemplifies what makes @HawkeyeFootball so special. Talk about a guy who cares deeply about every single player he's ever coached on and off the field, and has driven success at every position he's ever coached. https://t.co/n1J7NFczOG
— Julian Vandervelde (@BatMandervelde) March 28, 2018
That work ethic has delivered results. Kaeding won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker in 2002. As tight ends coach in 2002, Morgan helped mold Dallas Clark into the Mackey Award winner. In his first season as offensive line coach, Morgan worked with Outland Trophy winner and first-team All-American Robert Gallery. Morgan recruited and developed Marshal Yanda, who is recognized as perhaps the NFL’s best guard over the last decade. Morgan coached Reiff and Bryan Bulaga to All-American status and first-round NFL draft selections. In all, NFL teams have drafted 13 of Morgan’s position players.
It’s the player development that stands out the most to Morgan.
“I think the thing that most people like to see is to take a difficult task and try to put it in terms that’s easy to understand and then to see them go out and try to execute it,” Morgan said. “You film it. The next day you [are] back in the meeting room and all [of a] sudden maybe they don’t master it, but they understand what you’re trying to say. They’re trying it. They’re getting out of their comfort zone and they’re trying to do what they’re coached to do. To see that is really rewarding.”
‘An educator and a mentor’
There’s nothing pretentious about Morgan, which is why he resonates with his peers and his pupils. As he described what’s most rewarding about coaching, he stopped mid-sentence for about 5 seconds to keep his emotions in check.
Morgan survived a near-fatal car accident in 1989 that left him with a broken hip. That was one moment when football was secondary. When he thinks of what matters the most, it’s the people.
“Probably the biggest payoff is when it’s over with … and they come back,” Morgan said. “Or you get a letter. That’s the biggest payoff. That’s what you really love and you can’t buy that. It’s just like the locker room. You can’t get that feeling. You guys get to take the moments that people remember forever. We get to see that in the locker room and it’s really special. It’s about the relationships. It’s about the guys growing, and it’s about the guys learning and them understanding that it’s a game but it’s even more than a game.”
Kaeding said Morgan rarely honored the stars at West or Iowa, but he regularly praised scout-team performers or the janitor who unlocked the gym. Morgan recoils from notoriety, which makes it fun for Kaeding to tout him.
“He’ll poor boy, downplay every single thing out there,” Kaeding said. “He’s very self-deprecating.
“First and foremost, he’s an educator and a mentor. Third, fourth, sixth down the line, he’s a football coach. I credit him, probably after my parents with instilling all the right sort of things with me and the same sort things I want to teach my kids and other kids I’m coaching the importance of character and hard work. Those are the hallmarks of a Reese Morgan program.”