IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tim Polasek isn’t one for politicking. He doesn’t spend January on his phone throwing his name in the ring for most job openings.
“If somebody calls, we’ll take a peek,” Polasek said.
Polasek is big on loyalty and was more than happy to keep serving as the North Dakota State offensive coordinator and running backs coach.
But one job opening this January was too enticing to ignore. Iowa was without a running backs coach. In fact, the Hawkeyes needed to fill most of their offensive staff. Polasek wondered about the opening and what position offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz would coach.
So he called Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace. The two became friends recruiting the same Wisconsin high schools.
“I have a great deal of interest,” Polasek told Wallace.
Working with head coach Kirk Ferentz interested him. Joining a program respected in coaching circles, like Iowa, was a good opportunity. The chance to grow as a coach was too much to pass up.
Upon hanging up with Wallace, Polasek wanted to apply. It was the start of Polasek being one of three coaches to stand out during the interview process and join the Iowa coaching staff this winter.
There was only one thing — he needed to act fast.
“I got my application in on the day of the deadline,” Polasek said.
What Ferentz wanted
As he does when searching for recruits, Ferentz enters a coaching search with a checklist for candidates.
Above all else, Ferentz wanted to hire a strong coach. Positional experience took a back seat.
“Certainly knowledge and expertise are important, I’m not minimizing that, but it’s important to get the right person,” Ferentz said. “A person that’s going to be a great teacher, a great mentor. It’s a big part of college football, and someone that has a shared vision and approach that we think is important.”
His first two moves were easy. He elevated his son, Brian Ferentz, from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. Next, he called his old coaching confidant Ken O’Keefe. O’Keefe was Iowa’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1999-2011. He didn’t just fit the culture Ferentz wants, O’Keefe helped build it.
It didn’t take long for O’Keefe to go from the Miami Dolphins to becoming the Iowa quarterback coach once he hung up with Ferentz.
“To me, he is just going to be an outstanding resource on our staff; for me, someone to lean on 18 years ago (as a new head coach),” Kirk Ferentz said. “(O’Keefe had) extensive head-coaching experience when we came here. I was leaning on him hard. Now, I just think everyone on our staff will really benefit from his wealth of experience on every level. I am really happy about that.”
There were still two staff openings and plenty of resumes to rummage through. Ferentz would flip through them with one goal in mind.
“Our program is operating at a championship level — that’s on all levels, whether it’s citizenship, academics or football,” Ferentz said. “And the way you go about accomplishing that is to try to create a culture that’s going to be competitive, and based on continuous improvement. And then part of that is hiring coaches that are going to help our players continue to push forward and reach their fullest potential.”
Copeland’s perfect fit
Joining Iowa intrigued Northern Illinois wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland the way it did Polasek. He always respected the Hawkeyes.
Copeland played quarterback for coach Jerry Kill at Emporia State from 1999-2002. Kill is Copeland’s first mentor and is fond of talking about a hard hat and lunch pail mentality. Those traits are ingrained in Copeland, and from his vantage point the Hawkeyes weren’t any different, making it a natural fit.
“When you watch Iowa football, that’s how they play,” Copeland said. “It’s blue-collar, hard-nosed, tough, physical and relentless. That’s the way I love to coach, and that’s the way I love watching guys play.”
Copeland reached out to Kill, asking if he could talk to Ferentz on his behalf and Kill did.
Kill’s words matter to Ferentz. He respects the former Minnesota head coach and current Rutgers offensive coordinator.
But Copeland would need more than a good reference to land the wide receivers job.
“His words certainly carried a lot of weight,” Ferentz said, “but there were other people too … people that worked alongside you, that type of thing. What do they say about you, what do they think about you? And former players, those kinds of things. How do they view a coach?”
Copeland would also need to nail his interview. Culture is important in Iowa City and the Hawkeyes kept asking questions about it.
The more it came up, the more Copeland felt Iowa was the place he would coach next.
“Winning on the field, yes, that’s important, but developing young men, (is important too) right?” Copeland said. “Being honest, being loyal, doing things the right way, treating people the right way. And when I came to my interview process and we started talking and we got to know each other a little bit, we found out pretty quick that our core values were similar and parallel. So to me it was an easy fit.”
What are your expectations?
On the way to Polasek’s interview, Iowa deputy athletics director Gene Taylor and Polasek passed a full trophy case.
Most of the trophies were there because of Ferentz, a former offensive line coach. Iowa’s newest trophy, the Joe Moore Award, is because of the younger Ferentz, Iowa’s last offensive line coach.
This is the job Polasek would be taking over. So Taylor asked him what his expectations were.
“He said, ‘You know, my goal is three years from now is that one or both of those guys tell me, ‘Hey you coached this position as well as anybody,’ ” Taylor said.
Polasek’s confidence stood out. So did his willingness to coach a new position.
Of course, North Dakota State’s 23-21 victory over Iowa this past September came up. The Bison pulled off the upset, in large part, because they rushed for 239 yards. Polasek answered questions on how North Dakota State did it, but also spent time explaining what allowed his players to play like that.
“What I’m talking about there is is there a discipline?” Polasek said. “Is there a finish that’s uncommon? Those are the things that were most fun about being a coordinator. It was really hardly about calling plays, to be honest with you.”
Both Copeland and Polasek impressed the Hawkeyes. Iowa offered Copeland first. Polasek didn’t interview until Feb. 9. He believes he was one of the final interviews, but it didn’t keep him from becoming the offensive line coach.
Both ended up on the staff because they reminded Ferentz of the championship pedigree he sought when starting the hiring process.
“We’re one step closer now to getting where we want to get,” Ferentz said, “and really pleased again to name the addition of Kelton and Tim.”
And it doesn’t happen without Polasek rushing to get in his resume at the last minute.