IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tim Polasek once sold a golf club to pay for a trip to North Dakota. Kelton Copeland was a dual-threat quarterback who followed Jerry Kill from Miami, Fla., to Michigan and the MIAA.
Polasek slept on a floor and made $6,000 a year as a graduate assistant. Copeland taught health and physical education classes, served as an equipment manager and ran strength and conditioning as an assistant at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
Both were college quarterbacks. Both worked their way from the lowest levels. Both appreciate the process and opportunity they earned — underline and bold the word earned — to coach at the University of Iowa.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, energy and enthusiasm were rampant with both new assistant coaches. Polasek, 37, looked the part of an offensive line coach despite never previously coaching the position. He boasts the barrel chest, the goatee, the tenacious personality. He made the eight-hour drive from Fargo to Iowa City earlier Thursday, then told Hawkeye Nation a fraction of his life story.
Copeland, 36, was smooth, direct and confident. He most recently guided Northern Illinois’ wide receivers and will do the same with the Hawkeyes.
Neither comes with an upper-crest pedigree. They persevered and prospered because of skill and determination. There’s nothing wrong with a former NFL player or former major-college assistant coach joining Iowa’s staff. That happened earlier this month with quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe. But you can’t fake the grit and perseverance it takes for someone sleeping on a floor or working four jobs in central Kansas just to become a coach. That doesn’t fade just because you’re coaching in a $55 million practice facility on a Big Ten campus.
Both had referrals from within the coaching ranks. But that’s not what got them their jobs, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“Networking is important, but it’s so overstated and you see too many people worried about networking and worried about all the wrong things instead of just getting better,” Ferentz said. “And that’s what we ask our players to do. Focus on what’s in front of them and get better. So, same thing with coaches. You want guys that are really geared on that.”
Polasek’s journey: From logging in Wisconsin to plowing in Iowa
Polasek grew up in Wisconsin and became the all-time leading passer in Division III Concordia (Wis.) University history. He became an assistant at Wisconsin-Stevens Point before moving on to the North Dakota State in 2006. That call has become legendary.
“When I got the phone call to come interview at North Dakota State, I was just getting out of the woods in central Wisconsin from a day of logging,” Polasek said. ” ‘Is this Tim Polasek the football coach?’ And I said, ‘It’s Tim Polasek the football coach and logger.’ So at that time, three days a week I was recruiting for a Division III school, UW-Stevens Point, and three days a week I was logging. I mean, cutting timber down and doing it all.
“Coach (Craig Bohl) says, ‘When can you come over here?’ I said, ‘How long is it? How far is it?’ I don’t know where Fargo is. He said, ‘Eight hours.’ I said, ‘I can be there in eight-and-a-half.’ So two days later I drove out there, and when I came back, I didn’t really have the means to get back out to Fargo. So I had the means to get a really good driver the summer before, and so I sold it to get enough gas to come back.
“The really cool part of that story — and it just comes back to people — Iowa, Wisconsin, a guy purchased that driver and he mailed it right back to me right away. So it was kind of a running joke that he would have given me the money regardless. But that’s a true story.”
Salt of the earth as a coach. Ground-floor work ethic. But if he didn’t have the production, Polasek wouldn’t be at Iowa. As an assistant and later offensive coordinator at North Dakota State, Polasek directed an offense that featured quarterback Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL draft. The Bison won four national titles when Polasek was there. The other year, 2013, he coached at Northern Illinois, which won 12 games.
Polasek is shifting from offensive coordinator to offensive line, a position group he’s never directed. It’s a position group that Kirk Ferentz and son Brian Ferentz has guided into eight first-team All-Americans, 19 first-team all-Big Ten selections, two Outland Trophy winners and last year’s Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best offensive line. It takes a secure person to walk into that job and believe you can maintain or elevate that unit’s standard of excellence.
“I asked him that question in an interview,” said Iowa deputy athletics director Gene Taylor, the former North Dakota State athletics director. “I said, ‘What’s your expectation? You just walked by one of the biggest trophies in the world led by two of the best offensive line coaches.’ 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.’ So he’s not afraid to step in and learn. He’s not afraid to come in and offer his insight. So Tim’s got a lot of confidence.
“He talks about the discomfort, pushing to get to be at an uncomfortable level. That’s what he’s doing from the time he sold his golf club. He always wanted to get better and test himself. I don’t anticipate any concerns.”
Without a background as an offensive line coach, Polasek has no habits to change or styles to alter.
“I see it as an opportunity to learn and grow from several guys upstairs that really understand the position,” Polasek said. “I’ve always been of the mindset that I’m going to try to create uncomfortable situations for the players, so why would that be any different for a coach that’s trying to move forward and do great things?”
From Miami to Michigan to the MIAA: Copeland’s path to Kinnick
Copeland grew up in South Florida before Kill offered him a scholarship in 1999 to play football in Saginaw, Mich. A year later, Kill moved to Emporia, Kan., and Copeland transferred to join him.
Kill, the Minnesota coach from 2011-2015, taught Copeland loyalty and a blue-collar work ethic. Copeland was a Division II dual-threat quarterback in an era that rarely featured that type of player. He parlayed his skill set and toughness into a role with the Hornets upon graduation.
“They knew from my third year of playing that they knew I wanted to be a coach,” Copeland said. “So they started grooming me towards that goal even when I was playing. When the opportunity came right after I got done playing and my career was over, like I said, I was on staff the very next week.”
Copeland started with linebackers, then moved back to offense. He left Emporia State for Northwood, then shifted to junior college football from 2007-2010. He followed with two years at South Dakota before leaving for Northern Illinois in 2013. He coached wide receivers, running backs and special teams with the Huskies.
Still, Copeland goes back to Kill as his mentor. He spoke with his old coach, now the Rutgers offensive coordinator, to discuss the Iowa opening. The advice he received was pure, unvarnished Jerry Kill.
“First, he told me that Coach Ferentz is a heck of a guy,” Copeland said, “and if I get the opportunity I better take it or he’s going to kick my butt.
“You talk about what I learned (from Kill) … how much time have you got? I mean the list goes on. He’s a guy that I respect, and quite honestly I love quite a bit. Him and I talk to this day, and still, every day, like today when I talk to him, I’ll learn something new from the man. That’s just how I feel.”
At Northern Illinois, Copeland guided running backs from 2013-15. Last year, he served as wide receivers coach and specials teams coordinator, and the Huskies featured first-team all-MAC selections with wide receiver Kenny Golladay and return specialist Aregeros Turner. Northern Illinois also led the conference in both kickoff returns and kickoff coverage.
Copeland’s results are there, as are the intangibles. His goal was to land a job at a place like Iowa. Now that he’s here, he must reset his goals.
“I knew if I ever got a realistic opportunity at this, I was going to do everything in my power to fully obtain it, and we did,” Copeland said.
“You know, Saginaw to Emporia, that says a lot right there to me, just in the loyalty involved,” Ferentz said. “But how about Miami to Saginaw? All right. Pittsburgh-Iowa looks like nothing compared to that. So those things speak volumes about the kind of person you are and what you’re trying to do and what’s important to you.”
Fitting in at Iowa
Iowa’s offense will feature a fresh look next season and it’s not just because of the new hires. Three assistants are gone, as is Iowa’s limping passing attack. Brian Ferentz shifts from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator. Polasek ($325,0000 a year), Copeland ($225,000 per year) and O’Keefe ($540,000 annually for three 3 years) will help reshape and revise the offense.
The introductions were pleasant, but the lifelong coaches look forward to football. Polasek appeared ready for offensive line work even after his lengthy drive. Copeland was ready to start fresh with a maligned group.
“We’re going to kind of do what we do,” Polasek said. “Schematically, schematics are schematics. It really comes down to hitting people, moving the point of attack. We definitely want to displace the line of scrimmage.”
“We were just talking ball all morning,” Copeland said. “Finest morning I’ve had in a long time, just talking ball and just bouncing ideas off each other. But, no, we’re not even close to even talking about or addressing where we’re going with the pass game or anything else right now. We’re just bouncing ideas off each other and getting on the same page.”
Everything will take time for Iowa’s offense to grow, mature and potentially prosper. It might happen; it might not. But Iowa’s newest hires suggest they will work tirelessly toward the path of success. Their past suggests there’s a good chance of it happening.