IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nobody knows personal conflict this week quite like Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann.
This Saturday, Niemann will take his coaching position along the sideline. He will stare across the field and see his son, Ben, wearing the opposite uniform. Ben Niemann is a two-year starting outside linebacker with the Iowa Hawkeyes. Their teams open Big Ten play against one another at high noon (ET) at High Point Solutions Stadium.
That’s where Jay Niemann’s conflict begins.
“I don’t know if I can really describe that, to be honest with you,” Jay Niemann said. “I don’t know if I’ll know until the moment. The father side of me says there will be some emotional ties that will make it tough. The business side of me says, ‘Hey, he’s just got to go play and I’ve got to go coach.’ We’ll realize it is what it is and afterwards we’ll just move on. We’ll just be family.
“For 60 minutes we’ll be foes. But at the end of the day we’re still family.”
The emotions are just as real for Ben, a junior. The Niemann family bond also includes Lou Ann (wife and mother) and younger brother Nick (a freshman linebacker at Iowa who is redshirting this year). They are close, faith-based and speak on the phone multiple times during the week.
Ben Niemann talked with his dad after Iowa’s 23-21 loss to North Dakota State last Saturday. He anticipates they’ll chat again this week.
“Obviously it’s not going to be X’s and O’s,” Ben Niemann said. “Just outside stuff, how’s life and that kind of stuff. I’ll probably talk to him again for sure.”
The Niemann family has lived the traditional vagabond coaching lifestyle throughout Ben’s life. He was born in 1995 when Jay Niemann was the defensive coordinator at Drake, a non-scholarship program in Des Moines, Iowa. Jay then coached at Northern Iowa, an FCS power, for five seasons before becoming head coach at Simpson College, located 15 miles south of Des Moines, for six years. They moved on to Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, Texas, in 2008. Three years later, Jay was named defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois.
That’s where this story gets tricky for the Niemanns. Ben was a top high school athlete at Sycamore (Ill.) High School, located near DeKalb. He was an all-state wide receiver at Sycamore, catching 149 passes for 2,668 yards and 35 touchdowns. He also played safety and was committed to Northern Illinois when Iowa came calling in 2013. That became a bittersweet moment for the family and even Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
“You know how you remember phone calls you’ve had in your life?” Ferentz said. “I remember a lot of them, but I know exactly where I was. I was in Nashville visiting my daughter and her husband, and I can’t tell you where we were going, but we were in the car, and I talked to Jay, and I felt awful. I mean, it was a really painful conversation in some ways, just because I know as a coach how special it is to have a son on the team. That’s a pretty good deal.
“On one hand, it made sense for (Ben) to come here. On the other hand, it was kind of like I was asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage in some ways, except I was stealing something.”
The Niemanns discussed it. They prayed about it. More conflict. The joy the family felt for Ben potentially playing for his father was equaled by his opportunity to compete for a successful Big Ten program.
“That was kind of a rough time honestly because I had the opportunity to play for my dad, and I didn’t know how long he’d be at NIU and Iowa’s a great program,” Ben Niemann said. “I visited (Iowa). I really couldn’t turn it down. (Jay) was happy for me. He’s always said, he’s happy that I’m playing at a place like this under a coach like coach Ferentz.”
There also was some disappointment. Most fathers would love the chance to coach their son. Ferentz has done it three times at Iowa. But the pride Jay Niemann experienced in his son’s accomplishment won the day.
“You’ve got to realize that the decision is his and it needs to be his to make,” Jay Niemann said. “It would have been selfish on my part to stand in the way of that.
“I think it’s worked out for the best. Had we been in a situation as a family where he had gone to NIU, he’d be playing there and I’d be out here and that wouldn’t work out very well, either.”
With Northern Illinois’ odd schedule, with games scattered throughout the week, Jay Niemann was able to attend many of Ben’s games last year. He was there in the regular-season finale at Nebraska when Ben suffered a head injury and left the field. Jay attended the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
About that time, Chris Ash accepted the head coaching job at Rutgers. Ash was a defensive back under Niemann at Drake and asked him to join his staff. Jay Niemann agreed, and he immediately discussed his decision with his sons.
“He didn’t think we were going to play each other at first just because opposite sides,” Ben Niemann said. “Then a couple of minutes after he took the job he looked and, ‘Yeah we had the crossover game.’ We talked a little smack at first. Now it’s here.”
With his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame, there was a chance Ben could play tight end at Iowa. But he moved to outside linebacker as a true freshman and became a starter as a sophomore.
“It would be a little difficult to game plan your own son,” Jay Niemann said. “For that we do have to be thankful, that he’s playing on the other side of the ball.”
As a redshirt this year, Nick is unlikely to travel. Ben and Jay, who haven’t seen one another since July, hope to embrace afterward. But until then, they are foes and both recognize the situation as imperfect.
“I’m just trying to treat it like any other game,” Ben Niemann said. “There’s a different dynamic to it, obviously. I’m not really going to focus on that. I’m just trying to focus on my preparation like I have every other game.”
“You kind of get to the point where he has to do what he has to do, and I do what I have to do,” Jay Niemann said. “Fortunately, since he’s not an offensive player, it doesn’t affect me quite as much. At the end of the day, we’ll play hard both ways, the best team will come out on top, we’ll be family and we’ll move forward right after it’s over.”