Up Close With Ken O'Keefe
Dec. 20, 2011
Editor's Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa's Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Ken O'Keefe doesn't remember many specifics from a 35-34 overtime loss at Towson on Sept. 26, 1998. He does recall a postgame conversation with a fan.
O'Keefe was in his first season as head football coach at Fordham (N.Y.) University in 1998. One week after the Rams won their first Patriot League game of the season against Bucknell, they dropped a heartbreaker at Towson. Baltimore Ravens assistant coach Kirk Ferentz was in the stands that day, supporting O'Keefe, his friend and former teaching and coaching associate.
It was quite a prophecy. Ferentz was hired as head coach at the University of Iowa less than three months later. O'Keefe has been offensive coordinator for the Hawkeyes ever since.
"We've been fortunate that things have worked out along the way; we haven't had to make a lot of moves," O'Keefe said. "I was more interested in the people I would be around and who I would be with. Could I trust the lives of family in their hands? Kirk Ferentz is a guy where that was never a question, and it made this decision a lot easier."
With O'Keefe orchestrating an efficient and proficient offense, the Hawkeyes have compiled an overall record of 96-65 since 1999, with 57 of those victories coming against Big Ten Conference foes and six more coming in bowl games. Iowa is preparing for its 10th bowl trip in 13 seasons, and a win this year would give the Hawkeyes an unprecedented four straight postseason victories.
"At Iowa we have always taken pride in running the ball successfully," O'Keefe said. "You have to be balanced and flexible enough as a system so that you can handle what your opponents will throw at you. At the same time there has to be order to it, and there has to be a sequence to use it successfully."
Iowa gained more than 400 yards in five games with a best of 475 during a 31-27 win against Pittsburgh. The Hawkeyes had eight games throwing more than 200 yards and twice they rushed for more than 200 yards.
O'Keefe saw the most growth this season from a Hawkeye line that helped the offense average nearly six yards a play.
"Our line played well and did a nice job," O'Keefe said. "They're a tough, hard-nosed unit. (Offensive line coach) Reese Morgan does a great job with those guys; they did an outstanding job this year."
O'Keefe points to many other offensive bright spots: the development of sophomore tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (12 catches, 144 yards, two touchdowns) and junior tight end Zach Derby (12-117-0), as well as the improved output from wide receiver Marvin McNutt, Jr., who entered the season as a second-team All-Big Ten performer. When the 2011 regular season ended, McNutt had 78 receptions for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns -- and was named Big Ten Conference Receiver of the Year.
"Sometimes the older guys, especially those at the skill positions, when they've achieved so much, they have a lot of pressure to do it again and they can't always get it done," O'Keefe said. "Marvin was able to do that and even sometimes knowing he was sort of a one-man show out there."
Watching the offense improve is the most gratifying part of the job for O'Keefe. But success on the field is just one ingredient that elevates the UI program above its peers. Since Ferentz's staff came in 1999, 19 players have earned 34 district Academic All-America honors. On Nov. 10, three members of the UI football program were named to the Capital One Academic All-District VI first team: senior linebacker Tyler Nielsen, junior quarterback James Vandenberg and junior defensive lineman Steve Bigach.
There have been landmark triumphs on the field as well. Game balls clutter O'Keefe's office; so do papers that are in the process of becoming the offensive game plan for the upcoming bowl game against No. 19 Oklahoma. O'Keefe was amazed by the card stunts and atmosphere inside Kinnick Stadium during a 41-31 win against Northwestern on Oct. 15.
"We've had a lot of good wins, and it's hard to pick-and-choose them," O'Keefe said. "But LSU -- the last play of the game (of the 2005 Capital One Bowl, a 30-25 win by Iowa), Michigan State up at their place (15-13 on Oct. 24, 2009)...Florida in the (2004) Outback Bowl (37-17 win by Iowa) -- there have been a ton of them."
O'Keefe, 58, was born in Milford, Conn. His father was an iron worker and his mother was a waitress. O'Keefe and his four brothers all played football. He was a three-year starter at wide receiver and played baseball at Division III John Carroll University in Ohio, graduating in 1975.
O'Keefe coached at the University of New Haven (Conn.) from 1976-77 before becoming a high school coach at Worcester (Mass.) Academy (1978-84) and Fort Worth (Texas) Country (1985). He was offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at Allegheny (Pa.) from 1986-89. From 1990-97, O'Keefe was head coach at Allegheny, leading the Gators to a record of 79-10-1 and the 1990 NCAA Division III national title. He was 4-7 in his only season at Fordham, winning his final two games.
In 1978-79, O'Keefe's offensive line coach and defensive coordinator was Ferentz. The two were reunited two decades later in Iowa City. Ferentz, defensive coordinator Norm Parker, O'Keefe, Morgan, linebackers coach Darrell Wilson and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski all spent time coaching at high schools before coming to the UI.
"You can't yell to tell your quarterback to check a play because he can't hear you anymore," O'Keefe said of the difference from high school to Division I football. "And there aren't dogs running around in the end zone."
O'Keefe's experience at the high school and Division III levels helped put life -- and coaching -- into perspective.
"If you're teaching English or history in a classroom, you really understand how kids learn differently, how they are all totally different in how they look at things, and you need to be different with your approaches as well," O'Keefe said. "We understand what these guys are going through while we're recruiting them, and we understand what they're going through, especially as freshmen and sophomores. That's usually the toughest times for anybody when they make that transition from high school to college."
The excitement of winning a game, the bond between player and coach, and the mission of the program is the same, regardless of level, he said.
"We're fortunate because we work for a guy like Kirk Ferentz, and we're at a great institution like the University of Iowa," O'Keefe said. "(The University of Iowa) really approaches what it does more like a small liberal arts college than any large university. That's a huge positive, and I think it's something that makes a difference for everybody that attends this institution."
O'Keefe and his wife, Joanne, have two grown children, Meghan and Brendan. Both Ken and Joanne have roots on the east coast, which made leaving Fordham difficult. These days he spends most of his free time "trying to reconnect with family," either by traveling to see them or having them come back to Iowa City.
And when O'Keefe gets an opportunity to get back East, chances are good you will find him near water.
"We usually spend time on the water trying to chase after some fish for dinner or doing a little clamming or crabbing," O'Keefe said. "Other than that, he refers to himself as "a regular, boring guy."
When O'Keefe agreed to join Ferentz's staff, his wife made it Ken's responsibility to phone his mother-in-law and break the news. The task slipped his mind.
"I went back to the office and one thing led to another and I forgot to do it," O'Keefe said. "Joanne had to handle that; my mother-in-law thought we were just taking her grandchildren away."
Ken's in-laws understood his decision when they visited Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 9, 1999, to watch Iowa play Penn State.
"They saw the crowd and saw what it was like here at Iowa," O'Keefe said. "They knew instantly it was the right move."
And for the Hawkeyes, O'Keefe is the right fit.