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Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle: Why he came to Iowa, and why he stayed

[ 0 ] June 14, 2013 |

UI FBC Kids Day


Chris Doyle in many ways is similar to his boss for the past 14 years.

Once the toast of the Iowa football program, Doyle’s legacy as the team’s strength and conditioning coach now is being tested.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz faces the same predicament with the Hawkeyes trying to bounce back from a 4-8 record last season. Prognosticators expect the skid to continue this fall with many preseason magazines picking Iowa to finish in last place in the Big Ten Legends Division.

“There’s all the naysayers; they’re all out there,” Doyle said Tuesday in an interview with the Press-Citizen. “And that’s fine. I don’t think people predicted us to go to a bowl in 2001, either. And we certainly weren’t picked to win the Big Ten in 2002 or 2004. So that’s fine.

“We’ll let our play do our talking. Does it motivate us? Certainly it does. I think our kids read that stuff. But I don’t think as a football staff we’re standing around the office following that stuff. We have a lot of work to do.”

Doyle shares a bond with Ferentz that goes beyond what happens on the football field.

They both could’ve bolted from Iowa when times were good because the opportunity was certainly there for them to leave.

“With our football staff over the past 15 years, people have turned down many opportunities to leave,” Doyle said. “And I’m no different than anybody else in the building. I think that we value Kirk Ferentz and we value that state of Iowa.”

Doyle and Ferentz share many of the same values, convictions and personality traits. Neither is flashy in his approach or seeks the spotlight. Doyle also appreciates that Ferentz doesn’t allow the demands of coaching big-time college football to take priority over trying to raise a family.

Doyle and his wife, Tia, have three sons, with the oldest, Declan, having just finished his junior year at West High.

Ferentz also has three sons and two daughters. And he recently became a grandfather.

“Kirk is very compassionate and very sensitive to the needs of family,” Doyle said. “So we’re very fortunate that Kirk allows us to have a good marriage between family and the commitment to being a successful Division I football program.”

Until recently, the Iowa football program had a knack for making the naysayers look foolish.

Doyle and Ferentz became the toast of their professions after Iowa had three consecutive double-digit win seasons from 2002-04. The Iowa program became known for identifying hidden gems and then having them defy the odds by using a recipe of hard work, coaching and mentoring to succeed.

The glow has since rubbed off, though, causing some to question whether the Iowa program has evolved enough under Ferentz in recent years. The circumstances were similar in 2007 after Iowa failed to earn a bowl invitation for the first time since 2000.

Ferentz and his cohorts silenced the critics by leading a second resurgence. It lasted from midway through the 2008 season until the end of the 2009 season, a stretch in which Iowa won 17 of 20 games.

Iowa’s record is just 19-19 since then, including 12-17 since late in the 2010 season.

“Good people evolve with the times,” Doyle said. “It’s 2013. It’s not 1999 anymore. And good people learn from mistakes and you move forward. So have we evolved as a football program? Boy, I hope so. If we’re not evolving, we’re not doing our jobs.

“At the same time, we hit a snag in 2007, we didn’t go to a bowl game and we made a re-commitment to doing some things and evaluated where we were at, made some improvements, went back to work and followed it with a string of really strong success. And that’s what we’ll do again.”

Part of that evolution has been six coaching changes since near the end of the 2011 season. Doyle is one of just two full-time members of Ferentz’s original staff at Iowa. The other is defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who coached the defensive backs exclusively in his first 13 seasons on staff.

Ferentz also broke from tradition by holding an open practice this spring at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines. He has made it a point to be more accessible with the fans and the media since the end of last season, but there are some things that won’t change.

“When you think of a coach Ferentz-run program, there is not a lot of drama,” Doyle said. “It’s go to work every day, do your job and do it consistently well over time. And then you have some hope that it’s going to work out.”

There was an unfortunate drama that unfolded in January 2011 after 13 Iowa football players were hospitalized with a rare muscle disorder called rhabdomyolysis. All the players eventually recovered, but the Iowa program suffered through a public relations disaster when it was determined that the illness could’ve been linked to a grueling offseason workout drill that has since been eliminated.

“It was a very difficult time for us,” Doyle said. “When something like that occurs, all you want is for those student-athletes to return safely and without any problems. And fortunately, that was the case with us.

“And yeah, we learned a lot. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information on rhabdomyolysis. And I really credit the University of Iowa with going out to the forefront and being proactive and studying it.”

Doyle also credits his fellow UI staff members and the people close to him personally for helping him get through the ordeal. Doyle wasn’t chastised by the national media to the extent that Ferentz was, but his leadership and methods were scrutinized.

“It was just a difficult time and you typically learn about the relationships we have in the building with the players that we’ve had over the years and the staff that we’ve had the opportunity to work with,” Doyle said. “Sometimes, when you hit adverse times, you realize how fortunate you are to have the relationships that you do with the people that you work with on a daily basis.”

Doyle’s popularity became evident as the rhabdo incident unfolded with many former Iowa players coming to his defense publicly.

“You’re never going to hear anybody that’s worked with him bad mouth him or anybody that’s close to the program say anything negative about the program,” said former Iowa defensive lineman and West High graduate Alex Kanellis, who now works as the strength and conditioning coach at Regina High School. “And that says something about who he is and the people he’s touched.

“He believes in hard work, and they do a lot of innovative things and things you don’t see anywhere else in the country. And when you’re testing boundaries and trying new things, every once in a while it goes wrong. But I think people around here have enough respect for him and understand that he’s doing everything he can to make sure his kids are safe.”

Former Iowa defensive lineman Tyler Luebke said the rhabdo incident did nothing to change his opinion of Doyle. Luebke credits Doyle for helping him become one of the hidden gems who flourished as a Hawkeye. Luebke was an undersized former star swimmer from West High who joined the team as a walk-on and then became a starter in 2004 for arguably one of the greatest defensive lines in school history.

“It was tough to hear those things,” said Luebke, who lives in Iowa City and sells real estate. “But when you have something like that come up, you re-evaluate some of the things that you’re doing and you’ve got to learn from that.

“It wasn’t a problem in the past, and it hasn’t been a problem since. So I think that was just one of those things that can happen.”

Luebke said Doyle’s influence was one of the biggest factors in his success. Doyle knew which motivational buttons to push to help Luebke get through the daily grind.

“I bought into the program because it was such a great program and it was motivational,” Luebke said. “It’s remarkable how well he does at relating to players and getting them to buy into the program.”

Luebke calls Doyle the Professor of Power, a nickname based partly on Doyle’s physical appearance and his vast knowledge of his profession. Doyle was an offensive lineman at Boston University from 1986-89 and he’s always had a passion for lifting weights, so much so that Doyle still competed as a power lifter while Luebke played at Iowa from 2002-04.

“Back when I was playing, he was a bigger guy because he was participating in strongman competition,” Luebke said. “So we integrated some of those activities with our training, which was fun and unique.”

As for the professor part of the nickname, Luebke uses an image of Doyle to explain what he means.

“He’s a big guy with a bald head and those features and he’s in his office with his reading glasses on and going to town on some information,” Luebke said.

Doyle is quick to deflect praise, much like his boss, because he and Ferentz both rely heavily on their supporting casts. They’re both also humble by nature.

“When people talk about Chris Doyle, well, this is not a one-man show,” Doyle said. “There have been close to 50 guys on our strength and conditioning staff in some capacity as assistants, as interns. And out of those 50, at least 15 have gone on to run their own programs.”

Kanellis said it was privilege to train under Doyle in college. He still reaches out to Doyle for advice and for inspiration.

“We keep in touch, and he’s always been a great resource for me,” Kanellis said. “It’s just always a pleasure and always a joy. I feel like I learn something every time.

“But at the same time, I feel like he enjoys talking to me, which is special. When somebody that important makes time for you, it makes you feel like they care about you.”

Kanellis said Doyle influenced him perhaps more than any other person in college.

“He’s had a huge impact with everybody that he’s worked with,” Kanellis said. “People don’t realize that the football players spend more time with him than they do the football coaches. In fact, it’s not even close.

“He’s a huge part of the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. He was great to me and he always treated me well.”

Doyle’s strength program has been a key for Iowa in establishing a rich pipeline to the NFL. Only twice under Ferentz — including the most recent draft in April — has Iowa failed to have at least two players selected in the draft.

Defensive back Micah Hyde was the only Hawkeye selected in the 2013 draft, with the Green Bay Packers taking him in the fifth round.

However, Iowa had six players selected in each of the three previous NFL drafts.

The 44-year-old Doyle grew up in Quincy, Mass., which is near Boston. He became fascinated with weight lifting at an early age and knew by the time he entered college that he wanted to be a strength and conditioning coach.

“There were a couple of police officers that trained two doors down in a garage and I used to go down there,” Doyle said. “I remember being 5 and 6 years old and just standing in the doorway and watching them train. I kind of caught on to it there and then just always enjoyed it.

“We had weights in the basement. And I just always saw it as an opportunity to improve your chance on the field. So I took to it early on.”

Doyle and his wife moved around a lot before planting roots in Eastern Iowa. He worked at five different schools — Utah, Wisconsin, Holy Cross, Notre Dame and Syracuse — during a nine-year stretch from 1990 to 1998 before joining Ferentz’s staff in 1999.

Doyle’s first real introduction to the Iowa program came during the hiring process when he had a conversation with then-Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez.

The Badgers were preparing to play in the Rose Bowl and Doyle traveled from his home in Utah to attend the game. Doyle had just finished his first season as Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Utah when the opportunity surfaced to join Ferentz in the same capacity at Iowa.

Alvarez was familiar with both sides of the deal, with Doyle having worked under him as Wisconsin’s assistant strength coach in 1996 and 1997 and with Alvarez having been a former Iowa assistant under Hayden Fry from 1979 to 1986.

“I actually spoke with coach Alvarez at the team hotel, and he just raved about the community, about the University of Iowa and Kirk,” Doyle said. “So that was kind of my introduction to the University of Iowa. And the more you learn about it, the more you like it.”

Doyle now understands what Alvarez meant by the Iowa City community being special. From the coaches and players that he interacts with on a daily basis to his neighbors in Coralville, Doyle said it’s the people that make his job and his life so enjoyable and fulfilling.

He appreciates that his three children have attended the same school system and lived in the same town for nearly 15 years. His youngest son, Dillon, was born in Iowa City and is an “original Iowan,” his father says.

“We have a unique opportunity,” Doyle said. “Our kids may go through a whole school system in one school system. That’s real unique in Division I athletics. But the people we’ve met at Weber Elementary (School) and the people over at West High are incredible both in athletics and in education. They do an awesome job at West High. We can’t imagine better educational opportunities for our kids and better people to be around on a daily basis and we’re seeing that. It’s just a special place because of the people.”

Despite his notoriety, Doyle said his wife gets noticed more than him in public. Tia Doyle teaches developmental mathematics at Kirkwood Community College and tutors kids in math. She also works at the concession stands during sporting events at West, where son Declan is the starting first baseman on the baseball team.

“If I come home for dinner, there may be five kids at the dinner table doing math,” Doyle said. “We’ll be walking through the mall downtown and someone will say hello to her and I’ll realize she knows so many people in the community outside of Iowa football.”

Declan Doyle made the decision to stop playing football after his sophomore year to focus on baseball. His father embraced the decision despite his passion for football.

“I was really, really happy for him,” Chris Doyle said. “I was proud of him that he found his niche because in life in order to be successful you need to find something you’re passionate about and then you pursue it with all you’ve got. And he found that in baseball and I’m so excited that he’s found that and he’s pursuing it.”

Doyle also is excited about the future of the Iowa football program. He said the recent facility upgrades will propel Iowa into the next decade and he’s confident that the right pieces are in place for Iowa to be a Big Ten contender again.

Doyle didn’t know if the right pieces were in place in 1999 and 2000 when Iowa lost 18 of its first 20 games under Ferentz. Most of the assistant coaches had come from lesser-known schools and were viewed with suspicion.

“We were operating a lot on faith in ’99 and 2000,” Doyle said. “There weren’t a lot of success stories yet.”

“But we believed. It’s easy to believe in Kirk Ferentz. He’s a hardworking, humble family guy. It’s easy to rally behind him because he provides an example for the staff. But there was a time there in the ’99 and 2000 where sure, yeah, we said do we have what it takes. There was a group of us here from all different places and some guys from maybe lesser-known programs and we kind of came together.

“It’s been a heck of a run and the success has allowed us to stay here. But there has been some stability in the coaching staff and what’s gone on here that’s allowed it, too.”


Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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