Ladell Betts says Iowa City has changed a lot in the 20 years since he wrapped up his college career, what with all the new housing areas, hotels, coffee shops and restaurants.
As for the Iowa football program, he says, it was like stepping back in time when he arrived this spring as the new running backs coach.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, in fact, assured Betts the offensive system would come back to him in no time.
“And it’s true,” Betts said. “Everything they’re doing now is the same stuff we were doing back when I was here.”
Yes, the Hawkeyes are still running their signature outside zone play in the same physical ground game Betts starred in from 1998-2001 and Tyler Goodson has excelled in the last two years.
Betts was one of Iowa's most dependable and productive players as the program transitioned from Hayden Fry to Kirk Ferentz. He led the Hawkeyes in rushing four straight seasons before playing nine years in the NFL.
No Iowa player has had more rushing attempts (832) or plays from scrimmage (904 rushes and receptions). His 3,686 career rushing yards are second-most in program history.
The 41-year-old Betts returned to Iowa for his first college job after two years as head coach at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a total of eight years at the high school level.
“Feels good to be back,” he said. “It’s been kind of surreal, somewhat nostalgic at times and every emotion in between. For me, this is a unique opportunity I couldn’t pass up, an opportunity to come back to the university from which I started, to do something I love, which is coaching football — and obviously coach a position I know pretty well, which is running back.”
Betts, who is Black, said he followed last summer's reports about racial tension inside the program and wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't believe in Kirk Ferentz's leadership.
Former players said they were made to feel uncomfortable for the way they dressed or wore their hair, a former strength coach and Brian Ferentz were accused of bullying Black players, and Kirk and Brian Ferentz were named in a civil lawsuit brought by 13 former players.
“It’s a bit unfair for me to speculate about things that happened or transpired while I wasn't here,” Betts said. “I’ll say this: I definitely had a vested interest in what was being said, what was being talked about, and I’ll assure you this: I would not be standing here before you if I didn’t believe in the direction of this program."
Betts replaced Derrick Foster, who took an assistant's job with the Los Angeles Chargers, and oversees one of the Hawkeyes' strongest positions heading into the fall. The team finishes spring practice Saturday.
Goodson returns for his junior season after ranking third in the Big Ten with 762 yards and sixth with 114.3 all-purpose yards per game. The Hawks also have back Ivory Kelly-Martin, who had offseason knee surgery and isn't practicing this spring.
Redshirt freshmen Leshon Williams and Gavin Williams (no relation) and sophomore Nolan Donald, who moved from receiver this spring, also are getting repetitions.
Betts said he had a message for his running backs when he met them.
“Your job as a player is to make my job very difficult,” he said he told them. “What I mean by that, I want you to perform at such a high level at practice that you make it hard for me not to play you.”
Betts said three words sum up his coaching philosophy: alignment, assignment, effort.
“That's what I preach to the guys every day,” he said. “None of those three things require any athletic ability. If you know where to be, you know how to do your job and what to do and, last but not least, put forth the effort, I can coach you the rest.”