By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jim Caldwell played defensive back at the University of Iowa in an era when the word quit was in no one’s vocabulary.
As a true freshman in 1973, the Hawkeyes finished 0-11, but Caldwell used the experience to his advantage.
“This is a great school and it is far better than any one person,” said Caldwell, honorary captain for the Hawkeyes’ Homecoming game Saturday against Maryland. “It was one of the great lessons I learned. I was a young guy who came from a high school where we didn’t lose. I came here and it was the complete opposite, so it was a test.”
Head coach Frank Lauterbur was replaced by Bob Commings after the 1973 season. The next three seasons were better from a win-loss perspective for the Hawkeyes (11-22), but the closest Caldwell got to being on a winning team was as a senior in 1976. Iowa went 5-6 that season and upset nationally ranked Penn State, 7-6, in State College, Pennsylvania.
“One of the great things about this school is that it has great historic tradition,” Caldwell said. “There have been a number of great players and great people that have come through here. That is one of the reasons I got into coaching: I saw the impact some of the coaches had on the guys around me. I wanted to have an influence and impact on young people. I wanted to make a difference and have an opportunity to inspire and motivate men. I got a sense of that while I was here.”
Caldwell was a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1977 (another 5-6 record), then made five stops as a college assistant coach. From 1993-2000, he was head coach at Wake Forest before heading to the National Football League. Caldwell was head coach at Indianapolis from 2009-11 and Detroit from 2014-17, finishing with winning records with both franchises. He led the 2009 Colts to the Super Bowl, where they lost to New Orleans, 31-17.
It was during his time in the NFL where Caldwell developed an increased appreciation for Hawkeye student-athletes. He coached a number of Iowa players, including Bob Sanders, Dallas Clark, Marshal Yanda, and Riley Reiff.
“Any time they would mention a guy form the University of Iowa, a big plus sign went next to his name,” Caldwell said. “(NFL executives) understood that they were coached extremely hard and well, they were tough physically and mentally, and they had been through a tough and dynamic strength training program. They have been challenged in almost every area and they are not going to fold.”
How does Caldwell describe a Hawkeye in the professional football ranks?
“Dependable, tough, willing, eager; guys that set great examples,” he said. “You never had to worry about them off the field. They had all the things you look for in a quality individual coming in and having an impact on your organization.”
When Caldwell appeared before the team and staff Friday afternoon in the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center, he said he was not there to provide a motivational speech. He was wrong.
Granted, the real inspiration came from words spoken by a college teammate, Charles Danzy, before a game in 1975 or 1976 against either Purdue or Indiana. The year or opponent is insignificant, but the impact of the message has stood the test of more than four decades.
Caldwell said that over the course of his career, he has heard pep talks from head coaches Denny Green (another University of Iowa alumnus), Howard Schnellenberger, Joe Paterno, Bill McCartney, and Tony Dungy.
“The best one I ever heard happened here at the University of Iowa. By a player,” Caldwell said. “Charles Danzy from Massillon, Ohio, was a safety and he was the1970s version of Bob Sanders; he hit anything that moved.
“One day he stood up in front of the group and said two words: Watch me. That was it. He said watch me. I have not seen to date an individual play for 60 minutes the way he played uninterrupted with an intensity like I have never seen before. Neither in college nor in the pros. All he said was watch me.”
Caldwell will accompany Iowa’s captains to midfield for the pregame coin toss Saturday in Kinnick Stadium. He will also be with the Hawkeyes in the locker room before and after the game.
No. 19/22 Iowa (5-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) hosts Maryland (4-2, 2-1) for Homecoming. Kickoff is set for 11:01 a.m. (CT); the game — which is sold out — will be televised by ESPN2 with Mark Jones and Dusty Dvoracek on the call.
“The great thing about tomorrow, I get a chance to watch you set a tone and it is going to be fun,” Caldwell told the Hawkeyes. “I have had an opportunity to watch a number of games in my lifetime, this probably is one I am looking forward to more than any other.”