It was 34 years ago that Ken O’Keefe roamed the field as a wide receiver for the John Carroll University football team. Today, he paces the sidelines as the offensive coordinator for the University of Iowa – one of the highest ranked football programs in the country.
O’Keefe’s road has been a long one that has taken him from the sweltering heat of Texas to the bewildering cold of Russia.
Looking back on his years at JCU, O’Keefe, whose daughter Meghan is a JCU senior, remembers the lifestyle of a student-athlete.
“We always had to make sure we got our work done,” he said. “But we also had our fair share of fun.”
Many of the friendships he made at that point in his life, he still holds today.
“Some of those guys I played with and were close with come to Iowa games now,” he said. “Being able to see those people allows me to stay connected to that time in my life.”
The head coach during his playing days, Jerry Schweickert, who still teaches classes at JCU, played an integral role in shaping his coaching style.
“I have very fond memories of Coach Schweickert,” O’Keefe said. “He taught me how important it was to love your players.”
After graduating in 1975, O’Keefe began his lengthy journey towards becoming a high-profile collegiate coach.
Two years as an assistant at New Haven University was the first taste of NCAA coaching experience that he would undergo before moving to the high school prep level.
He would spend the next seven years in Massachusetts and Texas, before finally returning to the college ranks as an offensive line coach at Allegheny College.
In 1990, he was promoted to head coach at Allegheny and began what was one of the most successful tenures in program history.
O’Keefe led the Gators to an undefeated season and Division III National Championship in his first year at the helm. In addition to the championship, he was named the Division III National Coach of the Year.
Over his eight seasons leading the program at Allegheny, O’Keefe compiled a career record of 79-10-1 with four undefeated regular seasons and conference coach of the year honors four times.
Following the 1992 season, O’Keefe led an all-star team to Russia to compete in an exhibition game against a semi-pro team.
While there, he was asked to help teach younger kids to play American football, and proceeded to spend two years running camps in the country.
He played an integral role in the Friendship Through Football program that brought together youth teams from the United States and Russia.
After moving on to Fordham University in 1998, an opening in the University of Iowa staff led O’Keefe to the Big Ten.
He accepted the position of offensive coordinator in 1999 and has never looked back.
Now in his 11th season as the playcaller for the Hawkeyes, O’Keefe’s offenses have taken Iowa to seven bowl games since 2001, while also bringing Iowa back to national prominence.
“I love it,” O’Keefe said of the University of Iowa. “I am around so many great people every day; it makes it tough to not love coming to work.”
The Hawkeyes are set to play Georgia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl this January in their first BCS bowl game since 2002.
As for whether or not O’Keefe could ever see himself leaving Iowa for the NFL, like so many Blue Streaks before him, the jury is still out.
“All of that kind of stuff usually takes care of itself,” he said. “I am very fortunate to be in a job that I love so much.”
Throughout all of the years, O’Keefe still is grateful for what John Carroll provided him.
“I learned how to learn [at JCU],” he said. “Carroll doesn’t just teach excellence in the classroom, but excellence in life.”