Returning to Hawkeye football program as coach ‘nostalgic’ for former Iowa running back Ladell Betts

Betts, the program’s second all-time leading rusher, was named the team’s new running backs coach in March.


Ben Plank

Ladell Betts finds a whole up the middle as he heads for the endzone during the Hawkeyes’ victory over Minnesota on Saturday afternoon.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Ladell Betts took the podium at the Hansen Football Performance Center Wednesday afternoon, wearing a black Iowa football polo for his introductory press conference as the Hawkeye football program’s new running backs coach.

Rather, the press conference served as more of a reintroduction.

Betts, the Iowa football program’s second all-time leading rusher, played for the Hawkeyes from 1998-2001 and in March was named to the team’s coaching staff.

“I’m a new addition to the staff, but probably not new to many [people],” Betts said Wednesday in a building that had not been built when he was last with the program. “I’m a familiar face, a familiar name. Just a little bit older and a little less hair on the top of my head these days.”

After being recruited to Iowa City by Hayden Fry and playing one season for the Hall of Fame coach, Betts was the starting running back for three seasons under current Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. The Blue Springs, Missouri, native rushed for 3,686 yards and 25 touchdowns in his Hawkeye career.

Betts was a second-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, and ended up playing nine seasons in the league.

From the time he was 11 to when he retired at the age of 31, Betts played running back. And that experience is what he will bring to the Hawkeyes.

“I think one of the misconceptions about running backs is a lot of people think we just run the ball,” said Betts, who will also recruit for the Hawkeyes in Minnesota and some portions of Florida. “But there are nuances to the position. Being in the NFL, you learn a lot of those nuances. Whether it be how to run routes, how to catch the ball, how to block — all those little things that separate your average tailback and take their game to the next level.

“There are running backs all over the country who know how to run. But can you do the other things?”

Iowa’s running back coaching position was vacated when Derrick Foster accepted the same job with the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers this offseason. Betts said he never had the opportunity to meet Foster, but noted he’s built a “great foundation” in the running backs room.

Ferentz interviewed six candidates for the running backs coaching job (just as he did for the team’s offensive line coach position, which went to George Barnett).

RELATED: ‘I was coming back for sure’: Despite NFL interest, Tyler Linderbaum was set on returning to the Iowa football program

It became clear that Betts stood above the rest.

“Bringing back a former player is a positive,” Ferentz said March 31. “But it wasn’t a requisite, it was just a bonus… When he got on campus, I hadn’t seen Ladell in 20 years. I talked to him on a different subject about four weeks before the job opened up. Everything about him was just really impressive to each and every one of us.”

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz added: “It’s harder and harder to find guys passionate about running backs… Ladell has lived it for the majority of his life. The passion he had for playing the position and his vision for the position, I thought it was remarkable.”

Betts served as an offensive coordinator with the NFL 100 Prep Series from 2011-14, and since then has coached football at the high school level, most recently as the head coach of Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the past two years.

Taking a job at the college level, especially at his alma mater, was a move Betts said he couldn’t pass up, despite it meaning his family would have to relocate. Betts’ wife, five daughters, and son haven’t moved to Iowa City yet as his children finish out the school year.

To be back in Iowa City has been “surreal, nostalgic, and every emotion in between” for Betts.

The new restaurants and coffee shops that have been added since he played at Iowa stood out to Betts upon his return to the program. But the Hawkeye playbook is largely the same as it was in the early 2000s. Iowa is still going to run the ball. The team’s zone, gap, and lead concepts are still there.

After running in them, now it’s time for Betts to teach them. His star pupil in the running backs room is Tyler Goodson, a 2020 first team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore.

“Tyler has vision,” Betts said. “And he has the ability to put action to that vision. Not everyone can do that. Sometimes people can see the move or see the run, but their body can’t make it happen. I think that’s his greatest asset. He has the vision, and he has the ability to put that vision into action.”

Goodson stands atop Iowa’s depth chart. He is the type of star runner in the backfield that Betts was in his time with the Hawkeyes.

But one of the first things Betts told Iowa’s other running backs — senior Ivory Kelly-Martin and freshmen Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams — was to make it impossible for them not to see the ball this fall.

“From day one in that meeting room, I told the guys, ‘Listen, your job as a player is to make my job very difficult,’” Betts said. “What I mean by that is I want them to perform at such a high level in practice that they make it hard for me not to play them. If we have that type of attitude in the room, it will do nothing but push everyone, and that should elevate Tyler as a player.”