Iowa (7-5) running back Marcus Coker, who finished near the top of the Big Ten conference in 2011 with 1,384 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, is suspended for the Dec. 30th Insight Bowl versus Oklahoma (9-3) due to a violation of the Student Athlete Code of Conduct, the university announced in a press release yesterday.
According to a source close to the team, the suspension is for academic reasons, although it is unclear at the time whether this implies poor grades, a cheating incident, or something else entirely more insidious. Bowl practice photos posted on HawkeyeSports.com from Dec. 18th show Coker active and participating, so the incident must have come to light Sunday evening or after the weekend. With the University of Iowa’s final exams taking place last week, grades are currently due. The announcement’s timing makes sense if the suspension is an issue of “academic indigestion,” a term Coach Kirk Ferentz has used to refer to classroom struggles.
Coker, who was not named Academic All-Big Ten for the 2011 season, is an astrophysics major and generally regarded as a good student by Ferentz, who has praised the back’s well-roundedness on multiple occasions when given the chance. The power back carried the ball 281 times this season, blistering the 114 carries he nabbed last season. He was one of the most over-utilized runners in the country and seemed weary toward the end of the year, when various nicks and bruises seemed to have taken their toll on his body and psyche. Ferentz was never able to find a suitable backup for Coker, even as the season wore on. Mika’il McCall showed promise in the opening game against Tennessee Tech, but suffered a broken ankle and eventual suspension for unknown reasons. The second-leading rusher on the team, De’Andre Johnson, amassed only 79 yards on the season, primarily in mop-up duty. Coker’s value to the team and his singular importance to Iowa’s ground-and-pound style cannot be overstated. He defined the team’s offensive identity, opened up opportunities in Iowa’s passing game, and, when he went over 100 yards rushing, Iowa tended to win, as they did against Michigan when Coker ran for 132 yards and two scores in the Hawkeyes’ biggest victory of the year.
News of the suspension came as a shock to most Hawkeye fans yesterday because Coker is so well-renowned as a hard worker, citizen of the community, and student in the classroom. Feature stories detailing his academic curiosity were popular, and reporters did not have to dig to find a sincerely positive quote from his coaches. However, pre-bowl suspensions at Iowa have become a disturbing holiday tradition in recent years. Before the 2010 Insight Bowl, wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos was infamously suspended after he faced drug charges due to a raid on his dealer roommate’s stash, and running back Adam Robinson was suspended for academic problems and then eventually kicked off the team for smoking marijuana in a friend’s car in Des Moines the night before the game. Ironically, Coker rose to fame because of Robinson’s suspension. He took advantage of his start last season and ran for 223 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries, cementing his place as Iowa’s starter heading into the 2011 season.
Now, a new face has to step up and assume the “Coker role” from last season’s Insight Bowl. Oklahoma has numerous problems of their own, but Iowa will have difficulty taking advantage of them without the threat of a running game. Ferentz’s famed “next man in” philosophy continues to be tested and brandished as a source of embarrassment, not the pride that it carried during the early portions of Ferentz’s tenure. Players are getting in trouble, not injured on the field. In the meantime, Iowa’s comical string of bad luck at the tailback position since the early NFL departure of Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene in 2008 continues, and the Hawkeyes will have to find someone from the mess of Jason White, Johnson, Jordan Canzeri, and Damon Bullock to make up for the loss of Coker’s bruising impact.