Eight Questions with Northern Iowa Football coach Mark Farley

By Tom Danner for The Predicament

Mark Farley

Coach Mark Farley is beginning his 19th year as the very successful head football coach at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). When the UNI Dome has a football game it is rocking and bursting with enthusiasm. Coach Farley credits some of that success and passion with the recruitment of multi-sport athletes including the toughness of wrestlers. Farley started his post high school career as a UNI walk on and the rest is history. He has some valuable advice to share for finding achievement through hard work and a passion for your goals.

  1. How did athletics become a big part of your life?

I played all sports at Waukon High School (Iowa). I really did not have a lot of attention out of high school to play football anywhere except from some excellent D-3 schools. So, I decided to work after high school basically with the same company my Dad worked for hauling gravel. That’s what I grew up around so that is what I thought I would do. At the end of the day you find out you get laid off in the winter. To fill that void I got a subcontracting job delivering tires for the state of Iowa. One night I stayed over in Cedar Falls and watched (UNI’s) spring practice. I went down on the floor after the practice and asked coach how can I walk on and the rest is history,

  1. What advice do you have for someone who wants to walk on?

Whenever I talk to a high school, elementary school or even my own kids, I am a firm believer to encourage them to “live your dream”. When you are in the age bracket of coming up, do what you believe and love and do it as long as you can. There are more naysayers out there than people who encourage. Everyone thinks they know what is best for you. Anything is possible when you stay the course. It’s not easy as nothing is given to you. There will be times when it won’t be a storybook ending. But at the same time make your run and go for something you are really passionate about. If you’re that passionate about it, you put the time in, and work hard at it, success will find you. I don’t think you have to have a great plan, but there are people out there who will help guide you. Nothing is given to you.

What I remember most are the teachers who were encouraging and listened to your aspirations no matter how far out or extreme they were. They try to find a way to encourage you and give you the first steps. Lyle Schwarznbach, a professor here at UNI, helped show me the way and process to become successful. I did not think I was master’s material but when I met him, he never let me feel that mode. I told him I wanted to coach in college and then he started telling me the path I needed to start looking at. Those special teachers don’t make it happen, they show you the path, but it’s still up to you to make it happen.

Everybody thinks you are guaranteed a turn. You don’t get a turn any more, you get an opportunity. I look at it that when your opportunity door is open, what are you going to do with it? This is your chance to create more opportunities. Are you prepared when that opportunity comes? I (as a coach) will give you more responsibility when you show production with the opportunities you are given.  That is how it is with a job, college career or an academic classroom.

  1. In your recruitment process, what characteristics do you look for in a prospective Panther?

Number one, you want to find someone who is very passionate about playing football. There is a lot of hard work involved. If you are passionate about something it is not work. I come in everyday of the week but I haven’t worked a day in my life. Before I came to college working as a truck driver Monday thru Friday, I couldn’t wait for the weekend. In my verbiage, when you are passionate about something you aren’t working. You enjoy doing it and you are going to do it no matter what. So, when they are lifting weights and training in the middle of winter, running stairs and doing the conditioning and all the sweat equites that you must do, it is not work to them but something you want to do. When you make someone do those things you can’t be great at it. If you want to do those things you have the opportunity to be great at it.

Second thing I look for is someone who wants a college degree and not just come to school to play football. The degree is important to me. Football is the avenue that they can achieve a degree. I think if you have those two things, then it is up to us to look at the evaluation talent wise to see if they fit our program.

  1. What do you like about student- athletes who have wrestled in high school and want to play college football? 

What stands out the most to me about a successful wrestler that plays football is their will. They have an internal drive about them. They are focused and have this will to work towards their individual goals. I think it has a lot to do with how they train individually and how they were brought up going to different tournaments. There is so much I see about wrestling. A wrestler has to work so hard at it and they have that will to gain or lose weight. There is just something about how they have grown up doing what gives them a body clock that is a little bit different than others. Wrestlers are very conscious about their body and nutrition and those are the ones who are very successful because they are usually bigger guys. They have a bulldog attitude and they just keep on coming. If they can put that attitude on to a football field and use that energy in how they train and get ready for football, they are special.

  1. Do you and Coach Schwab work together in the recruiting of a student athlete who has wrestled or played football in high school? Did you ever have anybody do both?

We meet once or twice a year and share notes on athletes. He will come to me and say I have this pretty good wrestler who wants to play football and I’ll say to him I have this football player who is a pretty good wrestler. We definitely work together. We will pass that person on when we recruit.

We have had guys who came in and consider it. The only problem is the gaining and losing weight and more so the crossover of the seasons. I mean it is tough to crossover. We go to November and they would miss the first half of the season. It can be done and there will be someone who pulls it off but it takes a special person. Coach Schwab has national caliber recruits.  They have to sort out what they want. The mindset at a national level is 365/24/7 to win. You can be good at both but great at one. That’s what sorts itself out sooner or later.

  1. How do you help the student athlete balance time?

That is a big thing because they have a regimented, tight schedule during the school year. We try to give them breaks to refresh themselves. You need those opportunities to keep that passion and drive throughout their career. During the season, they will have school in the morning and practice after.  Their study time is very regimented. Study table is required at night for an hour and a half on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursdays. During Christmas break they have a month off. They need to come back ready to work. Another break is right after spring practice for about a month before they start up again in June.

  1. Any former wrestlers now football players still like to hit the mats?

Tim Butcher and Jared Brinkman are both on our football team. They wrestled against each other and they are just like I explained, they are two bulls. That’s how they play, that’s how they lift. They are two of the strongest guys in our weight room. They challenge each other as everything is competition to them. That is how they train and work and people see that. They can motivate others by how they work.  I got two of the best in Butcher and Brinkman.

Brinkman beat Butcher in the state championship and they always want a rematch but I don’t want to see that rematch because they are on the same team now. I don’t want to see it till the season is over!

  1. Coaching is 365/24/7.  How does Coach Farley enjoy an unscheduled day off?

The things I do outside of football are deer and turkey hunt.  During Christmas break, I will muzzle load. After spring ball I will turkey hunt. In the summer you can find me fishing at Harpers Ferry.  I enjoy those activities but it’s like football. It is the people you do it with that is important.

It is always a pleasure to interview someone who is passionate about what they do.  Coach Farley is certainly passionate about his Panther players both on and off the field. His FCS teams are consistently ranked. They have won seven conference titles and have made it to the playoffs nine times including the 2005 title game.

He is even more passionate about his family. Coach is married to his wife Lori and they have three children. Both Jake and his wife Katy and Jared live in North Liberty. This summer his daughter Jamie was married to Brett Ahlgren, the Pleasant Valley sophomore basketball coach.  He added, “The wedding was a great experience taking her up the aisle. It is something to have a daughter and follow her from birth to college at Wartburg where she played volleyball. But it was very hard to walk her up the aisle.  It was my daughter, I’ll admit, I did shed a tear. It was hard but a great day.”

Coach Farley said that he was pleased his children were involved in athletics. He believes that athletics add a special edge to young people. Academics are very important but what you learn from athletics is one of those byproducts that is irreplaceable


Thank you Coach for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts on being successful not only as an athlete but as a person. Your passion for life speaks for itself. We wish you, your family and the Panthers the best.