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UNI football head coach Mark Farley rouses ‘Football Night in Charles City’ crowd with keynote speech

UNI football head coach Mark Farley rouses 'Football Night in Charles City' crowd with keynote speech
Press photo by John Burbridge
Charles City football head coach Bryan Bjorklund, right, has a photo taken with UNI football head coach Mark Farley during “Football Night in Charles City”, a Comet Girdiron Club fundraiser held Saturday at the Knights of Columbus.

By John Burbridge

CHARLES CITY — Knute Rockne is probably the greatest “real” name for a football head coach.

Why Mark Farley didn’t get birthed with it is somewhat an injustice considering where he came from.

When Farley, about a year removed from graduating from Waukon High School, decided to approach the University of Northern Iowa head coach on what steps to take to become a “walk-on” Panther football player, he wasn’t coming from right off the street.

Rather, right out of the quarry.

Though Farley was an outstanding multisport prep athlete for the Indians, he didn’t get any major scholarship offers for his favorite sport — football.

No worries. Farley admittedly wasn’t much of a student and was content on “working for a living” as a laborer/truck driver moving rocks in a quarry.

But one day after work, he and a friend decided on a whim to go down to Cedar Falls and scope out a UNI spring practice. That’s when Farley realized how much he missed playing the game.

So he approached Stan Sheriff, who was then the winningest coach in UNI history, to learn of the means needed to suit up in purple and gold.

“Imagine how I looked when I walked up to this guy,” Farley said while relating the story during his keynote speech at Saturday’s inaugural “Football Night in Charles City” held at the Knights of Columbus as a fundraiser for the Comet Gridiron Club.

“I had my hat on … my work clothes on,” Farley said. “But he didn’t judge me by my appearance. He took time to tell me what I needed to do and encouraged me to follow through on it.

“He gave me five minutes, but those five minutes changed my life.”

After redshirting his first season, Farley went on to play linebacker for the Panthers under new head coach Darrell Mudra, leading the team in tackles for the 1983, ’84 and ’85 seasons. He was twice an All-American Honorable Mention selection and was the Missouri Valley Football Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year his senior season.

“But I still had to go to school,” Farley said. “So I had to find something I loved doing, which was wood-working. And how do you become an Academic All-American while taking wood-working and shop classes?”

Farley raises his open hands for the audience to see.

“You graduate with all your digits attached.”

After his playing career, Farley became a graduate assistant coach for UNI in 1986 before becoming the team’s linebacker coach from 1989 to 1996. After serving as Kansas’s linebacker coach from 1997 to 2000, Farley returned to UNI in 2001 to head the program.

Farley has coached the Panthers to seven MVFC championships, was twice named MVFC Coach of the Year (2001, 2007), was the recipient of the Eddie Robinson Award (2007) honoring the top NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision coach, and has become the winningest coach in UNI history with a 174-98 record.

The “Football Night” was the first major fundraiser for the Comet Gridiron Club.

As mentioned in its mission statement, the main purpose of the club — a non-profit 501c3 organization — is to provide immediate support to (the) football program by creating a foundation for camaraderie, motivation and financial backing.

Accrued funds are to go toward student-athlete development and growth, food and resource programs for the players, equipment needs and possibly scholarship awards for graduating seniors in good standing.

The evening included a dinner consisting of smoked brisket, cheesy potatoes and baked beans provided by S&S Meats and Spirits to go with a variety of homemade desserts; raffles; silent auctions and speeches made by Charles City football coaches and players.

During his keynote speech, the “Walk-on from Waukon” related some of his experiences as a high school athlete and how traveling to Charles City were like trips to the big city.

“You guys even had a McDonalds,” he said.

Farley still has a heart for small towns, and loves to tell stories on how on occasion he still finds gems there whenever he veers off the beaten path during his recruiting trips.

One of his more recent finds was Trevor Penning, an offensive tackle who was a first-round pick for the New Orlean Saints in the 2022 NFL Draft.

When Farley first met Penning, he was a shy kid from a single-parent family. For the NFL Draft, Penning didn’t travel to Las Vegas. Instead, his draft party was held at a pizzeria/bar in Clear Lake.

“He and his family were in a private area behind a collapsible wall separated from the rest of the bar,” Farley said. “When his name was called, he came out and the whole place erupted.

“It wasn’t just a great moment for Trevor … it was a great moment for the whole community.”

And that encapsulated the theme of the evening as well as Farley’s rousing speech.

“A strong football program builds a strong community,” Farley said.

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