IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brian Ferentz sits in the offensive line film room, just around the corner from his office, and points to a mural on the wall in front of him depicting Bruce Nelson.
Nelson came to Iowa as a walk-on from Emmetsburg. Nelson developed into a first-team All-American center in 2002 and then played in the Super Bowl a season later.
“That’s why you want to be in this place,” Ferentz, 32, says. “I love this place. I love the University of Iowa and Iowa City and all those things. But I love Iowa football.”
For 17 years, more than half of Ferentz’s life, his dad has been the head coach at Iowa. Being the son of Kirk Ferentz has shaped him in more ways than he realizes — even the inflections in Brian’s voice echo those of a man he has called father, coach and now boss.
Brian Ferentz is the fourth-year offensive line coach and first-year run-game coordinator for the Hawkeyes, and his voice within the program has become increasingly authoritative. Running backs coach Chris White, who has been in this business for 25 years, including time with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, says Ferentz “sees the clear picture more than most coaches at his age do. He’s a very talented coach.”
So with the school-record 12 wins achieved by this year’s Rose Bowl team and his father reaching 60, talk of Ferentz succeeding his dad as Iowa’s next head football coach has become the topic du jour.
“I’m a human being,” he says, “so I know that stuff’s out there.”
His rising profile helped make Ferentz one of The Des Moines Register’s 15 Iowans to watch in 2016. He’s learned from one of the best to get here.
“When I got into coaching, my dad had only one piece of advice for me,” Ferentz says. “He said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, do that as well as you can do it. Be really good at whatever you do.’”
Getting details right, even coffee straw
It’s cliché to say a coach was “born to coach,” but that’s pretty much the case for the oldest of Kirk and Mary Ferentz’s five children. Mom wasn’t always on board with Brian going into coaching, offering a reminder of the long hours, frequent job changes and constant travel associated with the profession.
“Coaching is hard on families,” Mary Ferentz says. “He was our oldest son, and it was hard on him.
“But I’m not surprised, because he and Kirk have always been joined at the hip.”
Besides his paternal genes, Brian Ferentz’s profession of choice was cemented by two things: one, his lack of academic desire (“I wasn’t really a school person,” he says dryly); and two, his NFL cup of coffee ending after one year as a practice-squad player with the 2006 Atlanta Falcons.
“I learned very quickly I didn’t belong there,” Ferentz says. “I wasn’t like those guys. I wasn’t gifted like that.”
Humility is something ingrained into Ferentz, first by his father and reinforced in his first NFL administrative job as a scouting assistant for Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. “Scouting assistant” sounds more glamorous than it is, which is why seven years later Ferentz dismisses the importance of job titles, including the hubbub made over his February promotion to run-game coordinator at Iowa.
The offensive line coach and run-game coordinator says it comes down to wins and losses.
Among Ferentz’s duties in 2008 with New England were washing cars, airport pickups and making runs to the Dunkin' Donuts across from Gillette Stadium for then-Patriots vice president Scott Pioli.
“He’s very particular about the straw (with) his extra-large iced coffee with two Splenda. … One time I brought him the (wrong) straw,” Ferentz says, “and I got ripped.”
Details matter. Details, actually, are a passion for Ferentz, as boring as that sounds, which is why he quickly moved up the ranks to tight ends coach in New England before coming back to Iowa to work for his dad as offensive line coach in 2011.
The part of Brian’s journey away from Iowa might be seen by his dad as the most critical in his growth.
“The only thought I had when he wanted to go into coaching: He needed to go somewhere else,” Kirk Ferentz says. “Being in Atlanta was a break from the Iowa way, if you will. And then spending time in New England was important, too. No matter what field you’re in, you’ve got to break out of your comfort zone and learn other ways to do things.
“He brought a little different perspective in when he came back. That’s been a fun part about all this.”
The reason Brian acted on his dad’s advice is simple: He idolizes his father. In a wide-ranging answer, he ticks off fairness, composure, respectfulness and being a good husband as traits he sees in the man who raised him and just so happens to be the latest national coach of the year.
“People say all the time: 'It must be hard being Kirk Ferentz’s son,' ” Ferentz says. “Shoot, I go places to this day, ‘That’s Coach Ferentz’s son.’ Well, I tell you, if the only thing I’m known for being in my entire life is Kirk Ferentz’s son, there’s worse things probably than that. I’m really proud to be associated with him.”
He then adds, knowing full well his father will read this article: “Don’t tell him I said that. I have a tendency to maybe not share that with him all the time.”
Head coach talk premature, he says
Ferentz admits he was an overconfident teenager in 2000 after the Hawkeyes lost at home to Western Michigan — dropping his father's record to 1-12 as Iowa’s second-year coach. So, a bold 17-year-old Brian approached his dad, then 45, and told him he didn’t think it was going to work out for the Ferentzes in Iowa City.
He’s never forgotten the way his dad responded.
“I remember my dad telling me, ‘Everything’s going to be all right,’ in his normal, calm way,” Ferentz says. “But he meant it. He was earnest. It was genuine. I believed what he was telling me.”
Ferentz joined the Hawkeyes as a scholarship player a year later and saw firsthand that the Hawkeyes' culture was on the upswing. As Brian watched Nate Kaeding kick a field goal to win the 2001 Alamo Bowl to finish a 7-5 Iowa season, he thought to himself, “He was right.”
A year later, the Hawkeyes made history — an 8-0 Big Ten Conference season and a spot in the Orange Bowl. From 2002 to 2004, the Hawkeyes finished in the nation’s top 10. Yes, everything was more than all right.
Flash-forward to this year: The Hawkeyes rebounded from a disappointing 2014, which ended with Kirk Ferentz's coaching future being questioned and led to culture change and the renewal of Ferentz fundamentals. The result: Iowa reeled off a 12-0 regular season and fell three points short of Michigan State for a Big Ten championship and spot in the College Football Playoff.
Brian Ferentz has lived the turnarounds — first as a player, now as an assistant coach. It’s no wonder his name has fit the new narrative of bringing long-term stability to the Hawkeye football program as the next coach. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis, 64, says Brian can be a head coach someday “if he wants to.”
But to the youngest of the nine primary Iowa football assistants by four years, that talk is premature.
To provide context to the answer he’s about to give, Ferentz references how some fans feel stereotyped when ESPN shows B-roll of cornfields and John Deere tractors when coming back from commercial during nationally televised Iowa games.
“That’s what we do. … I kind of like it. We’re a sentimental state, and we’re old-fashioned about hard work,” he says. “(Me being the next coach), that’s a natural, real easy thing for people to talk about, because it’s a happy story.
“It’s a lot of fun to talk about outside the building, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on all that stuff.”
But football people see the coaching talent inside the younger Ferentz, who is learning and impressing as he goes. He coached Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff for three years. And in his first year as run-game coordinator, Iowa’s per-carry average went from 4.1 in 2014 to 4.7 entering Friday’s Rose Bowl Game against Stanford in Pasadena, Calif. Iowa is tied for eighth in the nation in rushing touchdowns (35) and was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award, presented to college football’s top offensive line.
The players see something special in Brian, too. Senior center Austin Blythe, calls him “one of the smartest football guys I’ve been around.”
But it’s a stretch to categorize him a total chip off the old block.
“Brian could absolutely be a head coach someday,” Blythe says, “but he’s definitely different than his dad. He’s way more fiery, way more intense.”
Ferentz says he doesn’t know what his future entails, but he knows what the current climate suggests. After Iowa’s home finale, a 40-20 win against Purdue to clinch the Big Ten West Division title, Ferentz went with his brother-in-law to pick up some food at a North Liberty pub. A man came up to Ferentz and told him, “You’re going to be the next head coach at Iowa.”
Ferentz recalls telling him something like this:
“It’s really nice of you to say. I’m really flattered by that … but at the end of the day, I really believe this: I think our head coach might be here for a while. That’s what I would like to see. And I think he’s geared up to do that. I guess that’s how I’d answer that one.”
Home: North Liberty
Football history: Played guard and center during his playing career at Iowa (2002-05; redshirted in 2001) after starring at City High School in Iowa City. Started eight games as a junior (all wins) after recovering from a staph infection in his knee, then started every game as a senior. Undrafted in the NFL, he spent the 2006 NFL season on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad, then joined the New Orleans Saints in 2007 but was cut before the season. Spent four seasons with the New England Patriots organization, rising from scouting assistant to tight ends coach, where he coached Patriots phenom Rob Gronkowski in his first two seasons in the NFL. Returned to Iowa as offensive line coach in 2012, and in 2015 had run-game coordinator added to his title.
Family: Wife, Nikki; daughter, Presley, 3; son, John, newborn.
15 PEOPLE TO WATCH IN 2016: ABOUT THE SERIES
These are central Iowans in business, arts, nonprofits, civic activism and nonelected government positions who are expected to make a difference in their fields of endeavor in 2016. Readers were invited to submit nominations. Selections were made by Des Moines Register editors and reporters. Look for profiles daily through early January.
EARLIER PROFILES: With this story at DesMoines Register.com/PeopletoWatch, see profiles of:
- Jodie Warth, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Central Iowa
- Rob Sand, a prosecutor in the area prosecutions division of the Iowa attorney general’s office
- David Rezek, who directs and arranges music for the Des Moines Big Band
- Joshua Barr, new director of civil and human rights for the city of Des Moines
- Jennie Baranczyk, coach of the Drake Bulldogs
- Nancy Mwirotsi, whose nonprofit teaches refugee children to code
- Sue Hoss, who's changing the lives of disabled people through cooking
- Hubbell Reality Co.'s Kris Saddoris, who's helping drive downtown Des Moines development
and profiles of people selected to be part of the series in prior years.
COMING TUESDAY: Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP State Area Conference.