Several years ago, a rival college football coach approached Kirk Ferentz and asked how long he planned to keep working.
Until then, Ferentz hadn’t thought much about it. And as he approaches his 61st birthday and 18th year as Iowa’s head coach, he still hasn't.
“I did turn 60 last August, so I guess that’s a milestone, if you will,” Ferentz told me this week before an I-Club event in Marshalltown. “But basically, I really enjoy what I do.”
The conversation about Ferentz’s future certainly has changed quickly.
A year ago on the spring banquet circuit, many wondered if he would make it past 2015.
Now, 2025 seems possible.
A 12-0 regular season and Rose Bowl berth was like a Red Bull-laced IV to combat Ferentz Fatigue.
Last year's success bought Ferentz at least two or three more years of job security (not to mention an extra $1 million in contract incentives).
“As long as your health allows you to do what you want to do, and your wife allows you to do what you want to do — those two things are probably critical — I don’t see stopping anytime in the near future,” Ferentz said.
Yes, it now seems plausible Ferentz could coach games near age 70 to emulate his predecessor, Hayden Fry. Ferentz remains physically fit and health-conscious. He’s known to ride the stationary bike in his office while watching film.
That (in)famous signed-in-2010 extension? The contract that at times hovered like a dark cloud because of the enormous buyout number has only 44 months left.
Firing Ferentz after the rock-bottom 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl would've cost Iowa more than $13 million. But by January, that number will drop to about $8.1 million and then to $5.45 million after the 2017 season. Not that anyone's talking about firing him anymore.
Ferentz’s contract expires in January 2020, yet it doesn’t seem to be a pressing priority to extend it — even though the industry standard is to maintain five years’ cushion to help reassure potential recruits of stability. Athletics director Gary Barta said in an email Friday that “there is nothing new to report” but that he and Ferentz “continue to talk about 2016 and beyond.”
So, buyout talk has turned to extension talk. What should happen? What will happen?
I don’t see Ferentz having wanderlust (his word) about the NFL or any other job. Nor would he, at 60-plus, be likely to get courted by Jim Harbaugh-type money from another university. His developmental philosophy wouldn't mesh with a quick-fix, low-patience college football climate.
So, Iowa has little pressure to overextend itself out of fear of losing Ferentz. Nor should it give in to another hefty buyout percentage (under his current deal, the buyout equates to about $2.66 million a year on his annual pay of $4,075,000).
I don’t think either side desires the potential public relations backlash of another long extension and huge buyout. The last time that happened, in 2010, Hawkeye football responded with five seasons of 34-30 malaise.
Yet I do think Ferentz deserves an extension, sometime soon.
Both parties would be wise to agree to add four years to Ferentz’s existing deal — getting him through the 2023 season — with escalating pay raises to reach $5 million annually. (In 2015, seven Division I coaches’ pre-incentive salary was $5 million or higher; Ferentz’s pay ranked 14th.)
Neither side is in a position to play hardball, though Ferentz has every right to capitalize on 2015's success. Agreeing to four more years without an exorbitant buyout would represent mutual respect and fair market value.
Make that deal, and Ferentz would be 68 when it finishes.
Ferentz owns a 127-87 record at Iowa. If he stays another eight years and averages 8½ wins per season (realistic, considering he’s averaged 8.2 since 2001), he’ll surpass Bo Schembechler’s 194 wins at Michigan for No. 3 all-time among Big Ten Conference coaches.
Yes, No. 3 — behind men named Amos Alonzo Stagg (232 wins) and Woody Hayes (205). That's history worth pursuing.
Beyond a statue-worthy win total (and 25 years at Iowa being a clean number), there are two more reasons age 68 would be a nice contract- and career-ending target.
One, Brian Ferentz will turn 40 in 2023. If the program averages eight or nine wins per season and contends for Big Ten West titles at least half the time, Iowa’s fifth-year offensive line coach and run-game coordinator will be plenty seasoned and warmly welcomed as coach-in-waiting. (That’s a big if; a diet of 7-5 seasons won’t cut it.)
Two, well, I’ll let Kirk Ferentz — now tied with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, 55, as college football’s continuous active longevity leader at one school — explain this one.
When we talked this week, he referenced watching two other coaching giants: The longest-tenured coach in the NFL, Bill Belichick, 64; and the NBA’s longevity leader, Gregg Popovich, 67.
Ferentz could’ve also mentioned Nick Saban, who at 64 is certainly going strong at Alabama.
Neither Belichick nor Popovich has lost his coaching edge. And 2015 indicated that Ferentz's has returned.
“It seems like those guys are doing pretty well. I think you can do OK after 65,” Ferentz said. “We’ll just kind of see where it all goes.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
KIRK FERENTZ'S $5 MILLION YEAR IN REVIEW
According to contract clauses, Kirk Ferentz achieved $1 million in incentives last football season to bring his pay to $5,075,000. A breakdown:
Base salary: $2,070,000 (includes income from Nike apparel, camps and radio/TV appearances)
Recurring supplemental payments: $1,480,000 ($370,000 each on March 30, June 30, Sept. 30, Oct. 30)
Longevity bonus: $525,000 (paid annually, if employed on Jan. 31)
Undefeated Big Ten regular season: $250,000 (incentive bonus)
Top-10 ranking in final national poll: $250,000 (Iowa was ninth by coaches; 10th by AP)
New Year's Six bowl appearance: $250,000 (Rose Bowl)
Big Ten coach of the year: $50,000
National coach of the year: $100,000
Annual Graduation Rate over 70%: $100,000
Total pay: $5,075,000 (including $1 million in bonuses)
BIG TEN'S WINNINGEST COACHES
With a 10-win season in 2016, Ferentz could jump to No. 6 all-time among coaches in the Big Ten (includes games coached when school was Big Ten member):
1. Amos Alonzo Stagg, Chicago, 232-95-24 (37 years; 1896-1932)
2. Woody Hayes, Ohio State, 205-61-10 (28 years; 1951-78)
3. Bo Schembechler, Michigan, 194-48-5 (21 years; 1969-89)
4. Joe Paterno, Penn State, 162-69 (19 years; 1993-2011)
5. Hayden Fry, Iowa, 143-89-6 (20 years; 1979-98)
6. Henry Williams, Minnesota, 136-33-11 (22 years; 1900-21)
7. Robert Zuppke, Illinois, 131-81-12 (29 years; 1913-41)
8. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa, 127-87 (17 years, 1999-2015)
9. Lloyd Carr, Michigan, 122-40 (13 years; 1995-2007)
10. Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin, 118-75-4 (18 years, 1990-2005; 2012, 2014)