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Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Mel Tucker at Michigan State stepped in for legendary coaches

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia.— Kirk Ferentz and Mel Tucker will be squaring off as head football coaches for the first time Saturday with one big thing in common, albeit with two decades of separation.

Both Ferentz at Iowa and Tucker at Michigan State replaced their schools’ all-time winningest coach, a situation that is always difficult to navigate.

Ferentz stepped in for the legendary Hayden Fry in 1999, a man he had coached under and admired. However, where Fry’s personality was over-the-top, Ferentz is understated. Hawkeye fans had grown accustomed to a dose of charisma along with the 143 victories Fry engineered.

Ferentz said this week he knew better than to try to emulate the witticisms that Fry always delivered in his Texas drawl.

“I just felt like the statement I made was: You don't replace somebody like that. You just follow them,” Ferentz said.

“But you have to be yourself. … To try to copy him other than some of his beliefs, that would have been, I think, probably short-sighted.”

Ferentz has lasted 22 years at Iowa, surpassing Fry’s win total in the process. His Hawkeye record is 162-106 heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff against the Spartans at Kinnick Stadium (ESPN).

Kirk Ferentz celebrates his most recent victory as Iowa football coach, over USC in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl. Ferentz succeeded the legendary Hayden Fry in 1999 and has surpassed Fry's win total, with 162 heading into Saturday's home game vs. Michigan State.

On the opposite sideline will be Tucker in his first season leading the Spartans after Mark Dantonio resigned abruptly in February. Dantonio won 114 games in 13 seasons at Michigan State.

Tucker, a longtime assistant, had a 5-7 record in his lone year as head coach at Colorado. But Tucker, 48, began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban at Michigan State in 1997, which undoubtedly helped his appeal to fans there.

It’s why Tucker was able to speak of his new job as a homecoming during his introductory news conference last winter.

“We know what Michigan State football is supposed to look like,” Tucker said then. “We know there’s a strong tradition, rich history, so everything we do will be to that goal.”

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Tucker’s debut season as Spartan head coach has been marked by uncertainty. First, he came on board well after National Signing Day, missing out on important recruiting opportunities. Then, he lost his spring practice schedule to the COVID-19 pandemic and saw summer camp start, stop and start again as the Big Ten Conference decided whether to have a fall season.

Week 1 brought an ugly home loss to Rutgers. Last Saturday, Michigan State took down rival Michigan, a stunning result that undoubtedly bought Tucker a great deal of good will in East Lansing.

At Ohio State, the choice was Earle Bruce over Lou Holtz when Woody Hayes' time was up.

Glen Mason has seen such transitions play out firsthand. He was on the Ohio State coaching staff when Woody Hayes lost his composure, and then his job, when he assaulted a Clemson player along the sideline during a bowl game. Hayes won 205 games in 28 years in Columbus. Mason had been one of his linebackers a decade before Hayes was fired.

Buckeye fans wanted Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, a former Hayes assistant, to take over. Instead, they got Iowa State coach Earle Bruce, who also was once on Hayes’ staff. Bruce retained Mason, who went on to be head coach at Minnesota, among other stops, and is now an analyst for the Big Ten Network.

Mason said Bruce had great credibility among high school coaches in Ohio, because he once was one. Bruce went undefeated in his final four seasons at the prep level. That helped when recruiting the state’s top players.

Bruce also understood the expectations at Ohio State, and put more pressure on himself to succeed than the fans did, Mason said. Still, it was not an easy experience.

“You’ve got the guy coming in following the legend, and then you’ve got a young, unknown staff,” Mason said of Bruce’s first year at Ohio State. “We were picked fourth in the Big Ten. We got off to a rocky start. We should have lost up at Minnesota (in the second game, a 21-17 win). But we got rolling and had an undefeated season and were ranked No. 1 going into the Rose Bowl against USC.

“Woody Hayes was still a legend. He always will be. But that solved a lot of questions and a lot of doubts about Earle.”

Ohio State lost that Rose Bowl 17-16, but Bruce won 70 more games there over his next eight seasons.

Michigan State coach Mel Tucker leads his team onto the field before action the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.

Mason said it helps Tucker that the Spartans are coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons and there was no reason to think they were going to compete for a Big Ten title in 2020. A first-year coach in that circumstance typically gets a grace period from fans, he added.

Tucker has been given free rein to try to rejuvenate a moribund offense and has tinkered with the defense, eschewing Michigan State’s standard 4-3 for a more modern 4-2-5 alignment.

“From a distance, Mel’s done a great job getting close to those players and having them buy in. I think that Mark Dantonio was a very popular coach with his players. They believed in him because of the success that he had,” Mason said.

Gerry DiNardo, another former head coach in the Big Ten (at Indiana) who works as a BTN analyst, said it also helps Tucker that Dantonio is not a coach who is going to cast a large shadow. He’s still in East Lansing, but comfortable in the background.

“He’s one that is going to make it easier, if anything,” DiNardo said of Dantonio. “Mel’s his own guy. And the last few years of Mark’s tenure weren’t his best.

“I think people wanted a change offensively, so that was easy. And the way they played defense against Michigan, if people were questioning that, I think that probably quieted them.”

Mel Tucker gets an early boost at Michigan State; Kirk Ferentz got time at Iowa to establish himself

Tucker joined Saban as the only Spartans’ coaches to ever beat Michigan in their first meeting.

“That gives him immediate acceptance,” Mason said. “The Spartan faithful would take a win against Michigan in exchange for a dreadful opening game any year.”

DiNardo said the 27-24 upset in Ann Arbor did more than just that for Tucker.

“It also gives every opponent extra motivation to get ready for (the Spartans) at a higher level,” DiNardo said. “If the opponent that he was playing was constantly talking about, ‘This is the team that lost to Rutgers?’ Now they’re talking about, ‘We’re playing the team that beat Michigan in Ann Arbor.’

“I think he’s just kind of stuck to his plan and didn’t lose confidence in it. And this week against Iowa will probably be a bigger challenge than either of the first two games because now everybody knows they’re pretty good and there’s a book out on them now.”

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Ferentz will be the one trying to get a quick read on that book. His Hawkeyes are off to an 0-2 start and in desperate need of some on-field success after an offseason marked by an investigation of racial bias in the program.

Ferentz hasn’t lost the first two games of a season since 2000, his second year at Iowa. That came on the heels of a 1-10 Hawkeye debut. The fact that he’s still here 20 years later is a testament to the stability that Fry established, Mason said.

“They used to change coaches there about every three years. Every time that they didn’t like the color of their socks, they threw them out,” Mason said of an Iowa football program that went through four coaches in 18 seasons before Fry’s arrival in 1979.  

“Now, they stay the course.”

“He would have been fired nowadays,” DiNardo agrees, speaking of Ferentz’s first two seasons that produced a 4-19 record.

Instead, Ferentz went 7-5 in his third Hawkeye season and has finished below .500 only once since.

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DiNardo admires that consistency.

“He knows how he wants to play the game. He recruits to the way he wants to play offense and defense. I think his personality is such that it all works,” DiNardo said.

The trend, DiNardo pointed out, is to hire young coaches with a reputation for offensive innovation. “The movie star calling the plays on the sidelines,” as DiNardo says.

Michigan State went the other direction with Tucker, whose background is as a defensive coordinator in college and the NFL. It will be interesting to see how that plays in a Big Ten East that will always feature talented offenses at Ohio State and Penn State.

Ferentz came through the ranks as an offensive line coach. His best teams have punished opponents at the line of scrimmage to win battles for field position and time of possession.

Ferentz is 65. It’s a new era in football in which fans clamor for change after every game that is lost.

Ferentz replaced a legend, and then built his own legacy that will follow whoever succeeds him whenever that occurs. That’s rare.

“I do think probably when (Ferentz) does walk away, it could change dramatically,” DiNardo said both of the Hawkeyes’ 42-year run of stability of football coach and the style of play fans will witness.

“Who knows?”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.