IOWA CITY, Ia. — If ever one of Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa football teams reflected its head coach, it was this one.
The 2016 Hawkeyes were a story of patience, loyalty and persistence.
They could've given up. Instead, they stayed the course and were rewarded.
“They faced disappointment, certainly. All of us did,” Ferentz said last week in an interview with The Des Moines Register. “Setbacks — went through some ups and downs. I think everybody just stayed together, most importantly.
“Some of the fruits of their perseverance and dedication finally started to show in those last three weeks. And that, to me, is what gave us a chance down the stretch.”
On the way to an 8-4 regular season, there were befuddling losses, satisfying wins and historic performances — both bad (Penn State) and good (Michigan).
In October, fan frustration was spreading about an anemic passing game and the future of offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
By early December, there was unexpected excitement and satisfaction after Iowa was chosen over Nebraska for the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl.
Ferentz was asked about all of it, and he was relaxed, candid and introspective in his answers.
So much ground was covered, it felt appropriate to present the interview into two parts over two days.
Today’s first segment breaks down Iowa's offensive challenges and the roller-coaster nature of the 2016 season.
The Iowa head coach likes the flexibility he has seen from Davis, a longtime offensive coordinator in college football. Chad Leistikow
TOPIC 1: Will Greg Davis be back in 2017?
Ferentz’s short answer: “Right now, I have no reason to think he won’t.”
It merits a long answer, though, and Ferentz has one.
Iowa averages 161.3 yards per game through the air. If it dips any further — and it could, as Outback Bowl opponent Florida owns the nation’s third-ranked pass defense — it’ll be the lowest per-game average at Iowa since 1982.
Davis, the fifth-year coordinator at Iowa whose 43 years of coaching experience include presiding over offenses at Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, has naturally become a target of outside criticism.
Ferentz contends that Davis adjusted as the season went on, relying more heavily on a running game that could chew clock and limit opponents’ possessions. The resulting three-game win streak to end the season leaves the 18th-year head Hawk feeling good about his staff.
Ferentz: “When it’s all over, we’ll look at everything. But I think we’ve got really good people here. Greg’s a phenomenal teacher. … He reminds me a lot of Norm Parker. He’s a wealth of knowledge, football-wise. He’s very flexible. He’s the same guy that coached at Georgia (as pass-game coordinator) when Hines Ward went from receiver to quarterback and tore it up. That was in a bowl game, I'm pretty sure. You could go back and look it up. He’s had a history of doing some really neat things. He’s an excellent teacher, a first-class human being. Just been a great guy to work with.
“If there’s an offensive coordinator getting good reviews … there are probably a couple of them right now. You could pull up the stats and figure out who’s doing well.
"I don’t know if they have an offensive coordinator hot-seat list. But those guys, I mean, they catch way more flak. I could just act, like, 'Hey, I don’t know what the hell we were calling.' Right? 'Why’d we call that?' It’s funny. Boy, it’s a lightning-rod position. And defensive coordinators get off the hook for the most part. You’ve got to give up, like, 10 touchdown passes to get criticized, as a defensive guy.”
TOPIC 2: Whose offense is Davis running?
Before rushing to blast Davis' schemes, it's important to remember who he reports to. Isn't he just operating within what Ferentz, who likes to minimize risk and turnovers, wants him to do?
Ferentz paused, then gave a wide-ranging answer that centered around personnel and triggered a Topic 3 follow-up; namely, foot injuries to his No. 1 receiver (Matt VandeBerg after Week 4) and No. 1 tight end (George Kittle in Week 7).
Ferentz: “A couple things: Maybe the offense you want to run in your mind, or whatever, in a perfect world, you have this thing you’d love to do, but the world’s never perfect; in college football, year to year, the way your team’s constructed, what your strengths and weaknesses may be, I think they shift and vary a little bit; the ability to be flexible is first and foremost … and this year’s a great example of it. We graduate (from 2015’s 12-2 team) two really good players in the passing game with Henry Krieger Coble and Tevaun Smith.
“And that chain from a year ago would’ve been Matt VandeBerg and George Kittle. You take those four guys out of the equation. It’s kind of ironic: We had a quarterback who was injured all last season and a bunch of guys around him that could catch balls; this year, we had a healthy quarterback (C.J. Beathard) but nobody to throw to.
“This year’s a little bit like our ’04 season — kind of the opposite. We lost all our running backs. Whatever we were, (116th out of 117 Division I teams) rushing the ball in ’04 — and we were a (Big Ten) championship team — you find a way to win. This year, handing the ball off gave us a better chance than throwing it a lot.
“Sometimes you do your best coaching jobs when the statistics don’t reflect it. If that makes sense.”
Should position coach Bobby Kennedy be held more accountable than offensive coordinator Greg Davis for Iowa's meager passing game? Chad Leistikow
TOPIC 3: Shouldn't the WR coach be under fire?
In what Ferentz characterizes as a "developmental" program, shouldn’t there have been more depth at wide receiver coming through the pipeline? Before VandeBerg’s season-ending injury, Iowa averaged 197 passing yards a game. After it? Just 143.5.
Fourth-year wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy saw preseason potential in sophomores Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel, but neither really broke out: Smith (23 catches) showed flashes but struggled with drops; Scheel (five catches) saw his role diminish as the season wound down. Other young players (Adrian Falconer, Devonte Young) got into the rotation but have fewer career catches (zero) than third-string fullback Austin Kelly.
For 2016, Kennedy seems to be getting an "incomplete" grade.
Ferentz: “Sometimes, there’s a perfect storm, the way things happen. I would suggest this: Sometimes, when you lose a really good player, sometimes it’s hard; it affects everybody... I guess my point there — and I can’t prove this, and there’s no way we’ll ever know — I would suggest if Matt VandeBerg had been healthy — so you’ve got Matt and Riley (McCarron), and Riley’s still a really good player, and then Jerminic (or whoever else it is that mixes in with him) plus a healthy George Kittle — sometimes it’s one or two pieces just really impact the whole group. That’s kind of how I looked at it.
“This year, it wasn’t just Matt being out, but Matt and George. George couldn’t run after that Purdue game. Boy, all of a sudden... What looked fairly healthy ... now we’re up against it. Because those were two of the guys we were counting on to be our best players. Had they been healthy, I think they both would’ve been. Again, I can’t prove that, but I’m pretty sure that would’ve been the case.
“So when you start evaluating things, as a coach — and that’s part of my job — those are the things I have to factor in and be mindful of. And maybe I’m a little more patient than some people, but I’ve kind of learned through my time and my experience: Little things can really affect the whole big picture. Sometimes it’s not all about a guy coaching that position or a guy coaching a group. It’s just the way it goes.”
The 18th-year head coach dissects that question and whether the 2016 Hawkeyes could beat the 2015 team that went to the Rose Bowl. Chad Leistikow
TOPIC 4: Are you happy with the season?
Iowa fell a win over Wisconsin short from repeating as Big Ten West champions. The Hawkeyes lost to the Badgers, 17-9, in Kinnick Stadium and followed that up after a bye week by getting embarrassed at the home of the eventual Big Ten champion, Penn State, 41-14. That would be the historically bad performance referenced earlier — the Nittany Lions' 599 yards being the most gained against a Ferentz-coached team since 1999.
But then came the historically good one — winning 14-13 against Michigan as a 24-point underdog — the biggest upset of the Ferentz era, which the Hawkeyes followed up with by routing Illinois and Nebraska by a combined 68-10.
Ferentz: “As we sit here today, yes. We’ve still got another game, so it never ends.
“I know we get judged by wins and losses. I understand that, totally. Those 12 games, plus whatever. As a coach, what you really look at is what it’s been since January … How have the guys run the race? That was the point when I went out for my (pregame) walk that day of the Michigan game. You’re always thinking about the what-ifs. In my mind, this team had done so many good things day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, that whatever our record ended up being — to that point, even though we had a really tough outing the Saturday before, these guys have just shown a lot of substance. They’ve shown a lot of really positive qualities.
“The wins and losses come and go, and the losses — they’re not fun. It’s really about how they run the race. And then, typically, if they do run the race in quality fashion, there’s no guarantee good things are going to happen — but you give yourself a chance for that.”
TOPIC 5: Could 2016 Iowa beat 2015 Iowa?
On the topic of wins and losses and close margins for error, this came up.
The way the Hawkeyes are playing now, could this actually be a better team than the one that went 12-0 in the regular season before losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship and to Stanford in the Rose Bowl?
Ferentz: “Maybe in November. You just triggered a thought for me. It's, like, back in ’02, I’m not sure we couldn’t have beaten anybody (from) late October to the end of the season. We were clipping along pretty good. We got to the Orange Bowl, a whole different team. That’s on us, as coaches. We didn’t have the team ready; we didn't know how to handle that.
"The way we were late October through November, we were a pretty good team. But that’s the same team that lost a heartbreaking loss here at Kinnick (36-31 to Iowa State) in Week 3, barely got out of Miami of Ohio — I mean, we got out of there by that much (29-24).
“I’m not saying it’s not like this everywhere, but I know: Coaching at Iowa, that’s the thing you have to stay focused on — it’s a long path. I don’t want to say it’s just about surviving in September, but it kind of is about surviving in September — trying to build enough momentum, where you starting getting some traction and maybe develop into a team.”
TOPIC 6: Michigan aside, your most satisfying 2016 moment?
The improbability and excitement of the Nov. 12 victory — capped by Keith Duncan’s 33-yard, walk-off field goal — is off the table here. That’ll go down as one of the great wins in Ferentz’s coaching history.
But beyond that, what sticks out to Ferentz as he reflects on 2016?
Enjoy his answer, and stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, where we broach a wider range of topics — from how he celebrates Christmas to his son's coaching future to rules he'd like to change — in Wednesday’s newspaper and Tuesday night, at HawkCentral.com.
Ferentz: “Certainly the last game (a 40-10 thumping of then-No. 15 Nebraska). And I don’t want to minimize the Illinois game, either. You come out of the Michigan game, the environment is as good as you get. Then you go over and play an 11 o’clock kickoff in awful weather. But the guys, they played hard and competed hard.
“But (Nebraska), I figured that was going to be a coin-toss type game. You never count on those things happening, and they rarely do happen. So when they do happen, you better enjoy them.
“When the ball starts rolling, it’s a pretty good feeling. We were at the other end of one of those a month earlier."
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.