Kirk Ferentz in-depth, Part 2: On Iowa program's future
IOWA CITY – It’s been another good year for Kirk Ferentz.
The Iowa football coach's fall of 2016 began with a contract extension worth $50 million through 2025. It ended with a three-game November win streak, an 8-4 final record and a spot in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl vs. Florida.
This Christmas season brings the routine Ferentz enjoys: Bowl-game preparation. He vividly remembers the only one of the last nine Decembers, in 2012, when he was home for the holidays.
"That was the winter it was really cold. And we had just a sheet of ice on our driveway,” Ferentz, 61, recalled during a sit-down interview last week with The Des Moines Register. “So my way to kill time … was just to go outside, and I’d chip at ice. I’d spend a half hour, 45 minutes just chipping ice. Like you’re going to get it done. No way. I could’ve been out there for a month.
“But it was better than smoking cigarettes. I don’t smoke.”
That doesn't sound fun. And it serves as a visual reminder that when things are pretty good for the Hawkeye program, Christmas and football fight for calendar space.
Before the busy Hawkeyes fly to Tampa, Fla., on Monday, Ferentz carved out some interview time to reflect on the year that was, while looking ahead to 2017.
In Part 1 of a wide-ranging conversation, the 18th-year Hawkeye coach gave his coaching staff, including maligned offensive coordinator Greg Davis, a vote of confidence while praising the determined 2016 Hawkeyes who kept chipping their own ice before finally breaking through.
Today's Part 2 delves into a potpourri of topics -- family, celebrations, recruiting, a touch of politics and the possible quarterback of the future.
TOPIC 1: How did you celebrate the Michigan win?
The biggest upset in Ferentz’s head-coaching history took place Nov. 12, when the reeling Hawkeyes stunned unbeaten, 24-point favorite Michigan, 14-13, at Kinnick Stadium.
How did he paint the town in the following hours to relish what had just happened?
Just went home and talked with an old friend.
Ferentz: “My friend 'Big Game' John Bridge was back. I taught school with him 100 years ago (at the Worcester Academy in the 1970s; the nickname comes from Bridge's propensity to pop in for Iowa's biggest games).
"Normally, I would’ve gone right to bed. But we gave our players a 'Hawkeye Sunday.' So we pushed everything back two hours, gave them a little reward for that. As a result, when I got back, we sat at the counter for about an hour-and-a-half, and just had a real nice visit.
“I like to go home no matter what, that’s first and foremost. Sitting in the kitchen, that’s the best. Unless it’s nice weather, we sit on the deck.
“I’m not big on going out, that’s for sure. Not in season.”
TOPIC 2: Which of the four losses bugs you the most?
This question was posed in relation to the Nebraska 2014 loss – 37-34 in overtime that Ferentz repeatedly referenced prior to the historic 12-0 regular season of 2015. That one really bugged him because of unacceptable red-zone and special-teams failures.
For a team that fell one game short of a repeat Big Ten West title: Which of North Dakota State (23-21), Northwestern (38-31), Wisconsin (17-9) or Penn State (41-14) delivered a 2014 Nebraska-esque sting?
Ferentz: “Penn State, we never got our hands up even. We never defended ourselves. We took a pummeling there. You get what you deserve.
"The Wisconsin game, I thought both teams really competed hard, and they were the better team that day. There’s really not a lot of what-ifs there. The other two games are interesting.
“The North Dakota State game, we had some chances to make some plays. We weren’t good enough to make them that day. And they did. They ran the whole race and fought really hard, and they’re a good football team.
“And I’d probably say the same about Northwestern. The one thing that maybe made that seem or feel so bad – it had a lead-balloon feel to it. ... I’m not so sure anybody outside this building really respected Northwestern. They didn’t win 10 games (as the Wildcats did in 2015), but if anybody saw them play Ohio State this year, that was right down the wire. They had opportunities to win that game. They’re a very well-coached team. They had one of the best receivers in the country (Austin Carr). That game felt a little bit like our Michigan State game in ’13 where they were just struggling. And Michigan State, that was their coming-out party against us, (Connor) Cook was the quarterback (in a 26-14 Spartans win at Kinnick). It was the first time they played good offensive football.
“Long-winded answer here: None of the four resemble that Nebraska game. That one’s going to be in my memory for my entire life.”
TOPIC 3: How did Iowa win the Joe Moore Award?
The Hawkeyes were rewarded recently as the nation’s “Most Outstanding Offensive Line Unit” by the award, which bears the name of Ferentz’s mentor – offensive-line coaching legend Joe Moore.
Ferentz agreed it was a fair question: How could a team ranked 120th nationally (out of 128 FBS teams) in total offense and allow one sack per 9.6 C.J. Beathard pass attempts win the award over finalists Alabama and Ohio State? As an offensive-line guru himself, Ferentz can probably see things that most of us can’t.
Ferentz: “They’re probably the only committee that actually watches the film. They watch all the teams that are in contention. They got them down to three. The feedback I got when I was congratulated by some of the guys on the committee was just they were so impressed by what they saw in terms of growth. I know the way the team finished, the way the line finished … and they spoke about details that they had seen. So to me, that part made sense.
"I can’t speak for a lot of people. I know this: if Joe were alive, Joe would watch the film. Joe would always say, ‘Don’t tell me what you do, just show me your film.’ That was a great saying. That’s kind of how he used to judge coaches, how he would judge teams.
“Certainly if it was a comparative of September football, we would have been a distant third.”
TOPIC 4: Will your son, Brian, become a college head coach?
The oldest of Kirk and Mary Ferentz’s five children has a commanding presence. Iowa’s fifth-year offensive line coach, 33-year-old Brian, is viewed as a more intense version of his father. (“He’s taken a lot of his mom’s traits,” Kirk said. “She can command a room, too.”)
Brian Ferentz has worked under some of the best: Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots (2008-11) and now his father, who at 135-91 is just eight victories shy of tying Hayden Fry (143-89-6) as Iowa’s all-time winningest coach. The Ferentzes have heard the buzz that, as long as Iowa continues to experience success, Brian could eventually take over the family business.
Ferentz: “He’s young enough. Growing up, I think it was always one of Joe Moore’s hopes that I would get an opportunity when I was younger. And I certainly have that hope for Brian, and anybody else that wants to do it.
“I think he’d enjoy it at some point. But I think he also realizes there are a lot of steps to be taken, and a lot of things we can learn. I’ve been doing this for a while, and the more you do it, the more you learn."
(Follow-up: If Brian were to take over at Iowa, better for him to be a head coach elsewhere first?)
Ferentz: “I think he’s enjoying his time here. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he’s enjoyed it. Most of it. And, you know, this is his school, too. ... This is kind of my school. I’ve been here a long time. But this is his school. He went to school here and played in the program. I know that’s important to him. I think the value of being somewhere else sometimes, it can be really good. The Patriots (were) a great place to learn. There are a lot of different paths to becoming a head coach.”
TOPIC 5: Wish you could speak out more about recruiting?
Short answer: “Not really.” Ferentz is at peace with his program’s no-visiting-other-schools policy for prospects once they commit to Iowa. That topic sprung to the headlines after four Texas-based prospects decommitted from the Hawkeyes in less than a month, with one citing the no-visit policy as a reason.
Ferentz seems quietly confident about how the current Class of 2017 (at 14 members as of Tuesday) will round out before signing day Feb. 1.
Ferentz: “To me, it’s really not all that big a deal. I think we’re real comfortable with where we are and how we go about things. If somebody does change their mind along the way, that’s part of the deal. It’s an occupational hazard, if you will.
“The good news is there’s so much time before signing right now. I feel really good about where we’re at right now. I feel like we have things in line the way we want to. Now it’s just a matter of getting our fair share of things to fall our way. And I think that’ll happen.”
TOPIC 6: Your take on the election and state of the country?
Ferentz occasionally branches outside of football to deliver social commentaries – like he did in July after defensive lineman Faith Ekakitie’s Facebook post went viral after an interaction with Iowa City police.
Ferentz: “Well, the election probably paralleled our game that week. That’s my first thought. So I’ll relate it to football. I don’t think anybody gave the president-elect a chance, at least that’s what it felt like. I know nobody gave us a chance. It was kind of a historic week.
“My biggest observation is – and I kind of live in a cave – it just seems with each day and each week and each month, we’re becoming more and more partisan, which I don’t think is very healthy. That concerns me.”
TOPIC 7: What rule would you change in college football?
Ferentz asked if he could pick two – one on the field, one off. (Answer: Hey, it’s your question. Go for it.)
It’s probably no surprise what his game-play rule change would be after his post-Rutgers critiques of how the NCAA’s cut-blocking rule has been interpreted differently from one official to the next.
Ferentz: “Cut blocking. And I’ve got reason to think it’s going to be addressed. Because they put officials in a really tough position.
“Off the field, the biggest one coming down the track right now, is somehow, some way I’m hopeful the NCAA will find a way to contain the amount of people that can work in a college football building. We’ve done it in strength and conditioning. That was an issue, 5-6-7 years ago. Done a really good job with that.
“They’ve got to be able to figure out how to do that with football. Not so much with coaching staffs – it sounds like there might be a 10th staff member added, and that would be a very positive thing. And it sounds like the recruiting rules, there’s going to be some reform. I think that’s really positive. But I think the biggest issue right now is the support staffs. I think there’s got to be a way to contain that. I think what we’re going to see is more disparity and a bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
TOPIC 8: The right move to burn Nathan Stanley’s redshirt?
Stanley, a 6-foot-5, big-armed prospect from Wisconsin, became the first true freshman quarterback at Iowa to take a snap since Drew Tate in 2003. Other than five plays against North Dakota State, though, Stanley's few-dozen snaps of 2016 came in mop-up duty.
Sophomore Tyler Wiegers, the 2015 backup to Beathard, remains listed as the co-No. 2 quarterback but didn’t take a 2016 snap.
Ferentz: “Yeah, I think so. … That’s something we full-well knew back in August when we made the decision, that he might not play a snap that counts. He actually did, and he did a good job.
“The biggest value, and I’ll go back to A.J. Edds, I think it was in ’06. Norm (Parker) 'borrowed' him on defense from tight end to be our backup Leo (outside) linebacker. And we made the decision to let him play. And he didn’t play much that year, although he did play special teams. But I think what he learned just practicing every day with that second group, watching the first-team guy … that accelerated learning process. What that did to help his career the next three years, that was kind of a mind-changing thing for me.
“The proof will be in the pudding, but I think that’s given him a chance to accelerate. All that being said, we’re still going to let all the guys compete when the season’s over. Starting in January, it’s going to be an open position.”
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.