Leistikow: Hawkeyes' staff overhaul a forward-thinking move
IOWA CITY, Ia. — “Back in January …”
If you paid attention in 2016, you heard Kirk Ferentz use that preface regularly to discuss his Iowa football team’s progression.
In 2017, “Back in January” is going to have a new, more profound, meaning.
In the days following the 30-3 Outback Bowl loss to Florida, Hawkeye football has sprinted into a full offensive overhaul — and, program-wide, seems to be traveling at warp speed toward the future.
And now comes the news that wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy and running backs coach Chris White are gone, too; their contracts that expire in June are not being renewed "as part of reorganizational efforts" on the coaching staff, the UI announced.
All this in a span of seven days.
One, this is the collateral damage from an offense that ranked 121st out of 128 FBS programs. Something drastic needed to be done. And it was.
Maybe it was their lack of Iowa ties, but Davis (in five years), Kennedy and White (four each) — all engaging, good guys — didn’t seem to find a comfort level here. It was probably a sign of things to come that Kennedy and White received by far the lowest-percentage salary increases among the nine full-time assistant coaches on the heels of a Rose Bowl season.
Two, these moves set the stage for the next phase of Iowa football, the post-Kirk Ferentz phase … in which Brian could be in line to take over the family business.
The younger Ferentz, 33, has not only received the keys to the offense, he's gotten most of the house.
Certainly, Kirk Ferentz remains the program’s CEO. But you can bet Brian will have some say in how the offensive staff is shaped in the coming weeks.
What to do with such power?
You’ve heard “location, location, location” in real estate. If I’m the Ferentzes, I’m thinking “recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.”
This past season, Iowa had an all-Big Ten quarterback, a Butkus Award finalist at linebacker, a Jim Thorpe Award winner at defensive back and the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line.
Still, the result was an 8-5 record and unmet season goals. Why? The biggest reason was a lack of playmakers on the outside.
It was plainly obvious from the press box, week after week. C.J. Beathard didn’t have open receivers, anywhere. It’s why running back Akrum Wadley became the top — and often only — receiving threat as the season wound down. Because there wasn’t anybody else.
It’s not all personnel.
Stale, predictable schemes were partly to blame, too, which is why not many Hawkeye fans are broken up about a change at offensive coordinator.
Same goes for the lack of development in receivers. Iowa doled out six wide-receiver scholarships in the Class of 2013. Among them, only Matt VandeBerg (a grayshirt afterthought) has panned out.
But, as I wrote the other day, a freshened offense needs to be coupled with a freshened emphasis on recruiting.
Iowa has a world-class training facility, along with a reputation for churning out NFL-ready products behind Chris Doyle’s strength-training program.
It participates in what most viewed this past season as the top football conference in the country.
It can boast five top-10 national finishes in the past 15 seasons.
It’s got veteran teachers and motivators already in-house in Doyle, Reese Morgan, Phil Parker and, yes, Kirk Ferentz.
Now the opportunity is there to zero in on football guys — ideally with Hawkeye roots such as current assistants Kelvin Bell, Brian Ferentz and LeVar Woods — who have personality and relatability to the younger generation.
What positions the new guys coach don’t matter as much as you might think.
Brian Ferentz never coached defense or tight ends before he got to the New England Patriots. He had never coached the offensive line before he came to Iowa.
The key is to find the right fits, then put them in the best chairs available.
You’ll see a lot of candidates thrown around via social media and fan message boards in the coming days and weeks. You probably already have.
I think Kirk Ferentz has a plan in his head. He doesn’t make decisions without calculation. He said he had thought about the post-Davis era for years, not weeks.
I think he’s seen clearly, especially over the past four bowl games, that there’s a talent disparity at key positions. I think Brian’s helped him see that, too.
Davis, Kennedy and White made a combined $1.28 million annually before bonuses.
With that kind of money, Iowa should have the ability to lure the types of guys the Ferentzes want.
And then there will likely be another opening later this spring, with Wednesday’s vote by the American Football Coaches Association clearing the path for the NCAA to add a 10th full-time assistant for FBS programs.
That’s four total openings to be filled for the 2017 season — 40 percent of the full-time staff.
After going a combined 20-7 the past two seasons, that may seem like an alarming rate.
But I think the changes so far are 100 percent good. That's not an alarming rate.
Whether I'm right or wrong, "Back in January” is guaranteed to be a frequent sentence-starter in 2017.
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.