Leistikow: Talking football, fatherhood with Kirk Ferentz
As he approaches his 62nd birthday, the newly minted dean of college football coaches maintains the humility he had in 1981 upon receiving an offer to lead Iowa’s offensive line.
That was Kirk Ferentz’s first full-time coaching job. And now, entering his 19th year as head coach of the Hawkeyes, he’s within eight Iowa wins of the College Football Hall of Famer who hired him: Hayden Fry.
“You just feel really honored and really fortunate, quite frankly,” Ferentz said in this week in an interview with the Register. “And I still feel the same way. It’s almost like this is Year 2 in the job.”
Ferentz had been the longest-tenured, active Big Ten Conference coach since Joe Paterno was fired at Penn State in 2011. While Iowa has had one head coach in 19 years, these conference programs (counting interims) are on their sixth since Ferentz's Dec. 2, 1998 hiring: Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue.
Maryland, Michigan State and Nebraska are on their fifth.
Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Wisconsin are on their fourth.
With Wednesday’s retirement of Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Ferentz (135-92 at Iowa) became the longest-running coach at one school in the FBS. TCU’s Gary Patterson, hired prior to the 2001 season, is next. (Bill Snyder, another member of the Fry coaching tree, is entering his 26th non-consecutive year at Kansas State.)
With such longevity and staying power (he's signed through 2025), it's no wonder Ferentz is viewed as a father figure within the Iowa football program — and not just because his oldest son is the new offensive coordinator.
Our conversation this week ranged from fun details — such as his strong hint that the Tiger Hawk logo is indeed coming to Kinnick Stadium’s midfield this season — to fatherly perspective.
Below are five topics from our conversation I found insightful. The full podcast is available at HawkCentral.com and via iTunes or Stitcher.
TOPIC 1: What's in a name?
All are considered correct. Who knew?
“There really isn’t a correct pronunciation,” Ferentz said. “I don’t think there is. It doesn’t offend me either way. I can live with both.”
Ferentz’s late father, John, said it one way. His late mother, Elsie Mae, said it the other – the way most of us thought was the only correct way, the way that rhymes with “parents.”
“My dad always said, ‘Jack Fuh-rents.’ I guess that was probably easier on the phone,” Ferentz said.
“As you can imagine, my first name’s been butchered a little bit at times, too. Kirk, Kurt. My father-in-law even called me Rick. I think there might have been a subliminal message in that one.”
So, if you're one of those people like me who cringes when someone says "Fuh-rents" on the call-in shows, TV or in conversation ... it's time to let it slide.
TOPIC 2: Twitter ban revisited
With summer school at Iowa starting Monday, incoming freshman recruits are reporting to football this weekend. That fresh start also marks a Twitter finish line to abide with Ferentz’s no-tweeting policy for players. By Friday, several prospects had already distributed their final tweet for – if all goes as planned – four to five years.
The Twitter ban can be viewed as stodgy from the outside. But here’s a surprise: When Ferentz met with the team’s Leadership Group in May, the players agreed — that no tweeting is the best policy.
“They all were unanimous, quite frankly, that it was a good idea to refrain,” Ferentz said. “... I think the understanding is that everything our guys put out there, whether you want it to or not, it represents our program in some way.”
In fact, after a few questionable Facebook posts crossed Ferentz’s desk recently, the social-media policy underwent further tightening.
When “New Kirk” became a thing in 2015, he promised the Twitter policy would be revisited. He didn't expect this response when he did.
“They want to try to minimize some turbulence from the outside,” Ferentz said. “I’m not sure I could predict that response. But that’s what I got. And it really made me feel pretty good about things.”
TOPIC 3: Brian
Fifteen of Ferentz’s last 16 Iowa teams have won at least six games. The one that didn’t? The one that was breaking in a new offensive coordinator.
The 2012 Hawkeyes went 4-8 under Greg Davis’ first-year offense after Ken O’Keefe’s departure to the NFL. I asked Ferentz this week what he needed to see out of Brian Ferentz, his 34-year-old son and first-year offensive coordinator, to deem the 2017 season a success.
His response, unsurprisingly, didn’t include a benchmark record or yardage total.
“It’s the body of work; that’s really what it’s all about,” Ferentz said. “(With) Brian, it’s going to be a progression, certainly.”
Kirk Ferentz likes to share the story of Robert Gallery, the 2003 Outland Trophy-winning left tackle at Iowa, participating in his first spring game at Kinnick Stadium. On his first snap, Gallery bungled the play call and moved in the completely wrong direction.
“The pressure of that moment got him a little bit,” Ferentz said before transitioning back to his son. “It was kind of funny, I think Brian got to experience some plays (in April’s spring game) that didn’t work.”
I think Brian will be an upgrade over Davis in putting the ball into play-makers’ hands. I also think it's fair to expect head-scratching moments; his next play call in a college game will be his first.
“It all lies in the preparation,” he said. “I know this: He’ll be totally prepared. He’ll put his best into it.”
TOPIC 4: The QB race
Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers … or someone else at quarterback?
Stanley and Wiegers are the clear top two candidates to take the first snap of the 2017 season on Sept. 2 vs. Wyoming. Ryan Boyle and Peyton Mansell are behind them.
Ferentz isn’t discounting any outcome. He remembers how the Hawkeyes’ QB derby unfolded 30 years ago between Dan McGwire, Tom Poholsky and Chuck Hartlieb.
“I’m a dumb line coach (back then), but I was pretty sure I knew who 1 and 2 were,” Ferentz said, recalling it was a staff consensus. “… I knew the top two, and Chuck was clearly third.”
Long story short: The QB battle continued into the regular season. And No. 3 became No. 1. Hartlieb would lead the Hawkeyes to a 10-3 record, including a memorable win at Ohio State on his fourth-and-23 touchdown pass to Marv Cook.
“(Hartlieb) was a guy that didn’t throw the prettiest ball. Wasn’t the tallest or most talented,” Ferentz said. “But he was the best quarterback of the group, and proved to be, at least for Iowa.
“The moral of the story is you just are never quite sure what it’s going to be or when things or going to happen."
In 2017 terms: Don't be shocked if one guy starts the season, and another guy finishes it.
TOPIC 5: Father figure
The Iowa Ladies Football Academy is this weekend, a fantastic annual event that gives women inside access to the Hawkeye program and, more importantly, has raised more than $1.5 million for the UI Children’s Hospital.
I bring this up because, after last year’s event, I had a chance to see Kirk and Mary Ferentz interact for a little bit. And what I observed that afternoon reminded me of something Kirk said this week as we discussed his dad's influence in advance of Father's Day.
“You find out what true love is when you get older. You get into the 60s, 70s, 80s,” Ferentz said, his voice cracking a bit. “To watch him and my mom interact, that’s pretty good stuff.”
John and Elsie Mae Ferentz were married for 63 years. John died in 2004 on the week of Iowa’s road game at Penn State. Ferentz's mom died in 2007. Few Hawkeye fans who watched a 6-4 Hawkeye win over Penn State in 2004 will ever forget the postgame emotion Kirk Ferentz showed a day after he gave his father’s eulogy.
“First of all, that score was probably appropriate. It was a baseball score, and he was a baseball guy,” Ferentz says. “He really loved baseball, and more so, he really loved coaching kids. He probably got more enjoyment out of that than anything he did in his life.
“The thing I noticed about him … as I got older and he got older, he just treated everybody the same way. He was really a person that took interest in other people. Had a time for everybody. Just a genuine guy.”
Those who know Kirk Ferentz well would say the same thing about him.
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.