Leistikow: The secret to Kirk Ferentz's quiet longevity at Iowa
CHICAGO, Ill. — Given this was his 19th Big Ten Football Media Days, Kirk Ferentz has undoubtedly faced a lot of the same questions over and over.
But this year, there was one that he couldn’t have gotten before in this annual, downtown-Chicago spectacle.
What’s it like to be the dean of college football coaches?
And more importantly: How did you do it?
“It’s all about people,” Ferentz said simply. “From my standpoint, I was lucky enough to find a place where I fit — and it was total luck. Same thing, dating my wife.”
He referenced the story Monday about courting his future bride 44 years ago. He had known Mary Hart for four years, then one day decided to ask her out to a movie.
Now, of course, she’s Mary Ferentz. They have five children, the oldest of which is now Kirk’s first-year offensive coordinator, Brian.
He couldn’t have planned this.
He couldn’t have orchestrated landing in Iowa City in 1981 on Hayden Fry’s staff, a nine-year experience that ingrained Iowa into his persona and eventually enticed him to return as Fry's successor in 1999.
“Sometimes, things just align well. You hope that happens in marriage,” Ferentz said, getting a little choked up as he knocked on the hard table-top in front of him at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. “I’ve been so fortunate that way. You turn around, and I’ve done the same thing, professionally. I’ve hit the jackpot twice, I guess.”
Ferentz has been reminded a lot lately that he's now the longest-consecutive-tenured coach at one school, a distinction that became his when Bob Stoops retired from Oklahoma last month.
It’s not easy to last five years in this business, let alone 19. And Ferentz cracked — though he wasn’t joking — that some folks were ready to rush him out of Iowa City as quickly as he came after the first 20 games of his tenure had produced just two wins.
But he’s proven to be durable. Year after year, media day after media day.
And even though Ferentz turns 62 on Aug. 1, he’s showing zero signs of slowing down.
Since convening here a year ago, he’s signed a contract extension through the 2025 season.
He just revamped his offensive staff, promoting his son and hiring three new coaches.
He’s hardly standing pat or “comfortable” — a word he's reticent to use in his profession.
Yet he has found comfort in Iowa City, a “fit,” as he said, that suits his Midwestern values and Pittsburgh upbringing.
“You look around the profession and you realize, change isn’t always better,” Ferentz said. “I grew up watching Joe Paterno (at Penn State), Chuck Noll (with the Pittsburgh Steelers).
“I coached in the Yankee conference — look that one up. Tubby Raymond was at Delaware forever (from 1966 to 2001), but Tubby was smart enough to know he had a good job. Some guys aren’t that smart.”
Ferentz is right. He’s been fortunate.
A lot of coaches might have been fired after the 2-6 Big Ten campaigns of 2006 or 2012, or the disappointment of a 7-6 season after high expectations in 2014. The “Fire Ferentz” crowd was as vocal as ever around this time of the year, just two summers ago.
But athletics director Gary Barta stood by Ferentz, and that vote of confidence was rewarded with a 12-2 campaign in 2015. And then the contract extension.
“What we do is really competitive. There’s going to be peaks and valleys,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know anything about business, but the smart people I know who are successful in business realize that. You address things that are problematic. You address issues, if you will, and find solutions and corrections rather than (deciding to) blow it all up and start over again.”
And, as Ferentz mentioned, it’s about people.
There’s no doubt he still cares deeply about Hawkeye football — and especially the players.
It’s why he still gets choked up easily after significant success stories.
“That’s because he’s passionate about what he does, and he cares about us,” senior receiver Matt VandeBerg said. “And he cares about what we’re going to do on the field. And that gets you ready to go, when you know the coach feels that way.”
It’s why he, Brian (then the offensive line coach) and strength coach Chris Doyle called offensive lineman Sean Welsh routinely after he left the team in the spring of 2015 as he battled depression.
“It wasn’t, ‘When are you coming back?’ It was, ‘How are you doing?’ They couldn’t care less about the football,” Welsh said Monday as one the Hawkeyes’ three media-day representatives, a mauling lineman with 35 career starts. “They wanted me to be healthy.”
With 135 wins, Ferentz is just eight shy of tying Fry for Iowa’s all-time record.
He’s quietly, unassumingly climbing the ladder for all-time wins at a Big Ten school. If he passes Fry, he'll be fifth, behind only Amos Alonzo Stagg, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Paterno.
That's quite the list.
How long will Ferentz keep going?
“I just read a book about a pretty prominent coach who had a really long career in the NFL,” he said, referring to Michael MacCambridge's "Chuck Noll: His Life's Work." “And when it was time for him to retire, he knew it. … I’m guessing when you know it, you know it.”
That seems way off Ferentz’s radar.
“I’m not going to say I’m more excited about this season than any, but it’s right up there,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back on the field with our players.”
So back to the original question.
How did he do it?
Yeah, five top-10 national finishes have given him enough coaching capital to withstand the down or mediocre years.
He’s an excellent leader and coach — probably a Hall of Famer, like Fry, someday.
But here’s the unexciting secret to Ferentz’s longevity:
“Never worried too much about what’s going on left, right (or) too far down the road. Just tried to take care of today and do that,” he said. “And, hopefully, you get to stick around.”
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.