Leistikow: Brian Ferentz is ready for the criticism, long haul
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brian Ferentz is ready for this.
More than at any point in the past seven months, I'm convinced that he’s absolutely the right person to be Iowa football’s offensive coordinator.
Standing in front of dozens of microphones Saturday at the Hawkeyes’ annual media day, Ferentz could have bloviated about the potential of Iowa’s offense.
It’s a day for optimism, after all. Every team in America is still undefeated.
Instead, the 34-year-old son of Iowa's head coach presented impressive levity and perspective.
He told two short stories of past experience, stories that should help shape how he approaches his first year in — as his father calls it — the “lightning-rod” seat of all coaching seats.
First, the one about Norm Parker.
Though most know Brian Ferentz was a three-year starter on Iowa’s offensive line, it’s become an asterisk that in 2004 a serious staph infection nearly forced the amputation of his right leg.
After surgery, Ferentz’s return to football wasn’t certain. Parker, the late former defensive coordinator at Iowa, pulled Ferentz aside and reminded him of something.
“I won’t share the language he used,” Ferentz cracked Saturday. “But he basically said, ‘Did you think life was going to be a bowlful of cherries?’”
Ferentz remembered Parker telling him, “Life’s hard. Things are hard. If you’re going to be successful at anything … you need to be willing to push through the ups and downs.”
Second, the one from Bill Belichick.
In Ferentz’s first of four seasons on staff with New England Patriots in 2008, star quarterback Tom Brady tore his ACL in the first quarter of the first game.
“Coach Belichick didn’t flinch,” Ferentz recalled. “He came in the building the next day and said, ‘I don’t want to hear another word about it. We’re going to find a way to win football games.’”
Put those two stories together, and there’s a fantastic lesson there — not only for Ferentz, but Hawkeye fans.
There will be bumps, but the key is to keep fighting.
Brian Ferentz’s popularity among a big chunk of the fan base is probably at an all-time high right now for three reasons.
One, he’s not afraid to stir the pot with comments about rival programs.
Two, he’s not Greg Davis.
Three, he’s never called a 6-yard out pass on third-and-8.
He knows he’s under the spotlight. He knows the criticism will, at some point, come.
That much became clear to him the night after he was promoted from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator, back in January.
That night, he didn’t get much sleep.
“It was the first time in my life that I had gotten a promotion where I fully realized all the things that not only could go wrong,” he said, “but that were more than likely going to go wrong.”
Another thing that happened after the promotion: He started getting resumes from across the country, from coaches who wanted to be on his staff. The offense had three openings.
“It struck me how many former offensive coordinators exist,” he said. “And I’d never thought about it that way before.”
So, how not to fail?
As the motto splashed across the fence on Iowa’s practice field says: by “preparing to be the best.”
Regarding the offense itself, there’s a definite emphasis in getting the six best skill-position players on the field. That mindset feels like an upgrade already.
A year ago, from the outside, Iowa seemed easy to defend at times. When blocking tight ends were out there — and they were out there a lot, especially when George Kittle was banged-up — it was a pretty safe bet Iowa was running the ball.
Fans knew that. Florida did, too, in the Outback Bowl. (The result: 30-3.)
“Let’s make sure the defense is having to defend the whole field,” Ferentz said, “and all six skill guys that we have out there.
“Just because you’re a running back doesn’t mean you have to line up in a traditional running-back spot. I think we need to be open to having guys play different spots, and move them around a little bit.”
And what about play-calling?
That’s probably the area where Ferentz knows he’ll be most scrutinized. It’s something he’s never done before, and he’s put a lot of thought into it — from where he’ll be (probably on the field) to getting to his mind working a couple of plays ahead.
Ferentz is accepting as much advice as he can get — from those in-house who have called plays, such as Ken O’Keefe and Tim Polasek, to people outside the program.
"As you have an influx of knowledge and ideas, there’s different ways to do things," Ferentz said. "There’s different ways to skin a cat. And a lot of them work, right?”
One thing longtime NFL offensive guru Tom Moore imparted: When you’re watching other games, think about what plays you’d call in each situation. Ferentz has been doing that with old film from Iowa’s vault.
Last question: What about the quarterback?
Ferentz would love to name a starter. But he doesn’t have one yet between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers.
“We’re going to do what’s best for the football team,” he said. “So as long as it takes, that’s as long as it’ll go.”
And that’s the thing to remember.
This offense, this season: It's a long race.
Or, at least, Ferentz hopes it is, as offensive coordinator.
“Usually it’s not the person who’s leading the race at the beginning ... that wins," Ferentz said. "Most people don’t go wire to wire. If you can just keep coming back every day, and if you get knocked down, get up and keep going.
“I just try to take that approach to what I’m doing. Because I’m pretty sure I’m going to get knocked down at some point. I’m pretty confident in that. If it doesn’t happen, that’s great. We can write a story about that later.”
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.