Leistikow: Pinstripe result important for Kirk Ferentz, Hawkeye program

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

NEW YORK — Ahead of Wednesday’s Pinstripe Bowl, there’s an impressive talking point that few people are actually talking about:

An Iowa win in the 4:15 p.m. CT, ESPN-televised game against Boston College, and Kirk Ferentz will have matched Hayden Fry for most coaching victories in Hawkeye history, at 143.

The university's media notes mention the possibility … in the ninth of 10 pregame bullet points.

Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz, right, visits with Boston College head football coach Steve Addazio at the New York Stock Exchange in New York City on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017.

When I asked star linebacker Josey Jewell on Monday about what it would mean to deliver Ferentz his historic 143rd win at Iowa, he genuinely had no idea.

The possible milestone was news to fellow linebacker Bo Bower, too.

“That just stands out to me — that he didn’t mention that,” Jewell said, “and nobody else in the complex did, either. They don’t really look at that stuff.”

That, in a nutshell, is part of the secret to Ferentz’s longevity at Iowa.

You've heard the saying: All sizzle and no steak.

At Iowa, Ferentz's approach has been more steak, less sizzle.

On that note, I posed the question to Boston College coach Steve Addazio on Tuesday: How much awareness and respect is there in the coaching community for Ferentz? After all, the Atlantic Coast Conference doesn't exactly butt heads frequently with the Big Ten.

His answer would be worth framing for Ferentz supporters:

“Quite honestly, I’m glad you asked me that,” Addazio said. “Because I sincerely have always admired Coach in his career — what he’s done; what he’s accomplished.”

He continued.

“He is regarded as one of the finest coaches in the country and a man of great integrity. And there’s no one that’ll not tell you that,” he said. “Which, I think, is really unbelievable.

“At the end of the day, it’s still about building a program that’s built on character, integrity and fundamentals and toughness. The ability to stand the test of time in our business today — I have an unbelievable respect for that and everything that coach has done.”

Ferentz, seated next to Addazio at the press conference inside Yankee Stadium, seemed to get uncomfortable in his chair with the praise.

But if you're Ferentz, how could you not feel good about hearing an answer like that?

As is his nature, Ferentz deflected his role in his 19-year head coaching run that has delivered 142 wins against 97 losses — and that counts a 2-18 start in the first 20 games.

“I’ve been around great people in my 28 years at Iowa,” said Ferentz, who developed an appreciation for tradition and longevity as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and as a nine-year assistant under Fry from 1981 to 1989. Iowa is the only school in the country to have only two head coaches since 1979.

“The coaches have been fantastic that I’ve gotten to work with; the people at the university have been tremendous; and the people of the state are great.”

Since the start of the 2001 season, when Ferentz turned the corner in Year 3, the Hawkeyes have averaged 8.1 wins and reached 15 bowl games in 17 tries.

Before him, Fry assembled a 143-89-6 record in 20 years and reached 14 bowl games.

“I’ve coached long enough now, where I think you really appreciate every opportunity you have to play in a bowl game,” Ferentz said. “They’re hard to come by. They're earned.”

Over time, any coach builds up critics. Look around college football in the past decade, and you’ll see good coaches who were driven out by fan bases or administrations that always wanted more.

Ferentz, 62, certainly has gathered plenty of opposition in his 19 years — a tenure that won't come to an end anytime soon: He’s signed through the 2025 season.

And there would be considerable fan unrest if the Hawkeyes (2½-point favorites) can’t get the job done Wednesday. There’s a big, big difference between finishing 8-5 or 7-6 in how this offseason feels.

A loss, and it’s 8 months of hand-wringing and frustration.

A win, and there’s a lot to build on — November explosions against Ohio State and Nebraska followed by the program’s first bowl victory since 2010.

Ferentz needs this. The Iowa program needs this. 

Under-recruited, productive fifth-year seniors like Jewell, Bower, Nathan Bazata, Matt VandeBerg and Akrum Wadley are 0-for-4 on bowl trips.

"It's a must-win, especially for the seniors," Bower said.

Giving Ferentz No. 143 would be gravy.

“It would mean a lot,” Bower said. “It’d mean a lot for us to just win the game in general.”

A bowl game with little buzz — and probably sparse fan attendance, with poor Iowa ticket sales and below-freezing temperatures expected at kickoff — would be a fitting setting for all of that to take place.

For 19 years, Ferentz’s Hawkeyes have quietly thrived in the absence flash.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.