Untold stories on Kirk Ferentz's path to becoming college football's longest-tenured coach

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — That Kirk Ferentz is sitting here, in an office with a prime view of Kinnick Stadium, is something he can't help but find improbable.

Yet he has now spent 28 years — nearly half his life — coaching football at the University of Iowa.

He’s had opportunities to leave. In fact, he did once.

But with four simple words over the course of a conversation that stretched nearly an hour, Ferentz summarized why he’s able to charge forward into Year 20 as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.

“I like it here,” he said. “I’ve always liked it. I like the challenge — and there is a huge challenge."

One more win, and he’ll break a tie with Hayden Fry for most by any Iowa coach.

One more win, and he’ll stand alone at No. 5 in Big Ten Conference history.

Amos Alonzo Stagg, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Joe Paterno … and Kirk Ferentz.

Yet as he approaches his 63rd birthday, on Aug. 1, Ferentz shows no signs of fading into the sunset.

Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz gives an interview on Tuesday, May 29, 2018, in his office on the University of Iowa campus.

He makes it a priority to stay physically fit. He’s under contract through the 2025 season. He’s coming off his program’s best three-year win total (28) in nearly a decade. He's recently re-tooled his offensive staff. In games, he's become increasingly aggressive — fake field goals, going for fourth downs — with age.

“I know, internally, I’ve never enjoyed it any more than I’m enjoying it right now,” Ferentz said. “I really enjoy the players — that’s first and foremost. I enjoy the people I get to interface with every day — I’ve always felt very fortunate about that.”

In nearly three decades in Iowa City (19 years as a head coach, nine as an assistant), it would seem there’s little new ground that could be covered in this interview. Yet on this Tuesday, just three months out from the Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois, Ferentz is relaxed, reflective and revealing about his coaching journey.

Before we start, he talked about the chunk he took out of his chin with a razor just a few minutes earlier. Still in preseason shaving form, he joked.

During the interview, the coach that sometimes gets labeled as predictable was full of surprises:

When Ferentz discusses his biggest wins, the memories flow.

The walls and shelves in Ferentz’s office serve as a reminder of why he’s college football’s longest-tenured head coach.

There are national coach-of-the-year awards — one from 2002 ... another from 2015.

But what stick out the most are commemorative footballs that represent his collective longevity and success (143-97 at Iowa).

In our conversation, the reflections of some of those memorable wins ranged from the emotional (Iowa’s unusual 6-4 win at Penn State in 2004, the day after Ferentz delivered his father’s eulogy) to the powerful (the 55-24 beatdown of then-No. 3 Ohio State just seven months ago) to the improbable (say "Tate to Holloway" or "Stanzi to McNutt" to a Hawkeye fan over 25; they'll know what you're talking about).

But one football on Ferentz’s shelf — marked Nov. 4, 2000 — might be the most important of them all. Without that ball, Ferentz might not be sitting where he is today. The final score that day in State College, Pennsylvania: Iowa 26, Penn State 23.

Footballs and trophies lines the shelves in Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz's office on Tuesday, May 29, 2018, on the University of Iowa campus.

To that point, Iowa's record under Ferentz was 2-18. But that day in Happy Valley, against a legendary program and coach, the Hawkeyes took a step toward legitimacy (in Ferentz’s words) as Ryan Hansen’s interception in a second overtime period clinched a needle-moving win.

“Really, from start to finish in that ballgame,” Ferentz said, “that was the first time we operated like a Big Ten team that might have a chance to have success.”

A sobering reality awaited him the next night in the late Norm Parker’s office. Ferentz and Iowa’s then-defensive coordinator were going over film of Northwestern. Iowa’s next opponent was a scoring juggernaut that year — behind a copycat offense of the St. Louis Rams’ wide-open attack — and had just racked up 54 points against Michigan.

“Forget about stopping them,” Ferentz told Parker, “how are we going to slow them down?”

The late Norm Parker, seen here during a 2009 game.

Before the two left for the night, Ferentz suggested that Parker should devise a specialty defense to stop the 18th-ranked Wildcats.

What happened?

"Norm came in the next morning and said, 'We’re going to stick with what we do,'" Ferentz said. "Lesson learned."

It was Ferentz's personal "Kodak moment" (a term he often uses to describe a player's growth), watching Parker's base 4-3 defense stifle the college version of the "Greatest Show on Turf." That decision (and the head coach humility behind it) delivered win No. 4, by a score of 27-17, of the soon-to-be-booming Ferentz era.

Fast forward 17½ years, five national top-10 finishes and 139 wins, and here we are: With Ferentz on the doorstep of passing a Hall of Famer in Fry, in his office, surrounded by footballs marking milestones.

Not bad for a former girls’ basketball coach.

You read that correctly.

“Little known trivia right there,” Ferentz cracked.

Indeed, in 1978, Ferentz was persuaded into coaching the girls’ basketball team at the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. For two years.

“The hardest job I’ve ever had,” Ferentz said, totally serious. “Certainly in coaching.”

The background: Ferentz was an English teacher just out of college in Connecticut, and Worcester faculty were required to be involved in two extracurricular activities. His primary motivation there was being a football coach (he was an assistant under Ken O’Keefe, who would later become a longtime right-hand man at Iowa); but he needed one more.

Baseball was more in Ferentz's wheelhouse, but O'Keefe already held that job. So the iconic athletic director there, Tom Blackburn, asked Ferentz to coach girls’ basketball.

At 23, eager to make a good impression, Ferentz wasn't about to say no to a living legend.

Still, he stressed to Blackburn: "I don’t know anything about coaching basketball. And I certainly don’t know anything about coaching women."

"'Don't worry about it,'" Ferentz remembered Blackburn saying. "'I'll fill you in on the basketball part. You’ll do great.'"

Ferentz's basketball coaching style?

“Probably very deliberate, I’m guessing,” he said wryly, a nod to his ball-control reputation as a college football coach. “We weren’t running too fast. We didn’t have too many ball handlers, I remember that. You never do. Or shooters.”

The eye-opening experience served as one of many lasting coaching lessons this Pittsburgh native would grasp on his unexpected path to Iowa City.

At first, Ferentz treated his girls’ players with a more gentle, careful approach.

That didn’t take.

“When I, for whatever reason, figured out, 'Hey, I’m just going to coach these girls like I would the boys in football — set expectations, what have you,'" Ferentz said. "It worked out beautifully. They were a lot of fun to coach. We weren’t any good, but it was a lot of fun. ... It was a good growth experience for me, quite frankly."

The lesson learned? Be consistent in leadership.

Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz gives an interview on Tuesday, May 29, 2018, in his office on the University of Iowa campus.

'Sports Illustrated' and a bus ride sparked Ferentz’s next head-coaching job.

Ferentz left the Worcester Academy to become a graduate assistant on Pittsburgh’s staff in 1980, where he studied under his mentor (and high school coach), the late Joe Moore, before getting the call to coach Hayden Fry's offensive line in Iowa City in 1981.

That part of Ferentz’s story is familiar to plugged-in Hawkeye fans.

But a lesser-known slice of his coaching journey happened next. Before the 1990 season, he was hired to lead the football program at the University of Maine — located in Orono, a small town about 100 miles from the Canadian border.

Why Maine?

It wasn’t necessarily Ferentz's desire to become a head coach, but he had been at Iowa nine years in the same role.

And sometime during November 1989, in which the Hawkeyes would win once and score a total of 38 points in four games, Ferentz was on a team bus trip and leafing through the Oct. 30 issue of Sports Illustrated. He came across an article titled, "Beast From Out East" — a piece about Maine's torrid start to the Division I-AA season.

Ferentz doesn't forget much — and he probably didn't give the article much more thought ... until he learned that Maine’s coach, Tom Lichtenberg, left after the season for a job at Ohio University.

“I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring,” Ferentz said.

The athletic director at Maine was Kevin White, formerly of Loras College in Dubuque (and now at Duke). Ferentz left his name and number with White's assistant. An offensive line coach whose team just went 5-6, Ferentz didn't think he would hear back.

But a week later, as he and wife Mary were packing for a holiday trip, the phone rang.

It was White.

Ferentz recalls a conversation taking place as three of their young children hollered in the background.

A disastrous interview, Ferentz assumed.

“After I hung up, I’m thinking (White) figures, ‘There’s no way I’m going to hire this guy. He's got no control of his own kids,’” Ferentz said. “Little did I know, Kevin had four kids at that time — soon to be five (same as the Ferentzes, eventually) — so I think he got that whole picture.

“But that’s how it all got started.”

Ferentz would go 3-8, 3-8 and 6-5 in three seasons at Maine while tucking away lessons he absorbed from coaching missteps, particularly in Year One.

“The good news is in Maine, nobody noticed the mistakes I made,” Ferentz quipped. “They were more interested in hunting season at that point. Or the hockey season, probably.”

Though his 12-21 record there sounds unimpressive, the trajectory of Maine football was pointing up. The Ferentzes were happy and began to put down their roots.

“Our plan was to be there for the long haul,” he said.

They felt so good about Maine, they re-financed their house. Two months later, another surprising phone call changed everything.

An unsolved mystery involving Ferentz and Bill Belichick.

To this day, Ferentz doesn’t know how Bill Belichick found him.

(Wouldn’t you want to know how one of the NFL’s all-time greatest coaches discovered you in a remote town of 10,000?)

“That’s a question that’ll remain unsolved or unanswered,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know the answer to that or I’d tell you. I’ve got a couple theories. It was really strange.”

Ferentz was returning from a recruiting trip in January 1993 and, while at the Boston airport, checked in with his assistant back in Maine. He had a message from Mike Lombardi, then an executive with the Cleveland Browns.

“So, anyway, when I got back, I gave Mike a call, and they were interested in interviewing me,” Ferentz continued. “I never asked them how they got my name or what the circumstances were. When I got there, I never asked that question either.”

The only thing Ferentz learned for sure: That Belichick, whom he hadn't met and was the Browns’ head coach, wanted him to coach his offensive line.

Ferentz took the job.

For the first time, he was an NFL coach.

They only worked together for three years in Cleveland, but Belichick — who, of course, would go on to win five Super Bowls (and lose three others) with the New England Patriots — and Ferentz remain linked forever. 

Together, they went through one of the most bizarre soap operas in NFL history: Browns owner Art Modell’s midseason announcement that the team would relocate to Baltimore. The move sparked city-wide protests, lawsuits and franchise disarray. The season unraveled, a year after the Belichick-Ferentz Browns had gone 11-5 and won a playoff game.

To Ferentz’s surprise (again), he stuck with the franchise in its controversial move to Baltimore — this time under Ted Marchibroda — for three more years.

He eventually rose to the title of Ravens assistant head coach.

You know the rest:

Kirk Ferentz is shown at his introductory press conference at Iowa, with then-athletics director Bob Bowlsby, in December 1998.

Hayden Fry retires. Iowa fans clamor for Bob Stoops. Instead, on Dec. 2, 1998, athletic director Bob Bowlsby introduces Kirk Ferentz as the Hawkeyes' next head coach.

“The six years I was in the NFL were just terrific,” Ferentz said. “Not everything’s transferable (to college), but to have a chance to work with a guy like Bill Belichick was really outstanding. He was a Hall of Fame coach in Cleveland, in my opinion. The circumstances — what we went through — couldn’t have been any more bizarre or surreal.”

Yet if Belichick hadn't found Ferentz... he probably never becomes Fry's successor in Iowa City.

And about that unsolved mystery?

"I just haven’t asked. Next time I get a chance, I will,” Ferentz said. “I was just glad to get the call.”

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Ferentz had chances to leave Iowa. There's a reason he didn't.

Perhaps Ferentz’s most valuable NFL lesson learned: When circumstances are challenging and even crumbling around you, keep pushing forward.

He had no other choice after that 2-18 start at Iowa.

Two years later, the Hawkeyes shared the 2002 Big Ten championship. His name became annually associated with NFL head-coaching job opportunities. Still in his 40s at the time, as Iowa won 31 games from 2002 to 2004, Ferentz was a hot commodity. The most intense report was that he was in line to take over the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003. (Jack Del Rio eventually got the job.)

How far did Ferentz-to-the-NFL talks ever go?

They never reached the “serious” level, he said.

“There might have been a thing or two where it, you know, piqued your interest a little bit,” Ferentz said. “But what it comes down to: I never thought there was a compelling reason for me to really listen or look too hard. I feel very fortunate for that fact."

And that type of two-way relationship is how you acquire longevity, which, in today's football world, is increasingly elusive.

Of 130 FBS head coaches, only 11 have been in charge of their programs since 2007.

Just one has stood the test of time since 1999.

“What it boils down to: If you’re in a good place where you have good support and you’re around good people every day, it would take a lot to make you even think about wanting to leave that," Ferentz said. "I’ve never really had a compelling reason to leave."

Ferentz closed his reflection with one piece of dry humor:

"Fortunately, on the other side," he said, "nobody’s felt compelled to make me leave.”

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.