IOWA CITY, Ia. — Those who know Kirk Ferentz have seen him get choked up when emotions strike.
That was no doubt the case when he looked up at the scoreboard following Iowa’s 33-7 triumph against Northern Illinois that congratulated him on being the school’s all-time leader in coaching wins.
And, according to a few players, the tears were flowing in the locker room afterward, too.
The head coach was crying, starting right tackle Levi Paulsen said. So was offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the coach’s son. And then, a lot of other sweaty guys wearing eye black and shoulder pads couldn't help but cry, too.
“Quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends — the whole nine yards. Everybody was crying,” Paulsen said. “I think everybody realizes that the University of Iowa is a special place. The culture that Coach Ferentz has (built) and sustained over time is just second to none.”
Kirk Ferentz, 144 wins — No. 5 in Big Ten Conference history, No. 1 at Iowa.
Hayden Fry, a legend himself, 143 wins — and now Iowa's No. 2.
Ferentz spoke with Fry on Thursday.
“Still telling the same bad jokes,” Ferentz quipped, “but he sounded great. And I think we're all sharing in this.”
As little as Ferentz wanted to talk about this milestone — it was clear this did mean a lot to him.
It meant a lot to Fry, who wanted the job "kept in the (Hawkeye) family" (per Ferentz) when he retired after the 1998 season.
And it meant a lot to everyone around Ferentz.
After the game, against Ferentz’s wishes, he was honored in the locker room by UI President Bruce Harreld and athletics director Gary Barta.
“I got ambushed a little bit in there,” Ferentz said. “President Harreld had asked the other day to recognize it and I said, ‘Please don't.' And he didn't. So Gary circled around and took that over. I forgot to tell him the same thing.”
But what gets Ferentz’s emotional spot in his heart is the connection to people.
So, you know he’ll probably lose it when he reads comments like this:
“He’s the main reason why I’m here,” said fifth-year senior Matt Nelson, whose sturdy play on the defensive line helped stifle Northern Illinois to minus-2 yards on four possessions in the decisive third quarter. “He’s such a great guy. He’s a man you really want to be when you grow up.”
This was a Ferentz game if there ever was one.
Certainly not sexy.
In the first half, Iowa had a punt blocked, had four different receivers drop passes, threw an interception and scored three points.
But the Hawkeyes remained resilient and stayed the course … played tight defensively and on special teams, and wore down the Huskies.
Toren Young’s 40-yard run in the third quarter broke open a 3-0 game. Five plays later, Nate Stanley hit Noah Fant on fourth-and-goal from 1 for the 2018 season’s first touchdown.
That was the first of 30 points in just over 15 minutes of game clock.
Tough, smart, physical football unleashed — the Ferentz way.
“Complementary football,” Nelson said. “Kind of grind it out until something breaks free.”
A classic Ferentz story was at one of the game’s most important positions, left tackle.
With 320-pound tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs suspended, Iowa went with fifth-year senior Dalton Ferguson — who was a walk-on until a few weeks ago — to protect Stanley’s blind side.
Here was a guy that tore his ACL in the spring of 2017, going into his fourth year. He could’ve given up. Coaches certainly could’ve given up on him.
Instead of kicking Ferguson to the curb, Iowa stuck with him, kept developing him. And on Saturday, the 6-foot-4, 308-pound tackle played the first meaningful snaps of his Hawkeye career. And he did just fine.
“He develops players extremely well,” Ferguson said. “I came in as this chubby kid that they probably didn’t think would get to this point. He gave me opportunities, especially through all the injuries.”
Every Hawkeye, past and present, had a hand in helping Kirk Ferentz reach No. 144. He’d be the first to remind you of that.
Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson got choked up talking about “KF” getting choked up.
“KF has things he gets emotional about,” Hockenson said. “And that makes us emotional about him, and that we respect the opportunity we have.”
Saturday was a very solid win, no doubt.
The Huskies were just eight-point underdogs near kickoff; they’re favorites to win the Mid-American Conference. They have one of the best defensive ends in the country in Sutton Smith, but he was barely a factor against Iowa's patchwork offensive line.
“It was a good day for us,” Ferentz said.
How to celebrate?
“Maybe a little extra ice cream tonight, you never know," he said. "Really cut it loose.”
Ferentz’s jokes were probably an intentional ploy to help avoid the public tears.
Because this wasn’t just another win, as much as he would have liked it to be.
Players knew the significance of this day, and they felt honored to be a part of it.
“He’s another father figure out there for all of us,” Stanley said. “These are special years of our lives. And to be able to spend it with someone with so much legacy, so much character and so much love for all of us as players … it’s awesome to be able to go out there to compete with him and for him.”
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.