One-on-one with Kirk Ferentz: Iowa’s 20th-year football coach continues to evolve
IOWA CITY, Ia. — We’re now a few weeks into the start of a third decade of Iowa football under the direction of Kirk Ferentz.
On Dec. 2, 1998, a largely unknown NFL assistant in his early 40s with deep Pennsylvania roots, dark hair and humble character was hired as the Hawkeyes’ head coach.
Twenty years and 17 days later in his office, with numerous footballs behind him commemorating career milestones — including the 144th victory that sent him past Hayden Fry as Iowa’s all-time wins leader and the 150th achieved recently at Illinois — the graying head Hawkeye speaks while fighting through a cold he’s picked up.
“A rite of winter,” he jokes.
The fall that preceded this conversation produced an 8-4 regular season full of missed opportunities for Iowa. The roster was capable, the metrics were excellent and the road was cleared for the Hawkeyes to reach Indianapolis for the Big Ten Conference championship game.
It didn't work out.
“Yeah, we’d like to have a better record than 8-4,” Ferentz says during a half-hour interview with the Des Moines Register. "But it’s not like I’m staying up late at night just racking my brain about it."
Signed through the 2025 season, Ferentz sounds congested but undeterred. At 63, he knows the difference between a good eight-win season and a shaky one. He also knows a portion of Iowa’s fan base doesn’t view this 8-4 — with an uphill shot at 9-4 as No. 18 Mississippi State looms in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl — as successfully as he does.
He firmly believes this program to be in a far better place than it was four years ago.
Change — past and future — is the primary topic of this December conversation.
Hawkeye football is known for stability and consistency. Yet Ferentz has demonstrated over the past four years that he's willing to evolve. The changes may not be as drastic as some would like, but they’ve been noticeable and successful.
It’s been well documented that the Jan. 2, 2015, TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee served as the final trigger point for change. Picked to win the Big Ten West with a friendly schedule and a stable of major contributors, 2014 Iowa finished 7-6.
"Even in some of the wins," Ferentz says, "we just didn’t play the way we want to look.”
The changes to come were both public and discreet.
Most prominently, C.J. Beathard was announced as the new No. 1 quarterback, signaling a fresh start and prompting the transfer of two-year starter Jake Rudock.
Team practices were moved from afternoons to mornings, and Thursday (instead of Monday) became the players' NCAA-required day off — a combination that produced earlier urgency on game weeks.
Starting with recruiting, culture became a top priority in shaping the roster and identifying leaders. Any internal negativity was met with zero tolerance.
Ferentz personally hired a strategic communications firm to better handle external relations after increasingly testy interactions with media. He and his assistant coaches became more accessible for interviews, altering the program's obstinate "Fort Kinnick" reputation.
And although it took another two years, Ferentz overhauled his offensive staff. Since the end of the 2016 season, he’s hired four offensive coaches, named his oldest son (Brian) offensive coordinator and created another coordinator role (manned by LeVar Woods) devoted entirely to special teams.
Since the post-TaxSlayer changes, Iowa’s four-year record is 36-16 — fifth-best in the 14-team Big Ten and two wins behind Michigan (38-13) and Penn State (38-14) for third.
In the four prior years, Iowa was 26-25.
“You’re always looking to change things,” Ferentz says. “But I think for 20 years, there’s been a real consistency in what we deem to be important, in the way we try to operate.”
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Ferentz’s most revealing change was more about math than football.
During the 2015 season, coaches would spend at least an hour every Thursday with a freshly hired outside analytics firm scrutinizing the team's in-game decisions.
“It’s really stimulating,” Ferentz says. “Sometimes, it blows your mind.”
Ferentz clearly emerged from those meetings as a more aggressive coach who took calculated risks.
In Iowa’s first two games of 2015, Iowa tried fake field goals. Although neither worked, they set a tone for a change in philosophy that will continue into decade No. 3 of Ferentz.
As we talked, a recent NFL game was top of mind for Ferentz.
The New England Patriots led the Miami Dolphins 30-28, with 21 seconds left on Dec. 9. They faced fourth-and-goal from Miami’s 6-yard line.
Play it safe and kick the field goal? Or take one shot for a clinching touchdown?
In this case, the Patriots booted the easy try to go ahead by five points. It backfired, as the Dolphins were able to capitalize on ensuing field position that at least allowed them to reasonably attempt what would be a bizarre, lateral-filled, game-winning touchdown.
Bad decision? Bad luck? Or both?
“Those kinds of discussions," Ferentz says, "are kind of endless.”
Back to Iowa.
Perhaps Ferentz's most memorable trickery-meets-aggression moment was the fake field goal pass to long snapper Tyler Kluver that helped demoralize Ohio State in the second half of a 55-24 win in 2017.
This season, Ferentz called another three fake field goals. Two produced touchdowns.
And on the last possession of the regular season against Nebraska, Iowa faced a fourth-and-8 in a 28-all game with less than a minute to go. Old Kirk would've punted. New Kirk trusted quarterback Nate Stanley to throw a pass through the steady rain — and it was artfully complete, setting up Miguel Recinos' walk-off field goal.
The analytics would tell you that's a calculated smart move; not a gamble.
"If you open your mind, there’s always something you need to consider that you hadn’t thought about before,” Ferentz says. “Certainly, end of the game, end of the half situations, there’s a multitude of things that can happen.”
Will the Hawkeyes consider joining the world of RPOs?
Believe it or not, they already did.
Really New Kirk?
“We’ve discussed it and considered it. I think we’re comfortable with what we’re doing right now,” Ferentz says. “We’ll go through it again in the out-of-season.”
Run-pass options (RPOs) on offense are the craze in football. The rules, especially in college, favor this less-complex style in which offensive linemen can travel up to three yards downfield without being penalized for being illegally downfield on a forward pass. (The limit is one yard in the NFL.) And three yards often becomes five or six because, well, officials don't want to throw flags on every play.
That’s why Ferentz has been so vocally perturbed about how a complicated rule that penalizes certain types of low blocks is being so tightly officiated.
“I have an issue with it, in there’s no laxity on the cut block. In fact, we’ve basically eliminated it. We assume everybody’s guilty,” Ferentz says. “Yet everybody’s innocent on the RPO stuff."
A fundamentally sound, technique-driven program such as Iowa’s relies on being able to chop down defenders inside the tackle box.
So ... why not transition to the TV-friendly RPO world? Ferentz answers by saying he thinks the personnel he can recruit to Iowa and then develop remains best suited for a pro-style offense.
Even so, everyone else except Wisconsin in the Big Ten West has gone to the wide-open stuff.
Does Ferentz believe Iowa can be a championship team with this approach?
“I do, absolutely. I think we’ve had fair success, and certainly Wisconsin has,” he says, before adding: “When you’re an outlier, it’s not all bad.”
The Big Ten landscape triggers more change and an uneasy future.
Another change happened after Hawkeyes' fourth game this season: to mostly depart from the 4-3 base defense that Ferentz used for his first 19-plus years to embrace a base 4-2-5, which replaces a linebacker with a speedier defensive back.
Its implementation is due to the transforming Big Ten West. Nebraska, Purdue and even Minnesota are embracing spread offenses under new coaches. Splashy new training facilities are have been — or are being — added at Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern and Illinois. Not to mention Big 12 Conference rival Iowa State.
“You could almost make an argument for every program around us. They’re continuing to get better,” Ferentz says. “So that means we'd better be getting better, too.”
That means beating the teams you play the most frequently, another emphasis coming out of a 2014 season that saw Iowa go 0-4 in trophy games — against Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Since? Iowa is 13-3 in those games, an impressive accomplishment in a four-year span that probably doesn't get enough credit.
But on the flip side, Iowa owns a 0-6 record against Wisconsin and Northwestern — winners of the last three West Division crowns — since its Rose Bowl season of 2015.
Of Iowa’s four tight losses this season, Ferentz relents that the 14-10 home defeat to Northwestern on Nov. 10 burns him the most.
“The things they did well that game are really illustrative of what you have to do to get to Indianapolis,” Ferentz says. “They ran the ball better than we did. They protected the ball better than we did. And probably played tougher defense than we did.”
Wrapping up: Where does the program go from here?
The final game of Ferentz’s 20th season will be a challenge. The Hawkeyes are the biggest underdog they’ve been all season, with Mississippi State favored by a touchdown.
A win, no doubt, would serve as validation for a team that Ferentz has consistently believed in. This really could’ve been a 10-win season, or better. Iowa’s points per game (31.5) would be the program's most since 2002. The points against (17.4) would be the fewest since 2010. The differential (plus-14.1) would be third-best in the Ferentz era.
“Records are meaningful. Bill Parcells says, ‘You are what your record says you are.’ But I do believe it goes deeper than that,” Ferentz said. “I think it’s really more about what the season looked like and what the play looked like. We lost four games this year, but I can’t say enough about the way this team prepared, the way they’ve worked together, the way they’ve cared about each other.”
As the interview wraps up, we get to the last topic: the state of the program.
Ferentz’s response: “Healthy.”
He is, too, minus that temporary cough. Nothing a little warm Tampa weather can't cure. And he doesn’t plan on slowing down.
The Hawkeyes and Ferentz are charging — and changing — into their third decade together.
“I really enjoy this. It’s stimulating,” Ferentz says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.