Leistikow: Why Iowa's Kirk Ferentz is feeling sharper, fresher in his mid-60s

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Last month, Kirk Ferentz found himself fascinated in downtown Des Moines as he mingled backstage with the Dave Matthews Band.

“Leave it to Dallas Clark, right?” the longtime Iowa football coach quips. “Dallas Clark, I swear, knows everybody.”

Dating to his time as an NFL assistant coach in the 1990s, Ferentz has long been a fan of one of the most influential rock bands in the past 30 years.

Now, as a guest of Clark’s, he was enthralled to learn that DMB shakes up its setlist every night on tour, which can sometimes mean four unique shows in four cities in five days.

(The coaching part of Ferentz' mind was churning: That’s a lot of road games.)

On this Tuesday at Wells Fargo Arena, Matthews opened with "Louisiana Bayou," closed with "All Along the Watchtower" and tucked the usual hits (think "Crush," "Crash Into Me") inside a 22-song setlist.

In a story involving legendary quarterback Peyton Manning and broadcaster Jim Nantz, Clark, a former Iowa walk-on under Ferentz who became an all-pro tight end with the Indianapolis Colts, had become friends with Matthews.

Kirk Ferentz takes his fitness seriously, and he says it's helped his sharpness (and, by extension, his coaching longevity) as he nears his 64th birthday and 21st season leading the Hawkeyes.

As a result, here was Iowa’s football coach years later listening to Matthews talk about what goes into his nightly variations in songs and performance.

“That’s how he stays invigorated, and it keeps him sharp,” Ferentz says. “It was really impressive to me. He seemed very grounded, very genuine, very authentic.”

The parallels seem obvious, don't they?

Matthews continues to find ways to stay relevant at 52, years after what would be considered the prime of his career. Just last year, the band cranked out a new album.

Ferentz, college football’s longest-tenured coach at his current school, is feeling fresh and invigorated just 1½ months out from his 64th birthday.

In a conversation this week with the Register, Ferentz explained the measures he takes to remain physically and mentally sharp, while sharing clues about what his life might entail when he (inevitably) is no longer the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes.

MORE: Iowa's approach on offense, as explained by Brian Ferentz

Nine years ago, Ferentz needed a lifestyle change.

The pain in his arthritic hip had become so significant that he needed to mix things up. A perk of being Iowa’s head coach is down-the-hall access to one of the nation’s most renowned strength and conditioning coaches.

Chris Doyle, who has been with Ferentz since his first season at Iowa in 1999, became his boss' new personal trainer.

"And I use that word very loosely: training," Ferentz says in his familiar, self-deprecating tone. "Chris has been great. He has never laughed directly in my face. He always waits until I turn around."

Ferentz began lifting weights again, for the first time since his linebacker playing days at the University of Connecticut in the late 1970s.

“I don’t want to show you my records,” he says. “Because they’re less than spectacular.”

There’s that tone again.

But talk to others inside the Iowa football program, and they’ll attest: Ferentz is a fitness fanatic. There are younger assistant coaches such as Kelton Copeland who can flash massive biceps, but Doyle said this last summer in a Register interview.

“Nobody trains harder than Kirk.”

Next time you see Ferentz on TV or in person, take a moment to size up his physique. The nine years of strength training are apparent. Take away the graying hair and a few wrinkles, and you wouldn’t guess he’s in his mid-60s.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz (right, with Outback Bowl MVP Nick Easley) is visibly fitter than he was a decade ago.

In fact, Ferentz feels better today than he did 25 years ago. He tells a story about his days with Bill Belichick and the Cleveland Browns, when he didn’t work out from the start of training camp until after the playoffs.

His right knee, at age 39, became quite literally a pain.

“My leg was like spaghetti,” Ferentz says. “I learned there, just a little bit about taking care of your joints by staying fit. And it’s just continued to evolve.”

The idea of actually getting in better shape as each year passes was reinforced by a book he received several years ago from Mark Kaufman, a former Iowa trainer and the CEO/founder of Athletico physical-therapy centers.

“I don’t know if I should have been insulted,” Ferentz deadpans, “but it was really informational.”

The 2004 book, called “Younger Next Year” by Chris Crowley, stresses the science and benefits of serious exercise. The idea is that a person can remain effectively active until age 80 and beyond. We're talking ski slopes, bike trails, swimming pools.

Rule No. 1? Exercise hard six days a week ... for the rest of your life.

That no-quick-fix mantra dovetails nicely with Iowa football's developmental approach, so it was right up Ferentz's alley. There are nutritional and spiritual elements to the book, too. Ferentz jokes about his vulnerability to ice cream holding him back.

But he does a good job following Rule No. 1.

And for nine years running, Ferentz has increasingly felt the benefits.

In season. Out of season. He sets aside time in his demanding schedule for whatever Doyle has in store for him: Weight training, the elliptical machine, brisk walks, even 40- and 55-yard sprints. (Or “strides,” as Ferentz calls them.)

“You kind of find time, make time,” Ferentz says. “Quite frankly, I think it makes you more productive the rest of the week. It makes you more sharp mentally. You feel better. You have more energy.

"That’s probably something I regret not doing earlier.”

And that’s the goal, really: Staying sharp.

As with the Dave Matthews Band, there’s something to be said for keeping things fresh. Ferentz, perhaps unintentionally, famously reinvented himself into “New Kirk” during Iowa’s stirring 12-0 regular season of 2015.

Sure, he still sticks to tried-and-true principles. But now everyone knows he'll go for it on fourth downs. He green-lights a variety of wacky fake field goals and punts. He opens his mind to the new world of analytics. Heck, his Hawkeyes even shifted away from their longstanding 4-3 base defense last fall to embrace a 4-2-5, which Ferentz says is the program's new DNA.

One of the ways Ferentz challenges his current line of thinking is by visiting meticulously organized NFL camps. Last year, he soaked up a few days with the Chicago Bears and coach Matt Nagy. Last week, he was reunited with Belichick on a trip to hang with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

“Clinics are a great way for any coach to learn, but I always (enjoy) being in a building for a day or two and just watching the interactions," Ferentz says. "Watching how people teach. How they set up their days. Those types of things.

"Not that we copy it exactly, but there are always little things you can try to pick out.”

In Year 21, Ferentz is constantly seeking that Iowa edge. His teams have won an acceptable 25 games since the 2016 Rose Bowl, but for three years, a Big Ten West title has remained elusive. He would strengthen his legacy with another championship season. Iowa hasn't won the Big Ten since 2004.

That’ll certainly be a topic in a month, at the annual Big Ten media days in Chicago. Iowa will be among the West Division favorites; maybe the favorite, thanks to returning key pieces at important positions.

Another topic in Chicago could be Ferentz’s future. How long will he keep doing this?

That question channeled thoughts about a recent Register interview with Mary Ferentz. She says her husband "doesn’t see an end, I’ll be perfectly honest," but adds this morsel:

“I think he’d love to coach offensive line again before all is said and done.”

Presented with the possibility that he could be a position coach again (even at a volunteer level), Ferentz perks up.

"Absolutely. That’s been the most fun I ever had, being an assistant coach,” he says. “That’s just pure teaching. That’s the essence of teaching, and it’s more hands-on than what I get to experience."

A former English philosophy teacher became the winningest coach in Iowa history (152-101 in 20 years). He's always going to thirst for opportunities to teach.

And with every shoulder press, every push and pull on the elliptical, it's clear that Ferentz is putting himself in position to do what he loves for a long time.

Even if he’s not always going to be a head football coach.

“You don’t have to just get old and crawl in a hole somewhere,” Ferentz says. “There’s a lot to be said for having a purpose, and having something to do and something to accomplish.”

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.