Kirk Ferentz drew lessons from failures in 2012 and 2014 and has Iowa on stable footing as the 2010s come to a close. Hawk Central
SAN DIEGO — Kirk Ferentz doesn’t expect everyone to agree with his definition of success.
Absolutely, wins and losses define a team. He gets that.
Equally true, the losses burn him. More on that as we go.
But there’s a primary mentality that he’s acquired to withstand the “ebbs and flows” (to use a Kirk-ism) of the competitive world of college football for more than two decades.
As Ferentz approaches the final game of his 21st season as Iowa’s head football coach — Friday’s Holiday Bowl between the 9-3 Hawkeyes and 8-4 USC — he is happy with what’s happening in his program.
Ferentz makes a point to say that in the last two seasons in particular, he's seen what he needs to see from his players and staff.
Their best preparation. And maximum effort.
That’s it. That's, in simple terms, how Ferentz defines success.
“It doesn’t sound like much,” Ferentz says, “but it is.
“You’re not going to win a championship if you’re not doing that every week. It all starts with that.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the Register, Ferentz addresses the passion he still has for coaching at age 64; the increasing possibility that Iowa’s run schemes will change; the lessons he’s learned from the late Hayden Fry; and the goals he still has as Iowa’s coach as retirement nears.
He even uses the phrase “national championship” along the way.
Let’s listen in to the CEO of Iowa football and what (continues to) make him tick.
'To me, it’s more about the quest.'
That Ferentz quote might not be what you want to hear. But he also shares your frustration that Iowa’s 9-4 season in 2018 and this 9-3 campaign have had maddening parallels. The Hawkeyes have shown that they’ve had the potential to win the Big Ten Conference’s West Division title, but they didn't because of a cluster of painful, close losses.
Six of the seven losses have been by seven points or less; in the other (28-17 to Wisconsin in 2018), Iowa was leading in the final minute.
To be fair, Iowa won four games this season by six points or less.
The margins are thin.
“Certainly you want to aspire to be a champion,” Ferentz says. “But being a champion is about more than what happens on the scoreboard. It’s what you’re doing, the approach you take.
“The reality is, six teams are going to go home unhappy every fall on both sides of the (Big Ten). If you can’t find some peace with that, that’s just the way it’s going to be. So, you have to learn about how to deal with that.”
It’s the idea of doing the best you can do, and then accepting the outcome.
Ferentz was unsettled after the 2012 (4-8) and 2014 (7-6) seasons. He’s made that clear before, and we know all about the New Kirk reboot. But to hear him articulate the discontent he felt underscores why he’s been happier about the last five years — in which Iowa has gone 46-19. If the Hawkeyes beat USC, it would mark the first five-year stretch in program history with at least 47 victories.
“After the ’12 season, I thought we really did a good job of reshaping some things. Really refocusing on what was important. Then I think we took another big step after the ’14 season,” Ferentz says. “You’re never 100% happy with what’s going on, but I think we’ve done a really solid job since that time. It’s shown up on the field, it’s shown up in recruiting. That being said, we’re going to have a million challenges once … this season’s over.”
The 21st-year Iowa head coach outlines the challenges of getting to the top of the Big Ten Conference. Hawk Central
'You can’t get bored.'
And Ferentz says he isn’t. He's still energized coming to the office. He assures that he's returning for his 22nd season in 2020 and doesn’t feel any urge to retire.
This wasn’t a “when is Kirk going to retire” conversation. But we did touch on things that are still on his bucket list and what keeps him charging forward.
Such as the Rose Bowl. It was a longstanding goal of Fry's to win in Pasadena. He never did, losing in all three appearances (the 1981, 1985 and 1990 seasons).
Ferentz is 0-for-1 at the Rose (on the heels of a 12-0 regular season in 2015), although he’s been to two Orange Bowls and won one of them.
“I’d love to do that, mainly for the program. We haven’t won it since the ’50s, right?” Ferentz says, a nod to Forest Evashevski's 1959 Hawkeyes being the most recent Rose Bowl winners.
“But I also put that in the category of: Hopefully, nobody wants us to win a championship more than me — the Big Ten West or the Big Ten championship.
“I may not show that. But, believe me. I mean, what do you think I’m doing this for?”
Ferentz almost apologizes for the mini-rant, as he alludes to old narratives that all he cares about is cashing a paycheck and posting seven-win seasons.
“People that have suggested that I’m not emotional or driven or whatever,” he adds, “that’s really insulting.”
Going back to Fry for a moment: His Hawkeye heyday was when Iowa amassed 91 victories from 1981 to 1991. But Fry’s record deteriorated with time; his last seven Iowa teams, after he turned 63, limped home with a combined 43-38-1 record.
Ferentz, who turns 65 in August, concedes that Fry’s passing has caused him to reflect on his own (eventual) exit. But going back to the quote atop this section, he remains driven to find the newest "Iowa Edge" and more ways to improve.
He’s studied and visited with coaching legends who deliver a consistent message: Unless results force you out, when it's the right time to leave ... you'll just know.
Ferentz (whose contract runs through the 2025 season) trusts that will happen. And he likes where the program stands going into Year 22. Why would he walk away now?
In a season that saw him move past Fry for No. 4 in Big Ten history for conference wins as a coach (97), Ferentz remains fueled by the day-to-day joy he feels and the more global quest to conquer big goals.
“The reality is we’ve been here 21 years and have only been to one Rose Bowl,” Ferentz says, holding up one finger. “It may take another 21. I don’t know if I can hang in there that long.
"But yeah, you have these goals. I’d love to see us be a national championship team. But realistically, we’ve only come close one time in 21 years. So those things are all out there; those are the things that drive you. Those are the things that make you try to stay sharp and be as good as you can be."
'It’s just so stupid.'
Ferentz is referring to a poorly written rule, although this section is actually about Iowa's rushing offense that for the third straight year was a disappointment ... and what can be changed.
And here's maybe the upset of the interview: Ferentz agrees that serious evaluation needs to take place about whether or not Iowa continues its signature zone-blocking schemes.
It's not that he or his staff have lost their offensive-line touch. But continued inconsistency in rules enforcement has frustrated Ferentz to his wit's end.
Outside-zone runs were the bread-and-butter for guys like Fred Russell, Albert Young and Shonn Greene, when Iowa's run game was better than it is today. But football’s complicated crackdown on blocks below the waist (often called “cut blocks”) require that such blocks be directed from the front. And “directed from the front” is defined as “within the clock face region between ‘10 o’clock and 2 o’clock’ forward of the area of concentration of the player being blocked.”
Good luck trying to interpret that language in the middle of high-speed action. It's impossible for officials to get it right every time, and they don't.
“I think it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Ferentz says. “I’m not sure where it came from or what it means, other than causing confusion for everyone.”
And so, unless Ferentz can get them to redact that “10 and 2” clause, it'll be on the table this Iowa offseason to scrap the zone-blocking schemes. That'd be a big change.
“I’ve got some second thoughts," Ferentz says. "I want to study and review ... the zone blocking. The officiating has made it really difficult for us to be as effective as we’d like.”
Iowa is averaging 4.00 yards per carry this season, which ranks 88th in FBS. That comes on the heels of 3.95 in 2018 (94th) and 3.76 in 2017 (104th). A low-powered run game is Iowa's biggest offensive sore spot, with a top-10 national defense keeping games close. Even if Iowa could crack the top 50 in rushing, more championship moments would be within reach.
The lagging run game brings Ferentz to a possible breaking point. He sees how RPOs (run-pass options) are inadequately enforced, sometimes allowing offensive linemen to be illegally downfield without penalty, and therefore effective.
“Maybe we should take advantage of a loosely officiated rule,” he says with a chuckle. “Join the movement.”
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz tells a story about Hayden Fry during an interview with Chad Leistikow. Hawk Central
'He was such a visionary.'
The passing of Fry last week and Iowa’s return to the Holiday Bowl stirred up emotions for Ferentz. He was Fry’s offensive line coach on the 1986 and 1987 Holiday Bowl champions but now will be Iowa's head coach in this game for the first time.
An idea was floated that Ferentz should wear white pants, as Fry made famous during his 20 years at Iowa, on Friday to pay homage to his predecessor.
“That's not going to happen,” Ferentz says, chuckling. “To me, that would be a sign of disrespect. I would never even think about that, no. There’s only one person that can do that one.”
But thinking about Fry and being reminded of his widespread impact triggered a fantastic story about how he wound up on a staff with Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin’s all-time wins leader), Dan McCarney (Iowa State’s all-time wins leader), Bill Snyder (Kansas State’s all-time wins leader) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma’s all-time wins leader).
Ferentz was a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh when he saw the Iowa job posting above the copy machine in late spring of 1981. A well-packaged reference from his mentor, offensive line coach Joe Moore, got Ferentz an interview. Ferentz, then 25, borrowed Moore’s tie for the interview.
He recalls vividly the first time he heard Fry’s voice.
“I think you’re too young,” Ferentz says in an affectionate imitation of Fry’s Southern drawl, recalling the words coming through the phone. “It’s against my better judgment.”
But he got the interview and a plane ticket, and Alvarez famously picked him up at the Cedar Rapids airport. To his surprise, Ferentz landed the job. The rest is history.
“He’s the only guy in the world,” Ferentz says, “that would have offered me an interview.”
Years after that group was together, Ferentz racked his brain, wondering: How did Fry do it? How did he see things in so many largely unproven coaches? Carl Jackson, on that staff, had been an assistant high school coach.
“(Fry) was able to ignore resumes," Ferentz says. "Good lesson there. I think that’s true in all walks of life. You’ve got to look at resumes as a starting point, but boy, it’s more about the people … and most importantly how they fit.”
Ferentz’s legacy, like Fry's, will one day be centered around human connection. The kindness with which he treats people is widely revered, and that’s one of the reasons he’s enjoyed such stability and loyalty in 21 years at Iowa. Rarely does a Ferentz assistant coach leave the program voluntarily.
“You can’t have chemistry on a football team if your staff doesn’t have that chemistry," Ferentz says. "(Fry) understood that.”
As the CEO of Iowa’s program, Ferentz must sign the right players and hire the right coaches. He believes he's doing that. In his eyes, he's preparing for the next championship.
“There’s no guarantees in anything, obviously," Ferentz says. "But one thing that’s consistent over 21 years is I’ve tried to do my best every day.
“Ultimately for me to come into work every day, if I’m not thinking along the right lines, that’s probably when I need to get out."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.