Leistikow: Five years later, Kirk Ferentz's January press conference is a show of strength
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Maybe you’ve forgotten or never knew this: When Kirk Ferentz called a January press conference in 2015, it was unusual and unprecedented and created a public frenzy. Speculation ran wild about what Ferentz would say after a terribly disappointing 7-6 season in 2014 — especially with a noisy slice of the fan base souring on the Iowa head football coach.
That day (Jan. 14, 2015, to be exact), Ferentz sat at a table in the brand new Hansen Football Performance Center and — instead of announcing he would resign after 16 seasons or fire a bunch of assistant coaches — didn’t say much of anything out of the ordinary.
The one line, though, that stood out that day was: "We needed to talk."
That was Ferentz's way of acknowledging that the results needed to change, but the program’s bedrock principles of player development, strong play on defense and special teams and a ball-control offense didn't.
Flash forward five Januarys.
Ferentz was back in front of the media again with two main differences.
One, he stands at the lectern now instead of sitting.
Two, the contents of his media handout trumpeted the past instead of avoiding it.
In 2015, Ferentz distributed an equally unprecedented January depth chart that named C.J. Beathard as the starting quarterback over Jake Rudock.
There were two handouts on Jan. 20, 2020: One highlighted team statistics from Iowa’s 49-24 win against USC in the recent Holiday Bowl; the other ranked win totals by Big Ten and Big 12 teams over the past five seasons.
On the latter, Iowa and Michigan were tied for fifth with 47 wins.
“It’s hard to win. I think that chart’s pretty reflective of that,” Ferentz said Monday. “Perception vs. reality? That chart is reality. I’ve always felt … if you want to evaluate coaches or programs, you look at five-year windows.”
Five-year windows in college typically reflect a student-athlete’s career, so that makes sense.
Why choose only the Big Ten and Big 12? Probably because the recruiting footprints overlap. (You can bet potential Hawkeye prospects are shown these numbers.)
And ... maybe a little bit to needle a few surrounding neighbors.
The only four teams on Ferentz’s handout with more wins than Iowa since 2015: Ohio State (61), Oklahoma (58), Wisconsin (49) and Penn State (49).
Among the 18 teams below Iowa: Michigan State (39), Minnesota (38), Texas (35), Iowa State (29), Nebraska (28) and Illinois (20).
Safe to say, Ferentz made his point. And, after a 10-3 season and No. 15 final ranking in Year 21 at the Iowa helm, he was standing as proof.
A lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ferentz made an analogy to Bill Cowher, who was recently named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cowher coached the Steelers to 149 wins in 15 seasons. But look at the middle of his tenure, and you’ll see records of 7-9, 6-10 and 9-7 from 1998 to 2000. Another 6-10 season struck in 2003. But Cowher's 13th and 14th teams responded with a 15-1 regular season in 2004, then a Super Bowl championship in 2005. The Steelers' patience paid off.
“There are going to be some days that don’t go like you want,” Ferentz said, continuing the Steelers analogy. “So how do you fix them? That’s where their focus has been, rather than flushing out the place and starting all over again."
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta was feeling a slew of public pressure after the 2014 season. The worst it’s ever been, he reported then.
But Barta gave Ferentz a chance to atone for a mediocre five-year stretch of 34-30, from 2010 to 2014.
And Ferentz did, to the tune of 47-19 from 2015 to 2019.
Could it be that Ferentz, who will turn 65 in August, is getting better with age? The 47 wins in a five-year span are a program record in Iowa City.
The 47th that pushed 2015-19 over the top (of 46 wins for 1983-87 and 2001-05) got it done was a San Diego shellacking of USC (which, for reference, has 42 wins in the past five seasons).
Ferentz's second handout highlighted that Iowa was outgained that night, 356 yards to 328. But it won the battle of special teams (including a 47.3-yard average on kickoff returns); didn’t commit a turnover; scored 14 points off three USC turnovers; went 8-for-13 on third downs; and scored a touchdown on all four red-zone trips.
“I’m not here to give a lecture on football or anything like that, but in our minds, they’re reflective of what it takes to be a successful team, what it takes to win,” Ferentz said. “A lot of times you get fixated on passing yards, some flashy statistics. But there are a lot of things that go into winning a football game. And what those numbers reflect are good team football.”
If it sounds like Ferentz was spiking the ball, that his way is the winning way ... yeah, maybe he was a little bit.
But he doesn’t sound blinded by the lack of a Big Ten West Division title the past four seasons. That’s a shortfall, and he isn't hiding from it.
Ferentz has acknowledged that more change is needed to push the Hawkeyes to Indianapolis.
In an interview I had with Ferentz in December, he mentioned possibly abandoning the zone-blocking schemes as the running game finished under 4.0 yards a carry for the third straight season.
“There’s nothing radically wrong right now," he said Monday. "But there’s still going to be that period in February of us spending time (asking), ‘How are we going to improve this?’ I’ve already got a couple of ideas. All of us do."
The 2020 season begins Tuesday, as players report for winter conditioning.
To me, Ferentz sounded more self-assured than any of his previous January press conferences. While losing A.J. Epenesa, Geno Stone and Tristan Wirfs early to the NFL stinks, the recruiting and development are in a much better place than pre-2015 to absorb those losses. He doesn't expect to lose any assistant coaches, another sign of unified stability. He was bullish about quarterback Spencer Petras.
Year 22, here he comes.
"I never had the intention of coming here for this to be a stepping stone for me; to be here for five years and get the hell out," Ferentz said. "We’re proud of that. We’re really proud of that. A lot of hard work has gone into that. You’ve got to catch a couple breaks. Now the goal is to try to improve on that, but it won’t be easy."
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.