Leistikow: Why emotions are bubbling up for Iowa's Kirk Ferentz ahead of Big Ten title game
IOWA CITY — Why was Kirk Ferentz getting so emotional this week?
We’ll get to that answer as this column moves along.
But let’s start with the news of the week in college football.
As Lincoln Riley was high-tailing Oklahoma for the sunny and the money at USC … and Brian Kelly was ditching his players at Notre Dame for LSU in the dark of night … Iowa football players, as they have for pretty much two straight decades, slept well knowing that their head coach wouldn’t make such a rash or callous move.
"No, of course not," Iowa linebacker Jestin Jacobs said, laughing at the idea. "That’s something many of us probably take for granted."
Added center Tyler Linderbaum, an Outland Trophy finalist: "I’m thankful that our program hasn’t been put in that position, where the next day your coach is leaving for another job. I think that’s a big reason some of these kids are coming here, just the stability that coach Ferentz has here."
Since some NFL courtships that didn’t materialize in the early 2000s, there has been little doubt among those inside the program that Ferentz would be the head coach the next day, the next day and the next day … and here we are, 23 years and 178 wins into the Ferentz era.
Ferentz grew up in Pittsburgh. He learned the concept of longevity at a young age by following his hometown Steelers' example. He watched how the Rooney family (which owns the NFL team with six Super Bowl titles) operated and understood the importance of patience and stability for a football organization.
The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969. Three. The Detroit Lions have had 15 since then. The Cleveland Browns have had 21!
And that’s not to mention someone that Ferentz worked for during his six years as an NFL assistant. Bill Belichick has been in charge of the New England Patriots since 2000, one year after Ferentz started his tenure in Iowa City, and has six Super Bowl rings.
"This isn't the NFL, but the Big Ten is competitive and tough. And you're not going to win every year," Ferentz said this week. "And some years aren't going to be much fun. That's the reality of it. Nobody wants that. To me, it's all about the people in the building, and it's all about addressing the issues you have or whatever needs to be shored up.
"The Steelers have grasped that concept. They probably invented it in pro football. If you look at the other teams that are successful, you'll see a model similar. I’m thinking about a couple organizations off the top of my head. Funny how they're always at the top.
"It's not that hard, but it takes some patience and takes some good communication, those types of things, which … nobody wants to do that anymore, right?"
That's a great quote from Ferentz, who this week will coach in the Big Ten Conference championship game against a coach in Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh who was under fire after a terrible 2020 season. But Harbaugh was given another chance to right the ship, and he’s done just that. Iowa vs. Michigan on Saturday night features two established coaches who have gotten leeway from administrations to see things through after disappointing seasons (like 2012 and, especially, 2014 for Ferentz).
Read more on Iowa vs. Michigan:
- Can Iowa's offense move against Michigan's defense? Players outline the game plan to success
- Leistikow's 6 Big Ten title game thoughts: On Iowa's quarterback decision, bowl clarity and motivation
- What's the Big Ten Championship game spread? A betting guide for Iowa football vs. Michigan
- What color should Iowa football fans wear to Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis?
Beyond coaching stability at Iowa that began in 1979 — Hayden Fry for 20 years, now Ferentz for 23 — Ferentz has long touted the fact that the Hawkeyes have had only three athletics directors since 1970: the late Bump Elliott, Bob Bowlsby and Gary Barta.
Part of Ferentz’s longevity formula has been in his retention of assistant coaches. Ferentz’s contract is extremely unique among those collected in USA TODAY’s annual head-coach salary database in that he goes to bat for his assistant coaches in the form of performance-based raises and rolling two-year deals for those with five years of service. Ferentz aims to hire the right people for jobs, then keep those people happy and motivated to stay and raise their families in Iowa City.
His defensive coordinator, Phil Parker, has been with him for all 23 years at Iowa. His son, Brian, played for him and is Iowa’s fifth-year offensive coordinator. Former Hawkeye players Kelvin Bell, LeVar Woods and Ladell Betts are on-field assistants. You’ll still see longtime trusted assistant Reese Morgan, who retired in 2019, shuffling around the Iowa football facility … because he loves being around and because players and coaches love having him around.
Former Iowa players stream into the building regularly with their kids. We’ve reached the point where former Ferentz players have sons that Iowa is recruiting (see: Kevin Kasper and four-star son Kyler Kasper). The concept of a family atmosphere has been at the core of Ferentz’s tenure, and that’s also been a big part of his recruiting, especially in recent years — to identify good players who love football and are also good people.
"The best part of coaching is building relationships with players and watching them develop and succeed in life," Ferentz said this week inside the facility, a quote the university tweeted out Wednesday. "The heart of coaching is in caring for the other person. The game and score is important; how you treat each other will define you."
So, that brings us back to the original question.
Why was Ferentz so emotional this week?
Ferentz’s voice crackled throughout his 30-plus-minute press conference Tuesday over some pretty innocuous questions. Ferentz got choked up thinking about how players were complimented about their character by a Chick-fil-A employee who handed out meals after Iowa's 28-21 win at Nebraska.
Maybe Ferentz got emotional because his world was rocked 18 months ago when allegations of racial bias in his program and a subsequent investigation raised questions about his viability as Iowa’s head coach. He might’ve thought he was done.
Maybe Ferentz got emotional because he’s seen a collection of players from ages 18 to 24 form tightknit bonds through the racial-bias tumult and COVID-19 pandemic. The Hawkeyes have won 16 of their past 18 games, including a 14-2 record against Power Five competition. They’ve still got work to do. But they’ve hardly fractured.
"They like each other, trust each other and care about each other," Ferentz said this week.
Maybe Ferentz got emotional because he realizes the enormity of this opportunity on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. In 23 years, Ferentz has never won an outright Big Ten title. He shared one in the unforgettable 2002 and 2004 seasons. No Hawkeye team has won an undisputed Big Ten championship since 1985.
Maybe Ferentz got emotional because he’s 66. The last time he experienced a Big Ten championship, he was 49. The Hawkeyes were oh-so-close in 2009 and 2015. The 2009 team lost in overtime at Ohio State. The 2015 team lost in the final minute, after a 22-play drive, by inches in the Big Ten title game vs. Michigan State. He knows these chances don’t come along often; once every six years, if we’re being honest.
Maybe Ferentz got emotional because he doesn’t know when he’ll hang it up. Ferentz has long said that when it was time to retire, he would just know. That’s something he read in a book about Chuck Noll — the first of three Steelers coaches since 1969.
He doesn’t seem ready to retire soon, no matter what happens Saturday. But that nudge could come sooner than he thinks.
If this Iowa team, that has navigated so much in the past 18 months, could beat Michigan on Saturday night for the school's first outright Big Ten championship in 36 years and earn a spot in the Rose Bowl?
It would be hard to imagine a more mountaintop coaching moment for Ferentz than that.
And if that happens, come Saturday night, you can bet the ol' coach's emotions will pour out again.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.