IOWA CITY, Ia. — The question was routine, but it struck Kirk Ferentz underneath the Iowa football polo shirt he was wearing.
What does your wife mean to you?
Ferentz started to answer, but it was clear at that moment he didn’t need to. The pause it took to gather his emotions spoke volumes.
“She’s been great,” the reigning national coach of the year said, voice cracking. “What can I tell you?”
Forty-three years ago — May 5, 1973, the 18th-year Hawkeye football coach is quick to specify — Kirk and Mary Ferentz went to a movie together, their first date. With that, a partnership now in its fifth decade was launched.
Little known fact: Without Mary, Kirk Ferentz might not have one of his 127 coaching victories at Iowa.
Here’s the back story. After two years of teaching English literature and coaching high-school ball in Massachusetts, Ferentz took a graduate-assistant job under Jackie Sherrill at the University of Pittsburgh in 1980. As he recalls, that paid just enough to cover an apartment: $250 a month. Mary was the marriage’s early bread-winner.
“I could pay for that. Everything else she handled, basically,” Ferentz said. “The deal was, I would try that for two years and see if I could get into college coaching.”
It took only one.
“I caught a really unusual break,” Ferentz said of landing on Hayden Fry’s staff at Iowa, “to be able to come out here in 1981.”
In 1983, the first of Kirk and Mary’s five children, Brian, was born. That development changed everything. Mary left an excellent job in sales to stay home. For the next three decades, stay-at-home mom became her primary role in the partnership.
Iowa Hawkeyes football coach Kirk Ferentz talks about his wife, Mary, and family life as a head coach.
“She’s really done the majority of the parenting with our five kids, and that is a full-time job as anybody who’s ever stayed home for a day understands,” Ferentz said, a tone of appreciation coming through.
“I joke about it, but she’s let me go out and play every day. That’s what I get to do.”
When Ferentz and I talked for 45 minutes in his office earlier this week, the conversation inevitably circled back to those closest to him.
Family wasn’t just a talking point. It was a window into what is most important to him.
I asked if he ever doubted his abilities as a coach. The answer was about being a father.
“Yeah, about every week since I started coaching, quite frankly,” he said, only partially joking. “And some weeks are worse than others.
“It’s kind of like being a parent. There are certain days you go to bed at night and wonder: ‘Is anybody hearing anything I’m saying?’”
Later, I asked him about his oldest son's coaching ability. Brian is now Kirk's fifth-year offensive line coach and run-game coordinator — a more demonstrative version of his dad and, some say, a future head coach.
Ferentz morphed into an answer about being thankful that all three of his sons — Brian, James and Steve — came through the Hawkeye program. James just won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos. Steve is a walk-on lineman for Iowa.
Coaching his sons here was an oasis of fatherhood for a man whose job requires long stretches away from home.
“I really feel fortunate on that front. Not that I was coaching those guys, necessarily,” Ferentz said, “but just to be around them an extended period of time or even walk by their lockers. They may not be there, but to know there’s some partnership that way, it’s pretty good. Most college parents don’t get to experience that, and in some ways I look at it (as) balancing out what I missed during their high-school time."
Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz talks about having his 3 sons in the Iowa program and what it was like to see them through their college years.
I also asked Ferentz about the happiest day of his life, with the caveat he couldn’t say his wedding day or children’s births. When I devised that question before our interview, I figured he would give a football memory, like winning an unlikely Big Ten Conference championship in 2004.
He responded with another window into how he’s wired.
“And I can’t say my kids’ wedding days either, right?” Ferentz said. “Because we’ve had four of those.”
“That’s probably the answer to the question. It’s a little bit like who’s your favorite kid, right? ... But it’s a little bit like coaching in some ways. The games are really good. You ask, 'What was the most memorable game?' And you really can’t pinpoint one because — whether it’s winning a bowl game or a championship, winning at Penn State in 2000 when we had no chance to do that — all those moments end up being pretty good.
“But the thing you really enjoy about coaching is more the day-to-day stuff. At least, I think if you’re doing it right, you learn to appreciate that stuff as much as the games, those 'Kodak moments.' It’ really the same way with parenting — being able to see the kids have small successes, things that maybe they didn’t think they could do.”
As a father myself, I knew exactly what he meant. That previous day, I saw my 3-year-old daughter show an example of growth that made my heart proud. I’m certain a lot of parents reading this understand those moments, too.
So why write this? Does it affect Hawkeye football wins and losses?
Some would argue no. I would lean yes, at least seeing it through the 2015 season's lens.
A united family feel is a big piece of how Ferentz tries to anchor the Iowa program: young men giving their all for the greater good and each other. When that’s thriving from the top down, we saw that 12-0 and getting within three points of the College Football Playoff is possible.
It should be noted here that college football coaches don’t make $4 million for being nice guys. When the 2016 season unfolds, if Iowa isn’t getting the job done, Ferentz won’t get a pass (including from me in this space) because of his caring, family-centered heart. He understands that, too.
But when that guy who makes $4 million shows vulnerability, too, we connect.
As I saw Ferentz get choked up for 3-4 seconds thinking about Mary — I'm guessing the early sacrifices she made for his career and their children were flashing before his eyes — I remembered two other unforgettable emotional moments in Ferentz’s Hawkeye coaching career.
One was in a recent ESPN interview, when Ferentz went into a full cry after being asked to remember the day former Hawkeye safety Brett Greenwood suffered a brain injury and collapsed.
The second, I suspect most longtime Hawkeye fans remember. On Oct. 23, 2004, a day after Ferentz delivered the eulogy for his father, John, his Hawkeyes won at Penn State, 6-4.
As it became clear Iowa would win, the ESPN cameras panned to Ferentz on the sideline. He sobbed as he pulled in James, then 15, for a hug. The video then switched to Brian on the field, who was playing right guard for the Hawkeyes' final kneel-down snaps. It was the epitome of family and football converging with meaning.
As I went through the audio to write this column, I began to regret not asking him what emotions he felt that day.
Then I realized: We already know.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.