Brown: Can Kirk Ferentz, Iowa cross the plate in 2015?
IOWA CITY, Ia. – It came as no surprise that Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz dropped a baseball analogy after Saturday's spring game at Kinnick Stadium. He grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and he loved Roberto Clemente.
"They didn't start at third base," Ferentz said, describing the ups and downs of a player's career. "They had to work their way around there."
No one wants to be left on base. And as Ferentz embarks on his 17th season as the Hawkeyes' head coach this fall, the question lingers: Can he cross home plate once again?
Iowa ended the 2014 season with a thud, an inexcusable home loss to Nebraska followed by a one-sided defeat to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
"Neither of those games were representative of what we want to be or who we want to be," Ferentz said Saturday.
Since the 2009 season, which included winning the Orange Bowl and marked the fourth double-digit victory season in the Ferentz era, the Hawkeyes have not had much to brag about. Iowa is 34-30 over the last five seasons, including a 19-21 mark in Big Ten play and 21-14 record at Kinnick Stadium, which has been sold out just once in the past two seasons.
Fan apathy is on the rise, and all indications are that season-ticket sales are headed in the opposite direction. Athletic director Gary Barta knows these are challenging times. He acknowledged that in December, publicly supporting Ferentz and then adding, "I know that can be controversial for some."
All this talk of job security comes as no surprise to Ferentz, who is under contract through 2020. He spent part of his career in the NFL, where hiring and firing are ingrained in the play-for-pay fabric as much as tackles and touchdowns.
"The fans at Iowa want to support the football team," Ferentz said. "I don't think that's changed. Our job is to give them a reason to support it."
Reading between the lines, there's a lot to be gleaned from those words. One, it's an admission that recent history isn't good enough. Secondly, there's a belief that better things are attainable.
"We've had disappointing outcomes before," Ferentz said. "This is not the first time. I guess if you stay at something long enough you're going to go through that. We certainly did on the front end of my career here. It was no walk in the park."
Hayden Fry did what many people thought was impossible, inheriting 17 straight losing seasons and making Hawkeye football a source of pride again. But the ship was sinking when Fry handed the reins to Ferentz in 1999. Records of 1-10 and 3-9 followed before Ferentz guided Iowa to a bowl game in Year 3.
When Ferentz-coached teams won at least 10 games the next three seasons, the Hawkeyes were a national brand again. But rebuilding a program is one thing. Walking in your own winning footsteps is a whole different challenge. The 2015 season is a big one for Ferentz. And he knows it.
In the summer of 2013, coming off a 4-8 record, Ferentz's stump speech on his annual I-Club tour of the state was that everyone in the program was committed to correcting the things that had gone wrong. His 2015 I-Club calendar opens Tuesday in West Des Moines. His message?
"I'm still working on it," he said Saturday.
Just win, baby, would be a good place to start.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.