In autumn of career, maligned Ferentz eyes Iowa turnaround
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kirk Ferentz turns 60 years old on Aug. 1.
He has celebrated nearly half of those birthdays as a football coach at the University of Iowa.
He arrived in 1981, interviewing for a position on Hayden Fry's staff that he never thought he'd get. He stuck around for nine seasons as offensive line coach and helped turn a perennial loser into a winner. Ferentz returned to replace Fry in 1999 and will put his 17th team on the field this fall.
"I really love what I do," Ferentz said. "I love where I do it. We're excited about this year. Hopefully we can get some good things accomplished in the next couple of years."
Notice what he said: "years" and not "year." For the first time since he took over for Fry, there's a feeling that the Hawkeyes are playing for Ferentz's future in 2015. Ticket sales are down and grumbling from the fan base is up. Some call it "Ferentz Fatigue," a textbook example of a coach staying at one place a long time.
"I hope that someday, everybody's really happy I did stay around," Ferentz said. "Maybe right now they're not."
Program not in a 'crisis situation'
College football is cyclical by nature, a game reinventing itself over and over again. The same can be said for football success at a school like Iowa, where the lack of a homegrown recruiting base narrows the fine line between success and failure.
"Everybody was happy a couple of years ago," Ferentz said. "If you're going to do this, be prepared for some ebbs and flows. What's important is what can we do to get everybody happy again? We want to put smiles on faces."
Iowa has finished the season in the nation's top 10 four times under Ferentz but not since 2009. In some ways, Ferentz is his own worst enemy due to his past success. But Iowa's 19-19 record over the past three seasons hasn't been top 10 in any way, shape or form.
"I wouldn't describe it as a crisis situation," Ferentz said. "But I would also say this. We're not happy. I guarantee that."
Ferentz acknowledges the drumbeat for change. The best way to listen to the noise, he said, is with a deaf ear.
"If you do (listen), all you take away is what you're trying to accomplish," Ferentz said. "That would be cheating our players, and cheating our staff. And, ultimately, cheating our fans if I was worried about all that stuff."
For all the good he does, whether it's raising money for University Hospitals with his wife, Mary, getting his players to graduate at a positive rate or avoiding NCAA scandals, Ferentz knows the win-loss record is a coach's defining statistic.
"If it gets to the point where I really can't do this job successfully, somebody is going to let me know," Ferentz said. "I know that. Somebody that has that decision-making authority. That's how sports works."
Finishing 7-6 last season against a schedule lacking a lot of college football heavyweights was underachieving. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta acknowledged that at the end of the regular season, but said he had faith that Ferentz was the right person for the program going forward. That vote of confidence didn't include motivation.
"If you have to rely on outside sources or voices for motivation, maybe you ought to be doing something else," Ferentz said. "All of us have pride in what we do."
'It's a new world'
Ferentz has given his program a reboot in the months leading into the 2015 season. A reboot triggered by disappointing losses to Nebraska at home and to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl to end the season.
"The last two losses were excruciating, quite frankly," Ferentz said. "It makes you look harder and think harder about what we need to do. I think some of the other things, we've tried to change and be more aggressive with. But the bottom line is, it still gets down to playing good football, too."
There were also some adjustments in staff assignments. Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz was also made run-game coordinator. LeVar Woods was moved from linebackers to tight ends. Recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace will coach cornerbacks and nickelbacks.First there was a change in the starting quarterback, with C.J. Beathard replacing Jake Rudock. Then there was an untraditional January news conference, where Ferentz discussed the state of the program. The head coach vowed to be in the office more, building better relationships with his coaches and players. The staff went across the country, visiting other programs to find better ways of doing things. A staff that has some continuity again.
"We've got the staff where we want it," Ferentz said. "It's been a three-year transition. I think the staff better understands the program."
That aggressiveness has been especially visible in recruiting, where Iowa has increased the pace of the evaluation process and offered scholarships earlier in a prospect's career. Sixteen players verbally committed to Iowa in June.
"It's a new world we're in now," Ferentz said.
When fall camp starts next month, practices will be held in the morning instead of the afternoon. That is a decision based on improved on-field results and academic achievement.
A more aggressive offensive attack won't be part of the new-look Hawkeyes.
"My suggestion would be it's more about how you play than the style of play you choose," Ferentz said.
"Look at Wisconsin and Michigan State, two teams that we need to be able to compete with. The way they play seems to be working pretty good for them."
Ferentz can already hear the grumbling over those words.
"I've read a lot about throwing the ball deep," Ferentz said. "Heaven forbid, why would you do that? Everyone wants to spread. Do a throw chart on spread offenses. How many balls are going downfield? Twenty years ago it was the run-and-shoot, right? Or the Buddy Ryan defense. Whatever's the flavor of the day."
No plans to retire
Ferentz suggests that he's a dying breed, a football coach who stays at one place for an extended period of time.
"The longevity thing, I think that's a little bit more unique now," Ferentz said. "I've always said you'll never see a Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry-type NFL career again, although coach (Bill) Belichick is approaching it. We're living in a different world now."
Frank Beamer will coach his 28th team at Virginia Tech this season. Bill Snyder will coach his 23th team at Kansas State, though he sat out three seasons starting in 2006 before returning. Ferentz and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, also hired in 1999, are second to Beamer for consecutive seasons at the same school.
"When a coach stays somewhere, there's a downside," Ferentz said. "There have been some successful coaches that have chosen to move every six or eight years. But I've never felt compelled to take that route. And I'm glad I haven't. I'm more excited about this year than any we've had. I like what I'm doing. I hope people at some point will like what we're doing."
A week from the 60-year milestone, Ferentz isn't contemplating retirement.
"I'd like to stay as long as my health is good," Ferentz said. "At some point, maybe I'll start thinking about that stuff."
Ferentz said the will to win still resides in the new football offices northwest of Kinnick Stadium. Complacency has not set in.
"The point I want to make, just so everyone knows, is we're hardly happy with the way things ended up (in 2014)," Ferentz said. "It seems like it's been portrayed that way. That's not the case."
Ferentz is confident the program is headed in a positive direction. He says that knowing it's the same bottom-line profession it was when he took over in 1999.
"The reality is it's all about winning if you want to be secure in your job," Ferentz said. "That's what it comes down to. You've got to find balance in there as a coach. Otherwise they're moving you on for a prettier face."
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
KIRK FERENTZ ON ...
The climate around the program: "We don't hear even a fraction of what's out there, apparently. But when I go to events, or even bump into people I haven't seen in awhile, and they come up and say, 'Hey, we're still with you,' it's like, 'Boy, is it that bad out there?' Which I guess it is."
Paying the price for his previous success: "If you look at our program from a historical perspective, just took some time to do that, if anybody would do that, I think it puts things in perspective. The bottom line is we have a chance to win every year. That is our goal. And if we're not as successful as we'd like to be, yeah, it's disappointing."
Ignoring the buzz around the program: "In all fairness to equal representation, when things are going really well I try to be immune to that as well. Whether (the buzz) is really high or really low, that can take you away from what you're supposed to be doing. When we came back from the Orange Bowl (end of 2009 season) we were all heroes. You need to be focused on today and what's going to happen tomorrow, not yesterday. And to worry about what negativity may or may not be out there is really kind of counterproductive to us putting a good team out there (in 2015)."
Former assistant Eric Johnson's opinion that the program had lost its way in recruiting: "You could probably argue that a lot of things weren't as good. Clearly they weren't as good ... when Norm's health (the late Norm Parker, Iowa's defensive coordinator) started going south a little bit, and we went through a lot of change here the last four or five years. I think you could clearly state that some things weren't as good as they were in 2008 or 2009. I'd also say things weren't so great in 2007. That was my least enjoyable year in coaching. Period. Because of all the off-the-field stuff, which to this day is hard to fathom."
His contract as a talking point after a loss: "I'll give you my contract story. There was a particular writer in our state — he doesn't work here anymore — I thought he crossed the line with several coaches in our state. And I became a target in 2007, which is fine. Fast forward, we beat South Carolina in the Outback Bowl after the 2008 season. As you know, I read the papers. And this writer says (athletic director) Gary Barta has to give me a lifetime contract. That was really a meaningful endorsement from somebody who had been nipping at my heels."
His consistent approach to coaching: "I haven't had a seven-year itch or the mid-life crisis, at least as far as I know. I haven't gone through all that stuff. I'm not making fun of people that do. I think we've been pretty consistent…good, bad or indifferent."
Do you need to coach different than before? "I don't think so. The players haven't changed a whole lot. The world they live in has changed. I think their influences have changed. That's a big part of coaching, trying to figure out where the voices are coming from with the players."
His experience from the stands: "I got my first Little League experience in Maine at a hockey game when Brian (his son and now offensive line coach) was playing. I was horrified. That was my first experience sitting with parents. That was an education. And sitting at games at City High (in Iowa City) where they were ultra successful. Boy, you'd never know it sitting there with the fans. I'm like, 'Geez, these guys never lose and everybody is critiquing every play here.' It was kind of interesting."