Brown: Iowa football dusted off and driving in the fast lane again
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Iowa football program had come to a fork in the road, with coach Kirk Ferentz behind the wheel. The car he was driving, once a no-nonsense symbol of pride in the Hawkeye State, was in serious need of an overhaul.
Ferentz's 2014 team had limped to the finish line with uninspired losses to Nebraska and Tennessee. There was trouble in River City. Ferentz was not blind to that.
"What was good 16 years ago is still good today," Ferentz said. "Good football is good football, and bad football is bad football. Our last two performances, that was bad football."
Ten months later, the Hawkeyes are playing good football again. Iowa is 7-0 and ranked 12th nationally, the program's first visit to the Top 25 since 2010. How did this transformation happen so fast? It took some soul-searching, a look in the mirror by the head coach, dusting off the values that made Iowa a winning program under Ferentz and a change at quarterback.
"I think I was confident in January that we could improve and be better at what we were doing," Ferentz said.
Shortly after the Iowa staff returned from the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., Ferentz called them together to start the reboot. For several days, the coaches had a comprehensive and thorough discussion of every player in the program.
That included the quarterback position. Jake Rudock had started 25 of 26 games the previous two seasons. C.J. Beathard had one career start. The coaches decided that Beathard was the guy moving forward.
"Realistically, I couldn't see us going on the way we were going, back and forth and all that," Ferentz said. "Just for everybody's benefit, let's make a declaration here. There's no way of knowing if you're right or wrong, because when you're evaluating people you're never 100 percent sure."
On the night of Jan. 8, Iowa released a depth chart showing a new No. 1 on the quarterback line. A news conference was also called for the following week. Ferentz felt a need to clear the air.
"We were at a point, I guess, where I wanted to make sure for anyone who would listen that we were not happy with the last couple of games and we were committed to doing something about it," Ferentz said. "Things didn't feel right at that point."
Ferentz also wanted to curb growing speculation that he was a fat-cat coach who didn't care anymore.
"I don't think I have rabbit ears," Ferentz said. "I try not to. But I was concerned a little bit, and I didn't want people to perceive me as a coach who was comfortable. I've never tried to be. You can't. It's counterintuitive."
Ferentz went back and watched tape of his postgame news conferences with the media after the Nebraska and Tennessee losses. He was shocked by what he saw, a coach emanating an attitude that he really didn't care.
"That was really sobering," Ferentz said. "Our team did not play well, and I didn't perform well. Embarrassing. I'm supposed to be a professional, and it didn't look very professional. That was an awakening. Hey, grow up and do what you're supposed to do. And do it better."
The good Ferentz teams, including the four that finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally, all excelled at seven phases of football. Ferentz mentioned them in that January news conference — special teams, turnover ratio, points off turnovers, better production in the red zone, better run offense, better run defense and controlling the edge defensively.
There had clearly been erosion in some of those areas. Ferentz knew that had to change for his program to turn things around. And the 2015 Hawkeyes have improved in all seven phases.
Staff stability also deserves mention. After significant turnover in assistant coaches earlier this decade, Iowa's staff has now been together for three seasons and appear to be coaching off the same page. The staff is united. So are the players, and this is what pleases Ferentz the most. This team is high on camaraderie and leadership. And Beathard is the poster child.
"It's kind of like the things I've said about C.J.," Ferentz said. "My two adjectives to describe him are poise and toughness. And I think our team is showing that, too. And I'd probably throw in resiliency. Resiliency and toughness kind of go hand-in-hand. That's been impressive to me. And the fact that we're playing like a team. And that's the ultimate goal."
At programs like Iowa, a united front is mandatory to overcome geographical disadvantages in recruiting.
"I don't mean it to sound like we're in exile over here, or in Alcatraz," Ferentz said. "But we don't have as many big-name recruits or a big-name coach, so we've got to really be maximizing collectively and we better have a good spirit. I think that's what we're seeing from this team now."
There have been some other nips and tucks, including morning practice, a change in recruiting philosophy and some minor tweaks on the field. Winning has fueled this talk of a "New Kirk" coaching the Hawkeyes.
"To me, it's almost entertaining that's the buzz out there," Ferentz said. "But we really haven't changed an awful lot."
He's right. "New Kirk" is actually "Old Kirk," dusted off, recharged and winning again.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Numbers reflect Iowa's improvement
Here are some statistical figures that show Iowa's improvement from last season (7-6) to this season (7-0). Number in parenthesis is national ranking.
Turnover ratio -6 (104) +7 (T11)
Points off turnovers -23 +26
Rush offense per game 163.1 (63) 214.4 (23)
Rush defense per game 168.3 (66) 74.1 (4)
Red zone production 78.6 percent (91) 81 percent (88