Brown: As Iowa's coaching staff jells, an undefeated season is the reward
IOWA CITY, Ia. – The wound is healed, but the scar tissue remains.
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz was run over during the first half of the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl, and suffered a cut over his right eye. A picture of the bloodied Ferentz also serves as a portrait of what took place that day at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Iowa got run over by Tennessee, 45-28, a game that was more lopsided than the final score. This loss, piled on top of a meltdown against Nebraska in the final regular-season game, sent Ferentz a clear message that things had to change.
“You have no choice when you get smacked in the face like we did,” Ferentz said, catching the double meaning of his words. “And I literally got smacked in the face.”
A lot of positive change has taken place since that loss to Tennessee. Iowa is 7-0 and ranked 10th in the nation with Maryland coming to town Saturday. But something that didn’t change might be the biggest reason why this team has been so successful.
Ferentz’s coaching staff, once a Rock of Gibraltar, underwent a significant overhaul after the 2011 season. Ferentz has had to replace seven of his nine full-time assistants since then. But everyone with the exception of Seth Wallace, back for his second tour of duty, has been on board for at least three seasons now.
“It’s been an evolution and a building process,” Ferentz said. “I’ve seen our staff jell, which for this place is really important. I’ve worked at a place where we were second in the country and it wasn’t important, because our talent was so amazing. I don’t know if there’s ever been a team like that 1980 Pitt team. NFL careers would document that.”
Ferentz was a graduate assistant for a Panthers team that went 11-1 and finished No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. Three Pitt players – Hugh Green, Randy McMillan and Mark May – were first-round draft picks. Four more players went in the second or third round.
When Ferentz was hired by Hayden Fry to be Iowa’s offensive line coach in the summer of 1981, he learned the importance of a cohesive coaching staff.
“At Iowa you need an edge, quite frankly,” Ferentz said. “We don’t recruit like Ohio State. We’re not anywhere in the same neighborhood. That’s just the way it is. So you better find other ways to be successful.”
Fry turned Iowa football from a joke to a Big Ten contender with a staff steeped in longevity. Ferentz had a staff with little turnover, too, until defensive coordinator Norm Parker retired after the 2011 season, offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe departed for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and defensive line coach Rich Kaczenski left for Nebraska.
Secondary coach Darrell Wilson, wide receivers coach Erik Campbell and running backs and special teams coach Lester Erb were gone after the 2012 season. Wallace replaced Eric Johnson as recruiting coordinator after the 2013 season.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker was on Ferentz’s original staff. Defensive line coach Reese Morgan arrived a year later. Strength coach Chris Doyle is also a Ferentz lifer. But it took time for the new pieces to fit over these last three seasons. There were plenty of hard knocks along the way.
“Unfortunately, maybe going through what we went through at the end of last year was good for all of us,” Ferentz said.
It takes a lot of moving pieces to fall into place. Everything has to click.
“And staff cohesiveness is part of that,” Ferentz said. “I think we’ve got that now. Everyone has an understanding of who we are, and what we are.”
Who are they? An undefeated team, with a united coaching staff.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.