IOWA CITY, Ia. — There was plenty of noise circulating around the Iowa football program in the months leading up to the 2015 season.
Coach Kirk Ferentz heard only a fraction of it.
“When you bump into people you haven’t seen in awhile, and they come up to you and say, 'Hey, we’re still with you,’ it’s like, 'Boy, is it that bad out there?’” Ferentz told me on the eve of fall camp. “I guess it is.”
Maybe it was the vocal minority banging the drum, although the decline in season ticket sales tells me it went deeper than that. When you follow up an Orange Bowl victory and an 11-2 season in 2009 with a 34-30 record — and 19-21 in the Big Ten — over the next five years, the natives become restless.
That makes Tuesday’s news that Ferentz was named Big Ten coach of the year the comeback story of 2015.
It’s the fourth time the 17-year Iowa coach has won it, and the first since 2009. The only other man to win the award at least four times is Michigan’s Bo Schembechler. He was honored in six different seasons.
And in a fitting touch, the coach of the year award as voted on by the league’s coaches is named for Schembechler and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes. Ferentz was also the winner of the media vote. That award is named for former Wisconsin coach Dave McClain.
In the months after humbling losses to Nebraska and Tennessee ended an underachieving 7-6 season in 2014, some wondered if Ferentz's burning desire to win had extinguished. Others wanted change, for change’s sake. Ferentz Fatigue.
Here was a coach portrayed as a walking, talking contradiction: a man who was loyal, to a fault. A man willing to accept the ebbs and flows of a job such as Iowa, even when fans don’t care to accept that reality. An honorable but stubborn man, set in his ways and unwilling to change.
But that’s where this story breaks tradition, and a 12-0 season and a berth in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game were born.
Ferentz was willing to change. He reviewed video of his postgame interaction with the media after last season’s final two games and was embarrassed. He changed starting quarterbacks. He made subtle but effective adjustments to his coaching staff. He moved practice to the morning. He was all-in with a new approach to recruiting. He vowed to spend more time in the office so he could build better relationships with those in the football building.
Hardly the workings of a coach who was on cruise control, a fat cat cashing in on a multimillion-dollar contract.
This fall, the victories started piling up again.
Mr. Predictable tried fake punts in the first two games. Both were unsuccessful, but who cares? Perception is reality. And the fans loved it when Ferentz rolled the dice and went for it on fourth down, something that had actually started the year before.
Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
Old Kirk was suddenly New Kirk, something that will get a chuckle out of the 60-year-old coach when you bring it up. Because New Kirk is, in truth, Old Kirk. He revisited his roots in the offseason and reviewed what worked when his teams were winning games and finishing in the top 10.
In December, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta gave Ferentz a public vote of confidence.
“Nah,” Ferentz said. “If you have to rely on outside sources or voices for motivation, maybe you ought to do something else.”
So he rolled up his sleeves and went to work. And we’re in a much different place this December, one victory away from a College Football Playoff berth.
Imagine uttering that sentence during the summer of discontent.
Ferentz made changes that were effective and resonated with a unified team that was all in. A historic 2015 season is the reward.
You’ve got company, Bo.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.