Brown: After 30 years, Ferentz returns to the Rose Bowl

Rick Brown
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz takes his team to a third elite bowl.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz was 26 years old, and in his first season as the offensive line coach on Hayden Fry’s staff, when Iowa’s 1981 football team went on an improbable journey.

A program that had limped through 19 straight non-winning seasons caught lightning in a bottle, won a share of the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl.

“No one certainly saw 1981 coming, for a lot of reasons,” Ferentz said. “And I was so young and naïve back then, I thought it was supposed to work out that way.”

The Hawkeyes’ trip to Pasadena was Iowa’s first since 1959.

“It was a great experience for all of us, and certainly a magical time in Iowa football history,” Ferentz said.

Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry is  carried off the field after a 1981 victory that helped Iowa to its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1959.

Thirty-four years later, an Iowa football team coached by Ferentz has gone on another improbable journey. And again, the Rose Bowl is the reward.

“For this team to do what they’ve accomplished this year is really impressive, because I doubt anyone saw it coming,” Ferentz said. “It really speaks to, like that 1981 team, a group that really believed in themselves.”

Self-belief has been the centerpiece of a record- setting 12-1 season, with a game against Pac-12 champion Stanford Jan. 1 the reward. Ferentz had a hand in the 1982 and 1986 Rose Bowl teams as an assistant coach. Thirty years later, he returns for the first time as a head coach.

“It’s just a little different perspective when you’re in the front of the class,” Ferentz said. “But, again, I’m just thrilled for everybody. I’ve been there twice, but 30 years ago, I can barely remember things to be honest with you. It will be good to see it again.”

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Ferentz joins Fry as the only Iowa coaches to take their teams to three elite bowls. Fry coached the Hawkeyes to three Rose Bowls. Forest Evashevski’s legacy includes two Rose Bowls. Evy’s team won both trips to Pasadena. Ferentz is 1-1 in Orange Bowls.

Fry wanted nothing more than a Rose Bowl victory on his resume. It didn’t happen. Washington won in 1982 and 1991, UCLA in 1986. Now Ferentz has a chance to bring the Fry coaching tree a victory, like Barry Alvarez did at Wisconsin.

“We still have some unfinished business,” Ferentz said.

For 21 seniors, including center Austin Blythe, this will be a memorable way to say goodbye. Giving Ferentz his first Rose Bowl appearance as a head coach makes it even more special.

“It feels good to do this for coach Ferentz, because he’s done so much for me and the players on this team,” Blythe said.

Sunday’s announcement felt good to athletic director Gary Barta, too.

A year ago, he went public with his support for Ferentz after a disappointing 7-6 season. On Sunday, Barta sounded like a man whose vote of confidence had won an election by a landslide.

“Extremely gratifying,” Barta said.

Barta repeated what he had said a year earlier: Ferentz had been successful, and Barta was confident he would be again. He praised his coach for his Xs and Os acumen, the way he treats players, and the expectations he has for his players on and off the field.

“To see it escalate into a journey like this has been extraordinary,” Barta said.

The athletic director’s email inbox is a lot friendlier place than it was a year ago.

“My thousands and thousands of advisers aren’t sending me much,” Barta said.

That’s what happens when your football program has a rosy future.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.