Iowa careers of Kirk Ferentz, Hayden Fry strikingly similar
IOWA CITY, Ia. – A candidate for the offensive line position was flying in to interview. So Iowa football coach Hayden Fry dispatched Barry Alvarez, one of his assistants, to drive to Cedar Rapids and pick him up.
Alvarez got in his dealer car, a green K-car, and headed north.
"The key was hiring a veteran offensive line coach," said Alvarez, who would later rebuild Wisconsin's program and is now the school's athletic director. "The guys Hayden was bringing in were all veterans. And here comes this 25-year-old graduate assistant from Pittsburgh. And he teased me about my dealer car."
True story, said the candidate, Kirk Ferentz.
"The 19th of June, 1981," Ferentz said. "And I know Barry's not driving a K-car now."
Ferentz never thought he'd get the job on Fry's staff. And if he did, it would be a resume-building stop, at best.
Not only would Ferentz get hired, but he would replace Fry as the Hawkeyes' head coach in 1999.
Two coaches, 37 seasons. Different philosophies, schemes and personalities. And strikingly similar results.
Look in the mirror at Fry's Iowa career, and you see Ferentz. They got to the same place from different directions.
"Hayden would rather trick you," Alvarez said. "He'd rather throw one over the top of you than take six minutes, stick it down your throat and run it down the field."
Fry inherited a program that had limped through 17 consecutive non-winning seasons.
"When you take over a program that's been down, you have to plow up snakes and kill 'em," Fry said at his introductory news conference.
Three years later – Ferentz's first on the staff – Fry coached Iowa to its first winning season since 1961 and the Rose Bowl.
Ferentz inherited a sinking program that was coming off a 3-8 season in 1998. His first team finished 1-10, but Iowa made it to a bowl game in season No. 3.
Both men were national and Big Ten coaches of the year. In his first 16 seasons at Iowa, Fry went to 11 bowl games, including three Rose Bowls. Ferentz has been to 12 bowl games in 16 seasons, including two Orange Bowls.
Fry won three Big Ten titles, Ferentz two. Fry had three 10-win seasons; Ferentz has four. Fry coached against 38 different Big Ten coaches; Ferentz is at 36 and counting. Ferentz has had 11 winning seasons; Fry had 10 in his first 16 years at the helm.
Both had rock-solid coaching staffs that took their programs to great heights, then saw that success diminish as that continuity eroded. Fry had to hire just two new assistants in his first 10 seasons, but 12 over his last 10 seasons. Ferentz had to make just six new hires in his first 13 seasons, but seven in a two-year period starting in 2012.
Over the past three seasons, Ferentz's teams have gone 19-19. Fry's teams were 16-18-1 in seasons 14, 15 and 16.
"If you stay somewhere long enough, that's going to happen," Ferentz said. "You're going to have to endure some valleys, as well as peaks. Hopefully you get to experience the peaks. But the valleys are guaranteed."
Continuity is king
Two nights after he was hired, Fry was greeted with a standing ovation in Iowa Fieldhouse at halftime of the Iowa-Iowa State basketball game.
"It's great to be a Hawkeye," Fry proclaimed. "And we're going to win."
A bold statement, considering that Iowa had won a total of 22 games over the previous eight seasons. Fry, a master of psychology, built the Iowa program with an assist from his Marine background.
"Hayden gave you the impression that he was loosey-goosey, but he was really a taskmaster with the coaches," Alvarez said. "He was very militaristic in his organization."
After records of 5-6 and 4-7, the breakthrough game of the Fry era came in the 1981 opener when the Hawkeyes upset Nebraska 10-7. Iowa also knocked off UCLA, won at Michigan and went to the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten was no longer just Michigan and Ohio State.
Fry brought five assistants with him from North Texas, including offensive coordinator Bill Snyder and defensive coordinator Bill Brashier. Continuity was the key word. Guys such as Alvarez, Carl Jackson, Dan McCarney, Don Patterson, Del Miller and Bernie Wyatt were there from the start. Ferentz was the only fresh face in the first eight seasons.
"The best thing Hayden did was the staff he hired," said Chuck Long, the former Hawkeye quarterback and 1985 Heisman runner-up who later coached for both Fry and Ferentz. "The big thing, and Kirk took this from him, was continuity. They both knew that at a place like Iowa, you could not have a lot of coaches coming and going. You had to find the right mix and chemistry, and guys you felt were going to be there for a long period of time."
Iowa would win at least eight games from 1981 to 1987, the year Alvarez left for Notre Dame. Snyder left for Kansas State after the 1988 season. After the 1989 season, Ferentz left to become head coach at Maine, and McCarney and Wyatt joined Alvarez at Wisconsin. And Iowa won at least eight games in just four of Fry's final 11 seasons.
From 'a body count' to a bowl count
Ferentz's rebuild had a different feel, since Fry had the Iowa football machine humming for long stretches of his 20-year term. But that 1-10 record in 1999 was a gut-check.
"At that time, everything was doom and gloom," said Reese Morgan, Iowa's defensive line coach, who came aboard in 2000. "And coach Ferentz was unbelievably strong. He came in every day just to be kind of a motivator, a cheerleader. He'd pick guys up. As a coach, you never had a chance to get down in the dumps."
Twenty games into the Ferentz era, Iowa was 2-18.
"It was like a body count," Ferentz said. "We finally got some traction at Penn State (a 26-23 victory in double overtime). But it probably happened the week before when we threw Bob Sanders in there (during a 13-7 loss to Wisconsin). That gave us a spark. They still had 400-some yards, but they ended up with 13 points. Sometimes, you need a catalyst."
Iowa took that momentum and went 7-5 in 2001 after beating Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl. That started a run of six straight bowl games, including the Orange Bowl after the 2002 season, and three seasons of 10 or more victories. Ferentz had a staff, anchored by defensive coordinator Norm Parker and offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe, that had little turnover.
But Parker retired, and O'Keefe left for the NFL after the 2011 season. Iowa has played .500 football in the three seasons since. Greg Davis, Brian Ferentz, Bobby Kennedy, Jim Reid, Chris White and Seth Wallace have all been added to the staff since 2012, and LeVar Woods was elevated to a full-time assistant.
"We've gone through quite an evolution since 2012," Ferentz said. "I really feel good about the people we have now, like I did 15 or 16 years ago."
Ferentz and Fry will forever be linked in Iowa football history, success stories that read similarly.
"I can't give all the credit to coach Fry, but he sure gets a lot of it," Ferentz said. "There are a lot of people that made this a great place. And he's obviously the guy that changed the way things were here."