Jon Miller: I was wrong about Kirk Ferentz

Jon Miller
Special to HawkCentral

Great American prophet Arthur Fonzarelli, aka "The Fonz," had a difficult time saying "I was wrong."

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz waits with his team near the tunnel prior to kickoff against Minnesota on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

He’d hang on the "wr…wro…wro" part and it never quite came out right.

I’ve never had a problem admitting such things and have always believed it better to be the one to come out and own up to it before your critics could beat you to the punch.

So without any hesitation, I say "Kirk Ferentz, I was wrong."  How so? Let me count the ways.

‘The Game Has Passed Ferentz By’

Jon Miller

I said this in the aftermath of Iowa’s 37-34 loss to Nebraska last year.  I said it again in December and yet again following Iowa’s loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, a game dubbed "The HawkSlayer Bowl" by assistant coach Brian Ferentz.

I never felt that Kirk Ferentz had forgotten how to coach the game and said as much.  My point was that history was not on Ferentz’s side.

Through the annals of college football history, few highly successful coaches have ever taken a long look in the mirror and made the hard changes to their programs after so many years in the captain’s chair.  This can be said of several captains of industry; CEOs or business owners who have success for a good period of time and get too caught up in "their way" and fail to see the fractures in present processes.

For me, that’s the game passing you by. That’s stagnation, it’s blind bravado and has led to the downfall of more than a few great coaches and programs.

Like many successful coaches, Kirk Ferentz is a creature of habit, routine and process.  Following the 2014 football season, I believed there was something amiss with Iowa’s process, their foundation or their approach.  It didn’t look like Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz.  The program was also just two years removed from a 4-8 campaign against a weak schedule and thus, I believed we were seeing the beginning of the end of the Ferentz era at Iowa.

I wasn’t wrong about some of those things, as Ferentz would later validate with his own words.

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Ferentz would say in January that he replayed his postgame media sessions from Iowa’s last two losses from the 2014 season and he didn’t like what he was seeing.  He made changes, and this year he and his staff have been more available to the media than at any other time his tenure in Iowa City.  This began with week one, when Iowa had yet to win a game.

Ferentz would issue a January depth chart, one that replaced established quarterback Jake Rudock at quarterback with C.J. Beathard, an unprecedented move.  Ferentz would hold a January press conference to assess the state of the program.   When asked why he was holding a January press conference — just the second of his 17 years in Iowa (the other coming during the rhabdomyolysis fallout) — he simply said, “I just felt like we needed to talk.”

Ferentz would turn his program’s preparation clock upside down, moving practices from the afternoon to the morning.  For a man of habit, order and routine, this was no small move, saying it was as strange as "... walking on the moon.”

Such moves may not seem like a big deal, but in the world of competitive sports where the head coach has been highly successful, these moves are akin to the shifting of tectonic plates.

Few head coaches in the history of the sport have ever built a program to top 10 heights to see it fall back to a low, only to build it back up to top 10 heights a second time.  Kirk Ferentz has done that in his career and has now added a third rise to top 10 heights, putting him in a class nearly by himself.

‘Time for a Change’

I said and wrote that last November and December.  I have always had a great deal of respect and admiration for Kirk Ferentz and his wife, Mary.  They are generous and selfless philanthropists and the lesser known impacts they have made on the Iowa City community and in the lives of untold hundreds (perhaps thousands) through sharing their time and resources is something I never failed to mention as a caveat to my criticisms.

Yet I was hoping Ferentz would choose to step aside following the 2014 season so that he could keep his Iowa legacy intact.

I didn’t want to see the man play out the string and slug through the malaise of mediocrity that seemed (to me) to be ahead.

I’ve been wrong before, but this one may stand as the most wrong I have ever been.

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz, left, and athletic director Gary Barta talk before a 2013 game against Northwestern.

Perhaps his contract buyout saved him?  Perhaps athletic director Gary Barta facing some fire of his own saved him?  Perhaps having then-Iowa President Sally Mason announcing her resignation in mid-January saved him?  Perhaps it was a combination of all of those things or perhaps it was none of them.

Or, perhaps a combination of those things saved Iowa from making a grave mistake.

Hindsight can see through walls and around corners, so here we are.  We’ve all been witness to Ferentz’s Third Act at Iowa, which is arguably his greatest work yet.

In 2015, Ferentz has proven he can change and adapt where he needs to, where his program needed him to.

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Regardless of what happens in Lincoln on Friday, Kirk Ferentz has proven that the Iowa football program can play for all the marbles; Iowa is just one of two undefeated teams left standing.

Kirk, I was wrong.  You’re not like the successful coaches who have come before you who failed to make necessary changes.

One year removed from the collapse against Nebraska, Iowa is on the precipice of history, and Act III of the Ferentz era is likely enough to earn the man admittance into the College Football Hall of Fame.

I believe The Fonz would give this a double thumbs up.

Jon Miller is publisher of HawkeyeNation. He'll offer commentary on HawkCentral through the end of the football season. Follow Miller on Twitter at @HawkeyeNation.