Jon Miller: Kirk Ferentz's 'bad' contract saved Iowa from itself
Before this season, the contract Iowa athletic director Gary Barta gave to Kirk Ferentz following Iowa’s 2009 campaign looked more like an albatross than a shrewd move.
What if I suggested that very contract wound up saving Iowa from itself? Wound up actually saving Iowa from making a mistake, kept Iowa from doing what so many other programs might have done following the 7-6 record of 2014?
Isn’t that an ironic twist?
Let’s reset things a bit, as our memories have likely faded in the glow of a 12-0 regular season and Rose Bowl bid.
Barta gave Ferentz a 10-year, $35 million extension following the 2009 season. Few fans had a problem with that move, as it essentially locked up Kirk Ferentz "for life." At the very least, Iowa made its strongest move possible to keep Ferentz for his coaching career. The Hawkeyes had won 20 games over a two-year span, they had won an Orange Bowl, Ferentz had his fourth season at Iowa in which he had won at least 10 games and a fourth top 10 finish in the rankings.
Things were great. Fans were happy. Everyone has always respected Kirk Ferentz the man and mostly loved Kirk Ferentz the coach. The marriage was strong.
Then the 2010 season played out, a season that showed so much promise, a season that had Iowa fans believing in great things. I picked Iowa to go 12-0 that year, as I felt it was the most talented Ferentz era team outside of the 2002 squad. I thought the 2010 team would eclipse that 2002 roster pursuant to NFL draft picks.
To call the 2010 season a disappointment would be an understatement, and I believe that disappointment bled into the next three years in the minds of the fans.
The 2011 season produced a 7-6 record, but that was understandable as Iowa was trying to rebuild from a great two-year run and a talent drain of epic proportions.
The 2012 season? That was bad. Real bad. 4-8 in a year with a very soft schedule. An offense that was as inept as we had seen in Iowa City in a long time. The worst passing attack for an Iowa team since the 1970s or longer. It wasn’t fun to watch and the coaching staff changes that came about (namely Greg Davis as offensive coordinator) created some immense struggles.
The 2012 season was my last year doing "Sound Off" on 1040 WHO with Jim Zabel. We took a lot of calls that year about Ferentz’s contract. I defended Barta’s move the entire season.
The 2013 season was a bit of a revelation for some. An 8-4 regular season, led by a national championship-caliber defense with three NFL caliber linebackers and a season-ending win at Nebraska. It seemed as though order was restored.
The 2014 season played out to a 7-6 record, a loss in every trophy game and the second-half collapse against Nebraska was a tipping point for a number of fans. Add to that the "Hawkslayer Bowl" performance against Tennessee and you had a good percentage of the fan base that had seen enough.
Iowa was just 34-30 between the new contract in 2010 and the end of the 2014 season. That included a Big Ten record of 19-21, just 10-10 in home games. Kinnick Stadium was no longer a house of horrors for visiting teams; it was a .500 proposition.
Some wanted Ferentz fired. I wasn’t in that camp, but I was hoping he might choose to walk away so he could hold on to his great Iowa legacy. I’ve already covered that ground on my website and for The Des Moines Register, so I won’t revisit that topic again here.
Season ticket sales tumbled. Fan angst was at an all-time high, according to Barta. I was no longer a fan of the contract Barta had extended to Ferentz. I felt that Iowa was somewhat trapped in its options and I echoed comments from national pundits in calling it the most one-sided contract in the history of amateur athletics.
According to an article in Forbes.com from Sept. 16, 2014, if Iowa were to make a move on Ferentz following the 2014 season, it would have owed him north of $13 million to be paid in monthly installments through 2020, or $2.7 million per year. Had Iowa replaced Ferentz following the 2014 season, it would have also had to pay a new coach a hefty sum of money.
Though Iowa’s athletic department is among the biggest revenue producers in college athletics, it couldn’t swallow such costs.
Iowa couldn’t afford to fire Ferentz, due to the contract extension he was given following the 2010 season.
We’ll never know if Barta would have made a move had the contract been more agreeable to the university. While Ferentz wasn’t producing Todd Lickliter results, the fan base was fractured and disgruntled. Iowa was in the market for a new university president last winter, spring and summer and Barta had some issues of his own related to the ongoing field hockey brouhaha. Barta may not have had the ability to make such a move, even if he wanted to.
However, I believe it was the "albatross" contract Barta extended to Ferentz in 2010 that helped save Iowa from making a grave mistake and replacing its longtime coach.
The contract, that had been a source of scorn, derision and divisiveness, wound up being a protector — a savior of sorts.
Iowa stuck with Ferentz. He made a number of changes in the off-season, many of them small, and they added up to something we have never seen before: a perfect regular season. A team that played more for one another than any Iowa team I can remember.
Businessmen will tell you that contracts are there to protect both sides. In the case of Ferentz’s 2010 contract extension, it turns out that deal saved Iowa from making an historic mistake.
Jon Miller is publisher of HawkeyeNation. He'll offer commentary on HawkCentralthrough the end of the football season. Follow Miller on Twitter at @HawkeyeNation.