Leistikow: New Kirk Ferentz deal comes with big rewards, big risks
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Give credit to Kirk Ferentz and his Cleveland-based agent: When it comes to contract negotiations, their timing is impeccable.
In securing his second long-term extension to remain Iowa’s football coach — Tuesday’s announced deal totaling $49.5 million over 10 years and taking him through the 2025 season — Ferentz got everything he could have hoped for.
And athletic director Gary Barta, with new president Bruce Harreld’s blessing, was happy to pay up.
“A great contract moving forward,” Barta said Tuesday.
What Ferentz got: A raise of nearly $500,000 this season, to $4.5 million, a salary that according to USA TODAY would’ve ranked eighth nationally among FBS coaches in 2015. The contract increases his pay by $100,000 each year, meaning he's scheduled to make $5.4 million (before bonuses) for the 2025 season. His bonuses would max out at $2.925 million (including a new one: $500,000 for every eight-win season).
What Iowa got: Ferentz forever, as long as the program doesn’t tank. Ferentz, 61, will be 70 when the new deal expires — and he hasn't ruled out coaching beyond that.
“Signing a long-term contract has risk to it,” Barta said. “But so does not signing a long-term contract.”
Sound familiar? It should. Ferentz and agent Neil Cornrich struck with an extension to 10 years following the 2009 season, in which Iowa logged a program-record 11 wins.
It’s no coincidence that after a record-setting 12-2 season, Ferentz-Cornrich went back to the bargaining table, convincing Barta to focus more on the 2015 breakthrough than the 34-30 mediocrity from 2010 to 2014.
“Obviously, the success of last year maybe pushed it over the top,” Barta said. “(But) it’s based on the 10 years I’ve worked with him.”
They even got a lucrative buyout again, albeit a more complicated one: According to the contract details obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, if Iowa wins seven or more games in each of the next five seasons, Ferentz would receive 100 percent of his guaranteed pay if he's fired anytime between 2021 and 2025.
“If you don’t have a buyout in a contract, it’s not a long-term contract,” Barta said. “I don’t mean to downplay that — it’s an important part of the puzzle — but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.”
Again, props to Ferentz. That’s what you want a good football coach to do during games: Capitalize on momentum.
“We’ve retooled,” Ferentz said of restored assistant-coach stability after losing coordinators Norm Parker and Ken O’Keefe after the 2011 season. “In my mind, we’re set for the second phase of this whole thing.”
There’s a positive vibe around Hawkeye football again, enhanced by the game-changing Iowa Football Performance Center. It’s no coincidence that the Hawkeyes’ recruiting Class of 2017 could wind up as the second-best in Ferentz’s 18 years here.
I wrote in May that Iowa should extend Ferentz through the 2023 season — but to keep the buyout in check.
Barta decided to take it a few steps further, agreeing to 2025.
But why sign off on another gigantic buyout?
“That’s a fair question,” Barta said after being reminded of the buyout backlash Iowa received when struggles hit following the 2010 extension. “But I get negative attention no matter what I do.”
He'd better hope Iowa beats Iowa State on Saturday.
Not many athletic directors win battles in today’s lucrative, competitive head-coaching market. In hooking Ferentz through 2025, Barta is saddling the athletic department (which, it should be pointed out, is sustained without public funding) with potential liability of eight figures if a coaching change becomes necessary.
Iowa isn't alone with its generous buyout terms. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer would receive a $27.4 million buyout if he were fired between now and Jan. 31. The initial seven-year contract of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, college football’s second-highest paid coach, outlined a nearly 100 percent buyout of his basic compensation from the school.
And I’ll side with Barta on this: Iowa has for 18 years hit the jackpot in character and class with Ferentz. Not to mention he's won more games (128) as a Big Ten coach than all but seven men, ever.
“If I were to set out and look for a coach with the accomplishments — the values — that Kirk has,” Barta said, “I would be hard-pressed — in fact, I would argue I wouldn’t be able — to find a better fit.”
If Ferentz remains at Iowa until the end of this deal and averages eight victories a year, he’ll pass Woody Hayes (with his 205 wins at Ohio State) and Bo Schembechler (with his 194 at Michigan) for No. 2 all-time in the Big Ten.
It doesn’t sound like Ferentz is slowing down.
“I've never felt better, physically or mentally,” he said. “That's a big part of it.”
Ferentz's new deal was announced the same morning the Hawkeyes rose to No. 10 in the USA TODAY Coaches’ Poll.
Once again, impeccable timing.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Ferentz by the numbers
Career record at Iowa: 128-87, 18th season
Big Ten Conference championships: Two (2002, 2004)
BCS Bowl appearances: Three (2003 Orange; 2010 Orange; 2016 Rose)
Top-10 national finishes: Five (2002, ’03, ’04, ’09, ’15)
Contract value: Ferentz’s pre-bonuses pay of $4.035 million in 2015 ranked 14th in FBS; his new 2016 salary of $4.5 million would’ve ranked No. 8 (and third in the Big Ten, behind Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh ($7 million) and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer ($5.86 million)).
Ferentz's new contract by year (base plus guaranteed bonuses): $4.5 million in 2016, $4.6 million in 2017, $4.7 million in 2018, $4.8 million in 2019, $4.9 million in 2020, $5 million in 2021, $5.1 million in 2022, $5.2 million in 2023, $5.3 million in 2024, $5.4 million in 2025.