Mystery solved: How Bill Belichick first found Kirk Ferentz

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Kirk Ferentz’s coaching path back to Iowa probably doesn’t unfold like it did without a phone call Bill Belichick placed to Maui, Hawaii, in January of 1993.

Last week, as Ferentz reflected on his career in an hour-long interview with the Des Moines Register, he was stumped by one step of his journey.

How did Belichick — now one of the NFL’s all-time great coaches — find Ferentz when he was the head coach at Division I-AA Maine?

Bill Belichick, still coach of the New England Patriots, hired Kirk Ferentz in early 1993 to be his offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns.

“That’s a question that’ll remain unsolved or unanswered,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know the answer to that or I’d tell you. I’ve got a couple theories.”

Those published comments found their way to Jay Hilgenberg, the former Hawkeye and longtime Chicago Bears center.

Hilgenberg remembers exactly what happened.

He and quarterback Mike Tomczak, who had just completed their first seasons with the Browns in 1992, were vacationing when Belichick called.

Belichick told Hilgenberg he was firing his offensive line coach, Hal Hunter, and was looking for recommendations for a replacement.

“I recommended Kirk Ferentz,” Hilgenberg told the Register this week. “He goes, ‘Who the (heck) is that?’”

Former Iowa offensive lineman Jay Hilgenberg is shown during the 1986 Super Bowl while he was a key starter for the Chicago Bears.

As Hilgenberg tells it, Belichick then asked if he hired Ferentz, if he would return to the Browns in 1993. Absolutely, Hilgenberg told him.

Belichick, then 40, was looking to add a younger coach for the long haul; Ferentz was 37 at the time.

One thing led to another, and Browns executive Mike Lombardi called Ferentz … and soon, Ferentz was off to the NFL for six seasons — three under Belichick — before taking over at Iowa prior to the 1999 season.

“I thought he’d be a perfect fit,” Hilgenberg said. “I thought he’d be a great offensive line coach in the NFL.

"I’m proud that I recommended him."

What’s interesting is that Hilgenberg never played for Ferentz; his last year at Iowa was in 1980, the season before Ferentz arrived as Hayden Fry’s offensive line coach from 1981 to 1989. But his brother, Joel, played under Ferentz and spoke highly of him.

Jay Hilgenberg would never play a regular-season NFL game for Ferentz, either. He left the team during the preseason of 1993 after being asked to take a pay cut, then finished his career with the New Orleans Saints in 1994.

Hilgenberg continues to follow the Hawkeyes closely today, from retirement in the Chicago area. He said he’s watched every college snap that new Bears offensive lineman James Daniels played at Iowa.

“I’m a huge Hawkeye,” he said, “believe me.”

And now the mystery is solved.

And Iowa fans can thank Jay Hilgenberg for taking that phone call on the shores of Hawaii, 25 years ago.

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