CHICAGO — The dean of major-college football coaches sat at a podium for an hour Tuesday pleasantly answering questions from a revolving band of reporters.
Not about himself, but about seemingly every other coach he’ll face this fall, and a couple he won’t.
What about new Nebraska coach Scott Frost’s comments that he was “gunning” for Iowa?
Kirk Ferentz smiled.
“I’m sure he’s gunning for everybody,” the Hawkeye head coach, entering his 20th season, replied. “He certainly knows the culture of Nebraska better than anybody. To me, it made a great amount of sense for him to be the hire there. I’d be shocked if they don’t do a really nice job there.”
Any thoughts about Illinois coach Lovie Smith, who has struggled to win in his first two seasons there?
“They played a lot of young players, so my guess is the best is coming for them,” Ferentz said. “Coach Smith is an unparalleled coach. He’s won at the highest level and he’s won consistently. And he’s an outstanding person.”
Paul Chryst sure has done a great job at Wisconsin, right coach?
“They’ve done nothing but play well under his leadership and my guess is we’re going to see more of that in the future,” Ferentz concurred. “He’s a first-class guy.”
Ferentz was even pressed for a response about Alabama coach Nick Saban (the two were assistants together with the Cleveland Browns decades back) and third-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash (whom Ferentz has squared off against only once).
Both reporters got sunny assessments of those coaches as well.
Spend an hour at Ferentz’s podium during Big Ten media days, and it’s easy to forget that the man has won 143 games leading the Hawkeyes, tied for the most in program history. He certainly wasn’t going to bring it up.
But he also didn’t get any questions meant to elicit inflammatory sound bites.
Instead, reporters skewed their questions toward topics like how to develop a proficient offensive line or the benefits of early-morning practice sessions — safe subject matter that allowed Ferentz to provide thoughtful answers.
You could even call it boring. Many have.
Finally, Ferentz was asked if he is uncomfortable with the spotlight on him.
“That’s not the reason I coach,” he said. “If you do something that brings the spotlight, then so be it. That’s usually a pretty good thing and we’ve had some good moments. But that’s not what motivates you.
“To me, the fun part about sports — the fun part about team activities — it’s the day-to-day, the working, the aiming toward something and working towards that.”
Ferentz has said repeatedly that going to Chicago for media days is not one of his favorite activities. But he’s clearly relaxed while he’s here. On Tuesday, he entertained a handful of questioners at his sessions while a throng congregated around Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, practically shouting to get his attention. It was reminiscent of the scene around Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh here Monday. It’s almost certainly the way Ferentz wants it.
His low-key demeanor carries over to his team.
Senior defensive end Parker Hesse was asked if Hawkeye players ever kid the 62-year-old Ferentz about his age. After all, his current class of freshmen weren’t even born when he took the reins in Iowa City.
“Coach Ferentz isn’t a guy that you’re gonna give too muck flak to, just joshing with him,” Hesse said, amused by the mere suggestion. “He’s pretty straightforward. Not that you’re intimidated, but he’s a guy that we all hold in pretty high regard. So, generally, when you’re talking to him, you mind your Ps and Qs.”
Ferentz was asked once about being on the verge of surpassing Hayden Fry’s win record at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a shot to hand their coach victory No. 144 on Sept. 1 against Northern Illinois. It can’t happen soon enough for Ferentz, who has grown tired of answering questions about the topic, and told Iowa media members here Monday that from here on out, he’s only discussing the 2018 Hawkeyes.
“I think about all the games that maybe we should’ve, could’ve won,” Ferentz said. “If we’d won one of those, this would all be a dead issue. We wouldn’t be talking about it this summer.”
Listening to Ferentz talking about two of his players — one from the distant past and one on his current team — it was apparent what he values: predictability. Monotony, even.
Former Hawkeye safety Bob Sanders, who later starred for the Indianapolis Colts, is entering the university’s hall of fame this year.
“He was the same guy whether it was in Erie (Pennsylvania), Iowa City or Indy. Bob never changed,” Ferentz said. “He was just a really dynamic player, short in stature but huge in heart, and just impacted everybody on the field.”
On current quarterback Nate Stanley, a reclusive junior from Wisconsin who was also here to chat with reporters:
“He’s not a look-at-me guy — almost shuns away from that a little bit. But in the things that count, he’s there; he’s solid. He’s mentally tough. He cares so much about his performance. He cares a lot about his teammates’ performance. He cares about his people. All those things that people respond to,” Ferentz said.
“Those things you can’t fake. It’s either there or it’s not.”
That’s as close to a “hot take” as you’re going to get from Ferentz. Bring on the 2018 season already.