Friday, August 07, 2009

More With Less: Why Kirk Ferentz is the Best Coach in College Football

MADISON, WI - SEPTEMBER 22: Head coach Kirk Ferentz of the Iowa Hawkeyes gets ready to lead his team onto the field before the game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium September 22, 2007 in Madison, Wisconsin.

by Kevin Trahan

August 7, 2009

The ESPN 150 recruiting rankings, which rank the top 150 recruits in the country, came out last week. To nobody's surprise, Iowa had no recruits on the list.

Now, that may frustrate many fans to see that their team has "underproduced" in recruiting, but it doesn't bother Iowa fans one bit. We're happy with our country strong recruits out of Small Town, Iowa and don't need a star quarterback out of Los Angeles to be happy.

I never place too much weight on recruiting rankings. All of those stats bother me because we don't really know how the recruits will actually fair in college and because talent can only take one so far. I know I need not be worried when a 60th ranking in recruiting translates to a 20th ranking in the polls that matter.

Iowa rarely has any recruits above three stars. Most of their recruits aren't even ranked. Most are kids from Iowa that nobody else wanted.

But the reason Kirk Ferentz is able to win with these players is his ability to look beyond the star rating. He has formed close relationships with many high school coaches around the state and takes their input on who they think deserves to play at the next level.

As stated so well by Rudy Ruettiger, "I wasn't always the biggest...or the quickest, but I led the team in tackles." That is exactly what Kirk Ferentz is looking for when he travels from home to home searching for recruits. He doesn't care about size, stars, or what ESPN says, he cares about work ethic, motivation, and a drive to improve.

Take Mitch King for example. At 6'3", the defensive tackle out of Burlington, Iowa was too small for other schools, but Ferentz saw his work ethic and turned him into a unanimous All-Big Ten selection.

Bob Sanders is another example. Most schools saw him as too small to play safety at the next level, but Ferentz recognized his toughness, speed, and huge hits. Sanders later went on to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts and is arguably the best safety in the NFL right now.

There are many other players who weren't highly recruited, but went on to be big stars in college; Pat Angerer, Mike Humpal, Mike Kilnkenborg, Drew Tate, and Shonn Greene, just to name a few.

What is Ferentz's secret? There are two things.

First, he is an excellent motivator. He does a brilliant job getting his underrecruited players to hit the wieght room and become the best football players they can be.

Second, he finds the talent of individual players and instead of forcing the player to adapt to his scheme, he changes his scheme to showcase their strengths. This is the combination that churns out wins for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes every year.

To explain more, Ferentz finds the strengths of his players and would rather use those strengths, than force his players to change.

Such is the case with Mitch King. Ferentz didn't worry about the lack of size, but instead, designed plays using his speed and toughness to wreak havoc in offensive backfields. He used play action with Ricky Stanzi, because it gave him more time in the pocket and helped improve his composure and maturity as the season went on.

Ferentz explained his formula perfectly in an interview with ESPN, "So you don't plug holes—you assess what it is you are, what your strengths are, and you shift towards those strengths. We could go the opposite route of what we were in some ways."

This formula is what makes Ferentz the best in the business. One could argue for Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer, or even Jim Tressel to be the best coach in the country, but those coaches pay too much attention to stars.

They go for the top recruits in the country and would reject a player, such as Mitch King, in a heartbeat because they don't fit the "standard" for college football. Instead of recognizing Mitch King's speed, they would simply bench him and find someone else who fits more into their system.

These other coaches won't ever change their system, and I don't blame them. They have all the talent in the world and don't see the need to. But you never know what you're missing, if you don't try to bring out someone's strenghts. We can only wonder what Kirk Ferentz could do at Southern Cal, combining his formula with their talent.

But Ferentz is at home in Iowa, as he has told many major publications asking about a possible future in the NFL. He is satisfied turning his little known recruits into big-time college stars.

So I won't be too worried when Iowa is ranked in the 60s in recruiting in this upcoming fall. Ferentz will find a way to turn a small town Iowa farmer who nobody else wanted into a star, not because he changed the player, but because the player shaped his team.

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