Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Secret to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz’s longevity: his personal approach

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, addressing reporters at BIg Ten Media Days on Monday, has lots of admirers.

By Scott Dochterman
July 24, 2017

CHICAGO — When one asks Iowa football players about the secret of coach Kirk Ferentz’s longevity, their initial response doesn’t revolve around a game, a technique or a drill.

It’s about his personality.

“He’s an incredible person,” Iowa senior guard Sean Welsh said Monday at Big Ten Media Days. “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met. From the moment I arrived at Iowa, he’s given me everything that I needed to succeed and so much opportunity.”

“He cares about us,” Iowa senior receiver Matt VandeBerg said. “He cares about us being better people. He cares about us having better character. He cares about the wins and losses because that’s his job. But more importantly, he cares about us.”

Ferentz, 61, now enters his 19th season at Iowa and is the longest-tenured coach in the major college football. His credentials are strong. His 135 wins at Iowa ranks seventh in Big Ten history. His 82 league victories rank sixth. He’s 135-92 in 18 years at Iowa, just 8 wins shy of tying Hayden Fry for first.

Yet those statistics weren’t broached when his players discussed Ferentz. They didn’t get to the wins. Iowa’s three players in attendance all played for a 12-win team that won the Big Ten West Division title in 2015. They were on the field in some capacity last year for a 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan. They’ve played for the good times and the rough moments. Losing all four trophy games in 2014 and winning all four in 2015.

Instead of offering up those memories, they touted Ferentz as a person.

“He brings people together, that family atmosphere that we always talk about that he does,” Iowa senior linebacker Josey Jewell said. “That’s why he’s been there for so long is he’s had excellence bringing different types of people together to be able to do one thing. I think that’s what he does every year. He does a great job of that.”

With 6 bowl wins, Ferentz ranks third in league history. He has 5 top-10 finishes and a pair of Big Ten titles. He has 5 seasons of 10 or more wins, one of only 7 coaches in league history with more than 3 10-win seasons.

Ferentz likely is a Hall of Fame coach on the field. Yet his biggest mark on his players, his competitors and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is how he carries himself.

“Kirk is a special guy, special coach, has had consistent success at Iowa, has been, I think, a leader not only on the field but off the field,” Delany said. “I’ve gotten to know him in a good way over a couple of decades and have tremendous respect for him as a leader of young people, as a football coach and as a consistent coach leader.

“So I count him as a friend and I count his contribution as a college football coach among the very best in the country.”

Ferentz’s humility came through Monday every time he was asked about why his tenure ranks as the nation’s longest. He pivoted to his friend Bob Stoops — who was hired by Oklahoma one day before Ferentz agreed to coach Iowa — as one of the great coaches in history. Ferentz then talked about Iowa’s continuity at athletics director with only 3 since 1970 and how the university prefers to help the status quo succeed rather than pull quick triggers.

When pressed, Ferentz cited his players and assistants as instrumental for Iowa’s success. Pressed again, Ferentz admitted it was a good fit for Iowa and himself.

There was nothing about what he developed at Iowa, not an ounce of braggadocio. His players, however, weren’t afraid to speak for him.

“It’s a family,” VandeBerg said. “We all care about one another. That’s why people want to stick around and that’s why he stays here because it’s a family. You really can’t get that anywhere else.”

At a news conference last week, Welsh discussed his battle with depression and how Ferentz supported him throughout every bump on his road.

“If you want to know why he’s been here so long, I think it’s because he’s a good person,” Welsh said.

Of course football is a factor, too. Without the wins and player development, Ferentz wouldn’t have lasted more than a few years. He started 2-18 in his first 2 seasons before turning around Iowa with a 31-7 record and 3 top-10 finishes from 2002-2004.

Iowa under Ferentz is known for fundamentals, physicality and mental toughness. The foundation is unwavering, and Ferentz’s competitors know what type of effort they’re going to get from Iowa.

“I’ve had so much respect for him,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I think he knows the game, respects the game. Obviously when you think of his teams there’s a toughness component to it. Well-coached teams and then you put it with some talented players. … Those are fun teams to play against because you’ve got to be at the top of your game.”

“Kirk’s got such a solid football background,” said Fox Sports analyst and former Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt. “He’s got a great blueprint on what a successful program takes. He’s been able to surround himself, over the years we’re talking, with assistant coaches that have bought in and he’s been able to trust them to implement that. He’s had the support of the administration and the university to do the things that he’s had to do. He’s very consistent.

“A lot of people, they want him to do this and do that. He’s never caved into the pressure of the media or the fans. He’s always kind of stayed true to that blueprint in his mind of what a successful program takes. I think at the end of the day it’s worked.”

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