Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Kirk Ferentz Has Led Iowa With Class And Character For Two Decades

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz will wrap up his twentieth season as the Hawkeyes' head coach in the Outback Bowl against Mississippi State on New Year's Day. (Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)GETTY

By Tom Layberger
December 31, 2018

TAMPA - In 1999 the average price of a gallon of gas was $1.22, the Dow Jones achieved unprecedented heights when it reached 11,000, the first Blackberry became available and The Sopranos debuted on HBO.

On the college football landscape, Arizona and Nebraska were in the preseason top 10 and the postseason consisted of 16 fewer bowl games than present.

Indeed, much has changed since Kirk Ferentz took over at Iowa. The 63-year-old, who will conclude his twentieth season with the Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl against Mississippi State on New Year’s Day, has changed as well. He has had to in order to keep pace with a group of mostly 18- to 22-year-old young men growing up in an era marked by the proliferation of social media, something that certainly was not an issue during his first decade in charge of the program.

While the mode of player distractions has changed over the years, Ferentz, who bans players from tweeting, feels that goals for student-athletes have not wavered over time.

“You want them to get their degree, have a great experience playing at the highest level of football they can and develop as people so they are ready to go into the adult world whenever that time comes,” he said during an Outback Bowl press conference. “I don’t think the goals have ever changed, but obviously the challenges and distractions that are out there for every athlete have changed.”

You don’t become the longest-tenured coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision by trying to figure it out on your own. In better understanding those challenges and distractions, Ferentz relies in no small part on fundamental, but powerful principles.

“Listen to people,” he said. “Watch and listen. You learn every day if you are paying attention to your players and obviously other people as well.”

Paying attention and learning from those around him served as guiding forces while Ferentz was growing up in blue-collar western Pennsylvania. It is such traditional values he passes on to his players as they progress through their collegiate careers, values that have served as a big reason why he has been at Iowa for a total of 29 years, including an earlier stint as an assistant.

Sure, the administration wants to win as well as instill character. But change for the sake of change is not how things are done in Des Moines. Hayden Fry roamed the Kinnick Stadium sideline for 20 years, meaning the school has had two coaches in four decades. As Ferentz pointed out, Iowa has had only three athletic directors since 1970. None of that is by accident.

So, when an 11-2 season in 2009, a campaign capped by an Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech and a No. 7 ranking in the final AP poll, was followed by seasons of 8-5, 7-6 and 4-8, there was no panic or desire to go a different direction.

“At this level we do have to win enough to remain at our jobs,” said Gary Barta, who has been Iowa’s athletic director since the summer of 2006. “Because of (Ferentz’s) success combined with his integrity and his big picture about creating leaders and developing men into future leaders, that resonates. So, when you have a 4-8 season and the external pressures amplify that it is time for a change, you can stand strong and say, ‘No it’s not. We love this person, we love him as a coach, he’s very good at what he does.'”

Ferentz, who is 151-101 at Iowa and opened this season by passing his predecessor for most wins in school history, served under Fry as offensive line coach from 1981-89. He was then head coach at Maine from 1990-92 before moving to the NFL as offensive line coach with the Cleveland/Baltimore franchise. Ferentz was on Bill Belichick's staff with the Browns and was under the late Ted Marchibroda with the Ravens.

When the opportunity arose for Ferentz to return to Iowa and assume the reins from Fry, it was one that he was not about to pass up.

“I spent nine years (as an assistant), so I had a chance to come back,” said the former UConn linebacker. “It was a no-brainer. I wasn’t even thinking about college football quite frankly, but it was an opportunity on a professional level and personal level that made perfect sense. The idea was to come in and do the best we could. A lot of things that were very important to Coach Fry when he took over, we kept those same values and principles and just try to keep moving forward.”

Moving forward is exactly what Ferentz, who ranks fifth all-time in the Big 10 in total victories and sixth (91) in conference wins, intends to continue to do. His current pact runs through the 2025 season and while 20 seasons with the same program has a nice look and feel to it, now is not the time to get sentimental. He does, however, take an occasional glimpse back.

“Every now and then,” said the father of five, all Iowa grads with the oldest, Brian, serving as his offensive coordinator. “I’m not getting ready to retire, so I’m not going to get real reflective other than just say I feel very, very fortunate. I say that about every job I have had. I have never had a bad job going back to teaching at Wooster (Conn.) Academy right out of college. Been really fortunate that way. Been around great people.”

Ferentz said that he is also fortunate to be in a very stable environment. Bump Elliott, the former Michigan coach who is 93 years young, served as Iowa's AD from 1970-90. Current Big 12 commissioner and Iowa native Bob Bowlsby ran the department from 1990-2006. Barta has more than 13 years on the job after arriving from Wyoming where he was AD for three years.

“I don’t think there is anybody in the country close to that,” Ferentz said of a half century of such little turnover at the top. “It's nice to come into work and know what is expected, what the expectations are and the way we are going to do things. I feel very fortunate that way and, most importantly, getting to work with good people on a day-to-day basis.”

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