Mary Ferentz: Championing children's health care

Kirk Ferentz's wife is devoted to UI Children's Hospital

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IOWA CITY — Sometimes, all a parent can do for a child is listen and try not to laugh.

Mary Ferentz tells this story: “One day Steven came home from school — he was in kindergarten or first-grade — and said ‘The guys said Dad’s team really stinks.’

“He’s our youngest kid, so I know the drill. I’m like ‘Well, how did you feel?’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t really like it.’ I said ‘What did you say to them?’ He said, ‘What could I say? It was true.’ ”

That hasn’t often been a problem in Kirk Ferentz’s 18 years as Iowa’s head coach, but once is enough to leave an internal scar. Nearly everyone who coaches for more than five minutes faces some turbulence. When it’s a high-profile coach, his or her family encounter it, too.

Mary is Kirk Ferentz’s wife. She has been the opposite of “high-profile” for most of those 18 years. She was raising five children, with a difference of 11 years between the oldest and youngest, and wanted to keep life as close to normal for them as she could.

But those three boys and two girls are now three men and two women, and Mary has made herself more available to the media in recent years. The reason is to draw attention to the Iowa Ladies Football Academy and the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital it helps fund. The seventh edition of the annual event is June 10 at Kinnick Stadium.

The ILFA is designed to raise money for the Children’s Hospital. The total raised from the first six such events is about $1.5 million.

While Ferentz has given far more radio/TV/print interviews the last couple years, she has chaired the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital Council for 11 years.

“She was not used to public speaking. She didn’t even like speaking at meetings at the start. But she kept going,” said Chuck Peters, who was on that council for several years. He is the chair of the board of Folience, formerly The Gazette Company.

“For her persistence and continuity through numerous changes and ups and downs, we should all be grateful.”

Ferentz said she took up the cause of the Children’s Hospital because it “had never really focused on private philanthropy.”

“A new physician-in-chief came in and said this is one of the best children’s hospitals in the country that no one knows about. He started a community outreach group, which was us, the hospital council. He started getting his ducks in a row, and I was one of his ducks.”

Mary and Kirk Ferentz believed a females’ football day at Iowa as a fundraising concept that could resonate in Iowa.

“Women are a big part of the football fan base,” Mary said, “but we get overlooked.

“Women love their football, and it’s more fun for them what’s going on, when it’s not so mysterious. They get to meet the players and coaches and see they’re just guys. They’re husbands, fathers, sons, brothers. They’re people.

“I can’t tell you how many women have commented how unbelievably nice the players are.”

She said the most-asked question by the participants is what kind of gum her husband chews during games. Which might normally sound inane, but Mary admits “He chews it so hard, you can’t help (but notice) it.”

Several dozen Hawkeyes players join the Iowa coaching staff at the Academy (For details, go to IowaLadiesFootballAcademy.com). They and their coaches help give the event’s participants an idea what practices are like, what team meetings are like, what strength and conditioning are like, and more.

“It’s for women of all ages,” Mary said. “You do have to be 18. We’ve had them from 18 to 85.

“Some are very excited to be running in drills with the players. Others are intimidated. It’s whatever you want. There’s something for everybody, and you don’t have to have a high football IQ.”

The requirements are a $50 registration fee, and a $500 minimum from fundraising. More than a few participants over the years were given their entries as Mother’s Day gifts.

Mary Ferentz didn’t need a football primer in her life. Her father, Gerry Hart, played college football and was a game official in the AFL, NFL and USFL. Her brother, Kevin, was a linebacker at Penn State. And she married a future college football coach she went to high school with in Upper St. Clair, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh.

The Ferentz family spent nine years in Iowa in the 1980s when Kirk was Hayden Fry’s offensive line coach. Four of their children were born in Iowa City. Then he was the head coach at Maine for three years, and then an NFL assistant at Cleveland and Baltimore for three years each.

“I loved it,” Mary said of the NFL life. “You’re just another fish in the pond. I felt like it provided our children a lot more of a normal life where you could just blend in.

“Most people knew the head coach in the NFL, but the players were the celebrities.”

The head coach is the celebrity in a college football program, no matter if his family embraces and loves it or not.

Asked if she found the life of being wed to one of Iowa’s most-recognized people oppressive at times, Mary basically shrugged. She said she and her husband can go out to eat in Iowa City when they want, accepting that interruptions are likely.

“We have a couple of our favorite haunts,” Mary said. “Sure, sometimes you wish you could just be left alone, especially if we’re trying to talk about something. But you figure out that goes with the territory, and if you’re not willing to deal with it, stay home.

“It’s remarkable how much joy people get out of seeing Kirk, getting his autograph, taking a picture with him. They get so much joy that’s it hard to be mad.”

Carrying the Ferentz name around Iowa City apparently never overwhelmed Kirk and Mary’s three sons, since all chose to play for him at Iowa rather than veer elsewhere. The oldest, Brian, is now the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator.

But when the wife of a major-college coach has kids, she knows the way they’re treated at school can be affected by how Dad’s team is doing. She knows a coach is often regarded only by the last game his team played, and his children hears about it when the last game wasn’t great.

“Each kid handled it differently,” Mary said. “The boys would get it more than the girls. I always said to the boys ‘If you’re going to beat your chest when your dad’s team wins, you’re going to have to take your lumps when they lose.’ ”

That was an attitude for a long-term view of life. Which was fitting for a family with a 19th-year head coach of a major-college football program. And, an 11-year chair of a council that helps promote and grow a major pediatrics medical center.

“It’s about children and families,” Mary said. “When you go through the Children’s Hospital, it’s not just kids in beds. Their families are packed into those rooms, grandmas and grandpas.

“Of course you always ask ‘What if that were me? What if that were you?’ Yes, you’d want the very best care available. So what can we do to help this continue to be the best and get even better?”

That last sentence sounds like a coach, doesn’t it?

"For her persistence and continuity through numerous changes and ups and downs, we should all be grateful."

- Chuck Peters

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