Two consecutive head coaches serving for 20 years apiece at one school? Nope. Not in big-time college football.
Yet here we are, with Kirk Ferentz about to begin Season No. 20 as Iowa’s football coach after Hayden Fry spent that same amount of time on the job here.
Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin have had six different full-time head football coaches since 1979, Fry’s first season at Iowa. Notre Dame’s had seven. Alabama and USC? Eight.
Ferentz is the longest-tenured current FBS coach. And the guy before him had the job for 20 years, too? Wild. Plus, they’re two such different people. Right?
After he got here, Fry basically stood on Melrose Avenue with a bullhorn to sell Hawkeyes football. He decided Iowa’s uniforms needed to look like those of the Pittsburgh Steelers, known-winners. He thought his program needed a distinctive logo to identify it, hence the stroke of genius that became known as the TigerHawk. The pink visitors’ locker room at Kinnick, whatever the truth behind its origin, has its own sliver of college football lore. It was born in the Fry era.
Ferentz has always left promotions and gimmicks to the suits.
Fry frequently was a quotable quipster, and occasionally was a volcano. A few of his news conference performances over the years were fiery eruptions at the media. More often, though, things were lighter. He loved getting people to laugh at his unpredictable remarks.
Ferentz often shows a sense of humor, but it’s wry. He’ll joke with a wink. If he is peeved about something, he only lifts his lid long enough to release a little steam.
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Ferentz may never have said anything catchy enough to endure from a Tuesday news conference all the way to a Saturday game day. Fry said “Scratch where it itches,” about his offense, and it became a mantra in this state.
But are the two coaches really so different?
“You may find this hard to believe,” Ferentz said. “We’re probably similar in a lot of ways. We just have very different personalities.
“He’s charming, witty, and got me right down the list. And I mean that in all sincerity. He captivated this state. That was very clear to me. I came here year three (as Fry’s offensive line coach in 1981). It was very obvious that … he did something to really rally the troops here.
“But at the end of the day, the big games we won in the ‘80s got down to playing good, solid, fundamental football.”
That’s the heart of 40 years of consistency here. Fry’s football reputation was for having both feet out of the box. Yes, he brought needed new wrinkles and flair to the Big Ten. But the fanciest thing about his good teams was their crisp execution.
“I think he fooled a lot of people with the white pants, the sunglasses and exotics,” Ferentz said. “When it came down to really winning big games, it was all sound football. That’s usually common everywhere you go, and pretty much any generation. I really believe that.”
This weekend, many of Fry’s 1983 assistant coaches gathered to appear at FRYfest Friday and attend Saturday’s Iowa season-opener, where Ferentz will try to get his 144th win at the school. That would snap the tie for first-place he is in with Fry.
That 1983 group was the staff of staffs, with several future head coaches. Fry, Bill Snyder and Barry Alvarez are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Bob Stoops (then an Iowa graduate assistant) and Ferentz will eventually join them.
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Ferentz also has surrounded himself with many top-shelf assistants over 20 years. You have bumps at Iowa. It takes a lot of steady hands to ride them out.
One pair of those hands arrived from the great unknown in 1981 when Fry tabbed a 25-year old graduate assistant from Pittsburgh to direct his offensive line. A fellow named Ferentz.
“Hayden wanted the offensive coaches involved in the hiring,” said Carl Jackson, a Fry assistant from 1979 to 1991 and Ferentz’s running backs coach from 1999 to 2007. “Bill Snyder and myself sat down and talked to Kirk.
“Kirk brought a whole different concept to our offensive line play, a lot of new techniques. Our offensive linemen were really excited about it.”
Ron Hallstrom of Moline, Ill., was the first player Fry signed at Iowa, out of a junior college. He played little as a defensive lineman in 1979, then red-shirted in 1980 after getting moved to the offensive side.
Hallstrom, just four years younger than Ferentz, blossomed into a 1981 All-Big Ten offensive guard for a Hawkeyes team that went to the Rose Bowl. He became a 1982 NFL first-round draft pick who played 12 years in the league.
“They (Fry and Ferentz) believed in me,” Hallstrom told the Quad City Times in 2001. “They taught me how to be a football player. They taught me to be disciplined.”
Disciplined, not exotic. In 2018, with Iowa’s second coach over 40 years and counting, the story stays the same.
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