IOWA CITY — For those of you still running to keyboards after an Iowa defeat and all-capping "FIRE EVERYONE," you really don’t know Iowa football very well.
The roots of continuity with this program run deeper than the horses, who died on the spot while building Kinnick in the late 1920s, buried in the north end zone.
Iowa has had two head coaches, five offensive coordinators and four defensive coordinators in the 38 years spanning Hayden Fry’s and Kirk Ferentz’s time as head coaches.
Ferentz, who finishes his 18th season as the Hawkeyes’ head coach against Nebraska on Friday, remains as consistent as ever.
The premium on continuity was set in place long before Ferentz was hired in December of 1998. It molded during his nine seasons as offensive line coach under Fry (1981-89). And it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon, especially with Ferentz signing a new contract (around $5 million a year) through the 2025 season earlier this fall.
This is why Ferentz has had two offensive and defensive coordinators and, really, one overall scheme on offense and defense.
Change isn’t in the air in Iowa City. It hasn’t been for the better part of 38 seasons.
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This doesn’t mean Ferentz, 61, views everything college football through a single lens. He knows what Spotify is. Kidding aside, the topic of keeping things fresh is a constant battle, he acknowledged.
In an interview last week with The Gazette, Ferentz discussed some of the issues with the 2016 Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten), a team that lost at home to an FCS school and then beat the No. 3 team in the country eight weeks later, the challenges of staying fresh, the principles of building a Hawkeyes roster, the sociopolitical landscape for a college head coach in 2016, in-season recruiting, the field goal decision against Wisconsin and falling in love with Iowa City and the University of Iowa, which in a lot of ways has become his life and legacy.
There’s some Tony Orlando vs. country music stuff in there, too.
Q. With you there’s always continuity and it’s a huge element of Iowa football and its history. (For the record, it’s five offensive coordinators — Bill Snyder, Carl Jackson and Don Patterson under Hayden Fry; Ken O’Keefe and Greg Davis under Ferentz. Defensive coordinators? It’s four — Bill Brashier and Bob Elliott under Fry; Norm Parker and Phil Parker under Ferentz.)
College football is a volatile industry. How is Iowa the island out there?
KF: That’s a fair question. When I was here in the ‘80s, we went seven years without any change, then Barry (Alvarez) went to Notre Dame. But then at that time, it was Nebraska to our west and Penn State to the east, they were the two that were like that and they both had great success. Probably the commonality between the three programs is good college towns, good, stable programs, good leadership at the top.
I came here in ‘81 thinking I’d be here one year, two years max, and head back home. That kind of was my original plan. I came here and discovered what a quality experience it is, both professionally and personally. The professional part, full disclosure, why would you expect it (to be fulfilling)? This was before the internet, computers all of that stuff, all I knew was they had the college blue book (College Football Blue Ribbon Yearbook). Joe Moore’s kid looked it up, and they weren’t very good. That’s about all I knew when I got here.
I’d been in Iowa as a little kid. I broke my arm here in West Burlington. I didn’t know where Iowa was or much about it. I knew nothing about the Big Ten, so it was a really unique and neat learning experience for me. One of the things I really enjoyed, as a sub-subject, in the early 2000s, was watching guys like Joe Philbin and Ken O’Keefe and even to some extent Norm (Parker), although Norm was a Big Ten guy, and Phil (Parker) had a Big Ten background, but all the guys who came here and went through the same thing I went through in the ‘80s. It was kind of neat. Especially the guys from out east, you just don’t envision this, being like it might be. I think when that happens to you, I know personally, it caught us off guard, like it catches some recruits off guard. Next thing you know, it’s five years and you’re really loving it here, one of those things. You almost need a good reason to leave, I think that’s part of it, the mystique of that and the quality of life in Iowa City. I’ve met a bunch of people in the medical community who have the same story. A lot of them come in here for their graduate or specialty work, and then 25 years later ... I’ve met more than 20 people over there, whether it’s the Childrens Hospital, orthopedics, internal medicine, it’s kind of interesting.
Q. College football, though. There’s a little more of a revolving door.
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KF: To me, that’s where it takes a really good administration. At Maine, it was a great experience for me, but people were a lot more interested in hockey, more interested in baseball and a lot more interested in hunting than they were football.
Where I went to school at Connecticut, it is like that now, but when I went there, we were more of a Division II program and they had a great soccer team. They had more people for soccer and they won the national championship somewhere during my time there. For a kid from Pittsburgh, that was strange. They get more people for a soccer game than football? I didn’t understand that. So, I come here and football and basketball are big and then wrestling was an education for me. It felt a little bit more to what I was used to.
Q. I know there are inherent advantages to continuity, what, in the football view, are the advantages?
KF: First thing that comes to mind is teamwork. Football is the ultimate team sport. The model here was the direct opposite from what we did at Pittsburgh.
That was my first exposure to Division I football and, boy, we had great players. We were No. 2 in the country and could’ve been, should’ve been No. 1. It was just a really talented football team. And yet the staff, it wasn’t dysfunctional, but it was just kind of a group of subcontractors working there. It all worked, 11-1 and second in the country. It was just a different model, kind of like some places in the country right now, actually. That was the model there. It was more about recruiting, acquiring great personnel and then putting them out there. There wasn’t a lot of connectivity to the program.
When I came here, it was just the opposite. The talent and the contrast was different. We went to the Rose Bowl, but we had two seniors drafted. At Pitt, we had 11 and had three first rounders in that group. We had six more free agents, and that’s not including guys who were juniors and sophomores, (Dan) Marino, (Jimbo) Covert, Bill Maas. Here it was a little different model, but the cohesiveness of everybody and the staff. That was coach Fry. He was the master at putting that together. And then, the teamwork that I got to witness, a less-talented team maybe doing some really neat things with what they had. That appealed to me. I learned through those years, we really worked well together. We met a lot, but we really didn’t need to, we knew each others’ moves, knew what to expect. No one was jockeying for position, trying to get the next coordinator job or head coaching job. Everybody was just here for the benefit of the team. I think everybody knew their role and was happy to work that role.
That part, I think, when you get that going, that’s really a good thing.
Q. Do you have that going now?
KF: I feel like we do. We went through a radical change when Norm retired and Ken left. That was a whole period of adjustment, transition. I think with every step along the way, those things are improving.
Q. Some institutions slip without real questioning, real critiquing, vigorous, healthy discussion on staying fresh. Do you worry about the program becoming stale?
KF: All of the time.
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Q. What do you do to keep things fresh?
KF: Constant topic of discussion, both of those things. That would be the downside of consistency, continuity, in my mind. It’s funny, like even this year with the ups and downs we’ve experienced, the more I look at it the more things stay the same in terms of what the challenges are. And then the challenge is how do we recode it, repackage it, so it is a fresh approach but the same message?
The “Break the rock” theme from 16, 17, 18 years ago, that’s still who we are. It’s an annual challenge, sometimes weekly. It’s a weekly challenge almost. How do you get that message across in a new way, a fresh way? That’s a constant topic of conversation as we try to move forward.
Q. When it’s critique time, who do you listen to? I know you have a million of them out there, but who’s in on those conversations? Has anybody in the last few years really struck you with a “Wow, that guy has a really good point, I need to listen to that guy.”
KF: Really, everybody. You can’t do it daily, but we have regular schedules where I really try to survey for information (mostly offseason), whether it be the staff, our players, support staff, on a multitude of topics. Then, as you might imagine, I have daily conversations with certain people. Chris (Doyle) has been the one common denominator throughout the whole thing, from start to finish. That’s one of the things I really value. Beyond his expertise of coaching, Chris, not that we’re the same, but we were schooled the same, the same school, I guess. Both of us have a common denominator with Joe Moore. We’re constantly exchanging ideas. Probably everybody has somebody like that throughout their careers. And it is unique, we’ve both been here awhile now, so we’ve seen the same history. Maybe I know something he doesn’t know or he knows something I don’t know about certain experiences he had, but there’s a lot of common ground there. He’d be the first guy. The other benefit is I can talk to him in-season and I’m not subtracting guys from what they’re trying to do. Both sides are really working on their sides of the ball, day-to-day.
Q. Your program and your stay here is the one that ushered in the internet for Iowa. Is it something you can look at and reflect on and think “OK, we should’ve done this or this”? Just using the internet and making it channel for you.
KF: We made an effort to do that when we hired Max Allen. When that shift took place, that position was more of a recruiting assistant type, a guy who was doing logistics, doing tours, those kinds of things. That’s really when that chapter began for us. We had two really good candidates. One guy was more like what we’d had. Max was a totally different set of skills. The more I thought about that one, the more I felt like it was the right way to go. Then again, as you know, I’m hardly savvy in that area, but I do listen to people. That gave us more benefit than staying on the same path we were on. That was kind of our breakthrough moment, if you will.
I think he’s done a really nice job and I think he’s really into that. That’s exactly what you want.
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Q. Two things, speaking of internet, this year there was the “in-season recruiting” and “pain in the butt” thing and then the field goal question coming out of Wisconsin.
Messages get interpreted and none of us really has a say in that. I think I know what you meant in both instances. Are you surprised how things are interpreted?
KF: No, that’s the danger of the internet. All these conversations used to happen at the tavern or the barbershop. Now, it goes viral.
The recruiting part, anyone can ask me any question about recruiting and I’ll be happy to answer it. But in-season, in a perfect world, all year-round, the No. 1 priority would be the guys on campus. We would be giving them our undivided attention. But that can’t happen in college football, I understand that.
The problem with in-season recruiting in my mind is you can bring guys in for official visits, but it’s like you’re wasting a visit. The upside is for guys to experience Kinnick. Anyone who was in there Saturday night (vs. Michigan), how can we duplicate that any weekend? Never, no way. So that’s one thing. In a perfect world, we could recruit everyone from the midwest and ask them to be here unofficially for the game and then do an official visit. I’m old fashioned enough to think that those 48 hours are the most educational component they have during the recruiting period. They are really getting a chance to sit down in-depth and talk to everyone they’re going to be working with — academic support people, academic staff, all of those people. They can get their questions answered and talk to those people and have their questions answered and do everything they really should be doing and not do it in a rushed way.
When a guy comes in for a game weekend, it’s pretty much sped up because of the obvious logistic problems. And then, the other part is they don’t get to spend near as much time or not even close to the amount of time with us as coaches. The reality is, if they come here, they’re going to spend a lot of time with us, so they better know us. That’s how it ought to be done, but the reality of this is this stuff is getting done now in the months of April, May, June, July. Really, in my mind, that’s where it all needs to go right now. That should be the biggest opportunity. I’d much rather do it in June than have a guy here on a game weekend. So, where we’re at right now, in a perfect world. if we’re recruiting a midwestern guy, who can drive, we’d rather have him come in for the games on an unofficial visit and then come back and really do it right in January. The rub there is the guys who can’t get here for a game unofficially, from Texas or Florida or out east. Then we’ll use the official visit, but we’re still planning on a big weekend in January.
Q. Field goal? I think I get it. It would’ve taken two scores to beat Wisconsin.
KF: In my mind, in the situation we were in, first you have to get the first down and then you’ve got to go score. There were a lot of “ifs” in that one. We’re playing one of the nation’s best defenses, whether it was that game or the game Saturday (vs. Michigan), those plays are hard to convert. That’s the reality, in my mind. I’m not downplaying our prowess, but I’ve seen other teams that were really good teams who struggled to score against them, too. Michigan was averaging 48 points a game and they had 14 against Wisconsin. The reality is when you’re playing someone like that, and not that it was going to be easy to get back down there and score again, but we felt like that was the best way to go.
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Q. Last year, you guys were an arm length from a Big Ten championship. You had a championship roster. Maybe not by pedigree, but when they showed up on the field, that was a championship roster. This year, it’s the opposite. That’s a championship-ish roster and then on the field — I know you’re missing significant players — but how do you build the roster to where you want it, beyond recruiting?
KF: Not to speak like I’m giving a lecture or making corrections, but really the power of last year’s team was the team. I think probably the best illustration I can give you about last year’s team is we had one guy drafted. We had one guy drafted and he almost didn’t get drafted. We’ve been here for 17 drafts, I think it is now, and we’ve had two years where we’ve had one player drafted. Interestingly, the other “one draft pick” was higher than Austin (Blythe). You could argue that this was our worst draft class during our time here.
The power of that team was the team. The rest of the story, in my mind, was the seniors, whether it be Austin — who I think will have a long, healthy career in the NFL — Henry who was a free agent, Tevaun who was a free agent, all those guys who were free agents, they were really good college players. There’s a guy like Canzeri, who couldn’t get traction in the NFL, but he won the Illinois game for us. I think that really was the story of last year’s team, it was a team of really good college football players than it was star power. The star power that we had was underclass star power, with Desmond being a major award winner and being a junior.
The real secret is you could say we had more star power this year coming into the season, or name talent or recognizable talent, but the beauty of football is it’s more than five guys. It’s however many goes who go out on the field. Thankfully, we don’t need all 100. If it was 85 vs. 85, it would’ve been a slaughter Saturday (vs. Michigan). Since it was our 25 against their 25 or 30 against 30, that gave us a chance. That’s really us. It’s how good can we get that top 30, maybe 40, if we can get them to that point where they can come together and really complement each other, then we’ve got a big opportunity.
You look at it just right now, I still think C.J. Beathard is a heckuva player. A year ago, he had an NFL center snapping to him. He had an NFL tight end who made a lot of big plays week in and week out. He had George as our second tight end. We had VandeBerg and Tevaun. Now compared to what he’s working with, you wonder why the numbers aren’t the same? I don’t even know how they compare. I haven’t looked at them. I don’t care to right now. It’s common sense why we’re not the same team offensively. We’re pretty much doing the same things we were doing a year ago. We haven’t gotten that dumb in a year. So, sometimes you have to look at the little details and how things pull together.
I understand, you’ve got a guy hurt so you’re backup left guard is playing, usually you can work around that and, hopefully, you can. But now you’ve got a couple guys injured, that’s where it starts to get a little tough. For us, being Iowa, where we are a little bit different, I think, it’s a fine line. Every little moving piece affects our operation a little more than maybe the team we played Saturday (Michigan). They had a really good left tackle, that kid who just got out of the hospital (Grant Newsome). He’s got a chance to be a freak player. He’s really talented. He came out and they still look pretty good the next time they put five out there.
Q. You said after Northwestern and this really stood out, “stuck in the sand,” “grinding coffee.” It’s hard to fathom the way this offense has played at times this year. Is there a counterpunch to when things don’t click? Or is it the guys you have and it’s jumping out of the airplane.
KF: I wouldn’t say any week is the same. Where we were in the first half of the season and where we are now, we’re a little thinner right now than we were. I would say our challenges right now are a little bit different.
That’s kind of offensive football. One of the first things I think about is Michigan State in ‘13, where their defense is outscoring their offense, basically, when we played them. They were sputtering along and then, boom, they just kind of hit it in our game and kept on going from there.
Offense is a chemistry experiment in a lot of ways. Northwestern, they were calling for those guys’ heads, I remember reading in the opponent reports. Everyone wanted Pat (Fitzgerald) to fire his offensive staff. Good thing they didn’t do it before our game. You just keep working at it. Hopefully, you can get a breakthrough moment and get things going a little bit, find something that works and gives you a little bit of a spark.
Q. It felt to me like that was the closest you’d ever come to questioning what was going on.
KF: Part of that is execution sometimes. You see things that you hope get executed a little bit cleaner and they don’t. There are a lot of factors involved. You just keep pressing.
Q. On defense, you brought up the rushing numbers in the first game. It was only something like 158 yards against Miami (Ohio), but, for whatever reason, it felt like a lot more.
Penn State happened. I don’t think anyone saw that coming, at least the magnitude. The consistency there, is that maddening?
KF: The Miami game sticks out mainly because they didn’t have any big runs. It was 5 or 6 or 4 or 7, they kept ending up on second-and-good situations, second-and-4, second-and-5, second-and-3. It wasn’t anything dramatic, it was just the result.
When I played in college, we used to play Yale. It didn’t seem like they were doing anything, but it always seemed like it was second-and-4.
We went a ways there where we didn’t stop the run well in any game. Then, we knuckled down at Minnesota and we were doing pretty well. And then Penn State, I’ve pretty much thrown that whole thing out. Once it started happening, it just ... that’s how those numbers tend to happen. Once it starts raining, you don’t surrender, I’m not suggesting our kids quit at all, I don’t think that was an issue. Sometimes, nothing you do works. It is a bad feeling. I’ve been in a handful of those games and they’re not fun. You own it, you don’t dwell on it. If we’re that bad, we are in trouble. The rest of the season was going to be over. And there was no guarantee we weren’t that bad, either. There was no guarantee. Fortunately, we were able to come back.
Now, you fly it back to last week, we did a good job last week in not giving up the big play. That’s a world of difference.
Q. On Greg (Davis) and quarterbacks. I think it’s just circumstance. I think James Vandenberg ... he was just screwed. You had a new system, some young wide receivers and he was going to bear the brunt of that. Jake seemed to plateau. C.J., I still think he’s an NFL draft pick, but the numbers don’t say it. Is there one thing or is it just circumstance with these three guys?
KF: I think circumstance more than anything.
This isn’t ‘04, but it feels like it in some ways offensively. Probably not to that degree. The flip side is we have two good backs right now. In ‘04, it was the last man standing. My point is we had a quarterback who was just trying to keep us alive in those games. C.J. is doing a lot of good things, but the production isn’t there. It’s like the two-point play last week. It was well-conceived. Good throw. Just not executed. You can’t pin that on him. That’s not the whole story, but that’s an illustration. He’s been doing a lot of good things. It’s been a tough year for him. I would even suggest that the way he’s handled it speaks even more highly of him. Imagine what his expectations were, too, personally. I haven’t asked him, but I think I know. He’s handled it with grace and humility and he’s been a great team leader.
Q. What principles do you hold when it comes to putting a team together? I know the process starts in January. Is it what you have or are there things you need to see, you need to have?
KF: You always start with trying to replace what you lost. Every year is a blank canvas. You’re just never 100 percent sure which direction it’s going to go. How’s your leadership base going to emerge? Who’s going to develop? Who’s going to take ownership?
Ultimately, it gets back to the things we talk about, the things that are important to our program. That’s doing a quality job academically, being good citizens and giving the best effort they can in football. Really, the test is how well do they live it, not only in here but 24 hours a day? Those things all show up, whether it’s not being on police blotters or their academic reports we get back from the support people, the progress and the grade points, the measurements, what their body weights are. There are a million little indicators that say if a team is thinking right and doing things right and really paying attention to details.
The other way, too, and it never changes in coaching, I think we all have things we look at. It’s like preseason camp, over the course of 25 practices, things emerge, patterns emerge. Good or bad or somewhere in the middle. You learn a lot about people, their personalities and what their level of determination is.
I’ll go back to when (Ike) Boettger and Boone (Myers) were being groomed to be the tackles two years ago, as bad as it was in the preseason, we’d seen so many things that they’d been doing over two or three years that we all were really confident. These guys fit the mold of what we’ve had success with. A big part of everything we do, there’s a lot of comparison game here. I guess it goes back to the continuity theme. I’m not big on comparing our guys to their guys, but I like to compare them to guys we’ve had come through the program. We’ve had so many guys who didn’t fit the mold, but ended up being good players here. Kroul, King, being great defensive tackles even though they were undersized. When we see traits in a player now that maybe Kroul had or whomever, Dereck Robinson had, those are things that make you feel good. When you don’t see those traits, that causes concern.
Q. There were the anthem protests this year. You guys had the Trump endorsement thing. That stuff is out of your control. It’s happening outside of the building and that stuff has its own energy. Then, Desmond loses his captaincy and I don’t know if there’s any connection, I don’t know what’s going on there.
Is the social aspect of what’s going on in the world right now something a football coach has to be conscious of? Do you have to address it with your team?
KF: He lost his captaincy for how long?
Q. I think it was a week.
KF: The leadership group votes on that and it was hardly a big deal. I would suggest that maybe it was a byproduct of someone else elevating (running back LeShun Daniels did replace King for a week). One good guy replaced another good guy.
The anthem issue is national thing right now. The Trump thing, I’m guessing we had guys go to Hillary rallies. I’m just guessing, I don’t know that.
My observation of the landscape we have right now, if a guy goes to a Democratic function, it’s not news. If he goes to something ... Trump is a lightning rod. If you go near him, it’s news. Things that go on around campus, our guys are college students, I think they should participate or not participate as much as they want to. You’re in college, why not? Same thing for adults. I don’t care what they wear, what they do when they leave here as long as it’s not immoral or illegal or against university policy, those types of common sense things. Who had more tattoos and that kind of stuff than Robert Gallery? He was an eagle scout. And, boy, I wish every player worked like him.
On the anthem thing, I do feel strongly and I don’t think it was a dictator dictating. It was a good conversation and I think everybody was on the same page. When we’re in a team function, we’re a team. When we walk away, then hey, one guy might be a Republican, one guy might be a Democrat. Whatever. One guy likes ice tea, the other guy likes Diet Sprite, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. When we’re all here together, we have to present a united front. I believe that. I might be old fashioned. This is a voluntary activity. We all chose to do it and we’re all able to do it. Those are two really important things to keep in mind.
Q. To show people you’re open to new ideas, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think in 18 years you’ve made two musical references, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel. Now, you’re going around Iowa and going to all of these country music concerts, is that a new thing? Or is that something, “Hey, there’s this quarterback whose brother and dad ...”
KF: Believe it or not, I’ve seen Pat Green maybe three, four, five times in the last decade. Just kind of slide in and slide out. Once or twice in Chicago.
If I can slide in somewhere, I will. I like music. Garth Brooks, Dallas (Clark) got us tickets for that last year. Chris (Doyle) and I went down.
Q. Country music has always been there? I didn’t know that. It doesn’t seem to fit with the east, for some reason.
KF: I’ll give you a quick story on that one. I was working for Shields Construction Company, summer of ‘73 or ‘74, you can look this one up. I had an old Catalina with an AM radio. Two songs drove me to country music: “Billy, don’t be a Hero” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando.
Those two songs, I swear, the two of them were on like every half-hour and I was either going to drive off the road or I had to change the station. I went to a country station and I just started liking it.
Q. Do you remember what music was on the country station?
KF: Back in those days, it was Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard. It all sounded better than those two songs.
Funny, when I was recruiting Ramon Ochoa and Edgar Cervantes, I flew out to see them in California. I’m flying back and there was this guy at TWA who used to put us up in first class if there was room. So, I’m sitting there next to this guy, a really nice guy. We’re flying and the flight attendant asked if he wanted this or that and she calls him “Mr. Orlando.”
So, I’m sitting here like this (leans over and stares). I’m looking at him like ... This is way before your time, but he had a show (Tony Orlando and Dawn ran from 1974 to 1976), he was a good-looking guy. Now, he’s like 60 and he doesn’t look like Tony Orlando.
I’m like, “Excuse me, I hate to bother you, are you Tony Orlando?” “Yeah, I am.” Nicest guy in the world. From Brooklyn. Great guy, unbelievable guy. I’m laughing to myself, “If he only knew ...”
I still like Springsteen and the Stones. There’s a lot of stuff I like. I kind of missed the ‘90s. Country I had, but some of the rock stuff from the ‘90s doesn’t flip my switch. Springsteen, the Stones, I love it.
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