IOWA CITY — When Kirk Ferentz met the Hawkeyes as the head coach for the first time in 1998, he lost his super powers.
He walked into the room at the Jacobson Building, stood in front of his team and ...
“He started talking and he was very nervous,” said Matt Bowen, a safety for the Hawkeyes in that 1999 season, Ferentz’s first as Iowa’s head coach. “You know how coach talks with his hands all of the time? Kirk talks with his hands all of the time. So does Brian (Ferentz, offensive coordinator, Kirk’s son, former Iowa offensive lineman). Kirk started talking and you could tell he was nervous.”
Truth be told, Ferentz will be nervous Saturday when the Hawkeyes (0-0) face off with Northern Illinois (0-0) at Kinnick Stadium. He’s one victory from becoming Iowa’s winningest coach with 144.
If not Saturday, whenever Ferentz gets that win, he’s at least going to get a street named after him in Iowa City.
But back to the moment he lost his super powers in that first meeting.
Ferentz, of course, was replacing the man who gave him his break in coaching. Hayden Fry hired Ferentz to become Iowa’s offensive line coach in 1981.
You remember Hayden. There’s a fest named after him in Iowa City this weekend (he will not be able to attend, per sources).
“It was so incredibly different from Fry,” said Jay Bickford, an offensive lineman on that ’99 team. “When Fry walked into a room, he was the biggest figure.
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“Fry was larger than life in so many ways, from the moment I met him during a recruiting trip and in every meeting. His shadow was in every room and his fingerprints were on every element of the program.”
This is going to be a little different story.
Bowen is a football writer/analyst for ESPN. He’s the defensive backs coach for IC Catholic Prep in Elmhurst, Ill. Bickford is Dr. Jay Bickford. He’s an education professor at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
These are two amazingly articulate gentlemen who sat in the goldish-yellow chairs in the big room at the Jacobson Football Operations Building during Ferentz’s first meeting with his team. Bowen was a safety who ended up playing seven seasons in the NFL. Bickford had to move from defensive line to offensive line, because it was all hands on deck back in 1999.
They took swings at breaking the rock when the rock was a 1-10 wall. That was the Hawkeyes’ record in Ferentz’s first season.
You remember “Break the Rock.” Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle brought that to the program in its infancy. It became the mantra that set the stage for two Big Ten titles in three years in 2002 and 2004.
In game one against No. 5 Nebraska, it was one of those deals where the Huskers’ third teamers licked their chops. Everyone was going to get into the box score.
It was a 42-7 loss. The rock didn’t break on that swing, but the swing counted.
“Don’t look up at the rain and try to think about where it’s coming from, you just look straight ahead,” Bickford said. “That was a phrase Doyle used to say. You just work on breaking that rock. You don’t know if it’s going to break this swing or the next swing, you just know it’s going to break. Just keep swinging. I think that was the mentality a lot of people had.
“In retrospect, I know it’s silly of me to say that I thought we were going to beat Nebraska, but that’s the way I felt.”
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To the point of Ferentz’s first speech, Ferentz’s nerves tackled him from behind at the 5-yard line.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Bowen said. “Sat next to (former Iowa defensive back) Joe Slattery, front row, right in the middle, by the podium.
“We were all curious because the transition itself was challenging for us as players. When coach Fry announced his retirement, everyone was shocked and then at the time, we all thought it was going to be coach (Bob) Elliott. That wasn’t what we were told, but it was what we were expecting to happen. Obviously, he was then diagnosed with his illness.”
Bob Elliott, a defensive back for the Hawkeyes in the mid-1970s, died in July 2017 after a long battle with cancer. Elliott coached 38 years with stops at nine schools, including Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State and Notre Dame. He served as assistant head coach under Fry.
“Everyone was thrown for a loop on what was going to happen,” Bowen said. “Fans talked about Bobby Stoops coming in, and then Coach was hired and it was something brand new for us. It wasn’t someone in the building, I guess that’s the way to say it.
“So, when Coach came in the first time, we’re sitting in the front row and I thought Coach looked really young. He was like the age I am now (41), not that much older than I am right now. Think about that. (Ferentz was 43 when he was hired at Iowa.)
“He’s addressing the football team for the first time. He coached with Bill Belichick, he’s been in the pros, he was the head coach at Maine, we knew all of that. He started talking and he was very nervous.”
The Hawkeyes in front of him were, as Bowen said, curious. Ferentz wasn’t from inside the building. He also was nine years removed from his nine-year stint as Iowa’s O-line coach.
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“It was like the sun didn’t come up in the morning when coach Fry retired,” Bickford said. “During the interview process, (former Iowa QB) Randy Reiners was on the hiring committee. He talked glowingly about Ferentz and how professional and how straightforward he was, how efficient and how effective he was at communicating. I was really excited.
“When Ferentz came in, he was ... I’m not sure if shy was the right word, but it looked like he was wearing a really heavy coat.
“He looked like he hadn’t slept in a long time. Not from his appearance. He looked a little overwhelmed. He had a hard time talking and lost his train of thought. Unlike other people who’d just keep going and would hope you’d overlooked it. He just said, ‘Fellas, this is overwhelming for me. I can’t remember what I was going to say, but please know, I’m overjoyed to be here.’ Or something to that effect.
“It was a poignant moment for me, because this was a guy who came off as human, or just like a regular fella. Whereas Fry, he was larger than life, in my eyes.”
Fry was Iowa’s coach for 20 years. A beloved figure who played to the crowd like the crowd was his kids. Ferentz had little media training. Remember, he was coming from serving as an assistant under Belichick, who doesn’t allow assistants to speak to the media very often if at all.
“Kirk started talking and you could tell he was nervous,” Bowen said. “For me, I really liked it, because I didn’t know what to expect. There are guys who come in with the old-school football mentality, ‘We’re going to do this, you’re going to follow my orders.’ There are coaches like that. He wasn’t like that at all.
“I thought he was very calm in his tone. He talked about what we wanted to accomplish as a football team. You could tell he was nervous.
“He didn’t finish. He didn’t finish.”
No, Kirk Ferentz hasn’t finished. Who the heck knows when he is going to finish? This is year 20. And win No. 144 is in front of him.
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Year 20 is big. Fry retired after 20 years. He was nearly 50 when he was hired at Iowa in late 1978. Ferentz was 43, and that turned out to be fortuitous.
There was one victory in year 1 (Northern Illinois, coincidentally). How did Ferentz deal?
“It’s crazy to me that this is year 20,” Bowen said. “When we started, we won one football game. One. I go through this all of the time, I really think that season for me and my senior teammates set us up for life. At the time, you don’t want to hear that stuff. You’re a senior, no one wants to hear that. No one does. You win one game, you get what you deserve.
“In the grand scheme of Kirk’s career, you want to sweep that under the rug. You don’t want to talk about that.
“For us, I really think it set us up for success later in life. You’re going to have adversity. Everyone has adversity. The great thing about it was (Ferentz) never stopped coaching. Never. That, to me, was awesome.
“It’s not easy to put a game plan together, go out to Columbus and get hit in the face. When Drew Brees lights you up, or Tom Brady or whomever it is, it’s not easy. It’s not. Coach stood in there. His staff did. Coach Doyle did. That’s why they’re special. That’s why they’ve been here for 20 years.
“He can coach through the best times and the worst times. That’s a true coach.”
Ferentz talks about consistency all of the time. As it turns out, he practices what he preaches.
“He was incredibly poised and resilient,” Bickford said. “Nothing bothered him. He was smooth like ice. It wasn’t like a still pond, he was like a frozen pond. There was one game a sportwriter criticized him for not being passionate or emotional. In 2002 or 2003, he commented on that. He was unfairly criticized.
“I always appreciated his poise and resilience. You didn’t see him blow up. In 2000, after I was done, it was that kickoff classic with K-State. He absolutely blew up about a call. I was watching the game with friends and I was shocked because I hadn’t seen him explode like that. It was a very Fry-like move.
“But Ferentz was so poised and that was the thing. With Ferentz, it was about effort and execution. It was about your effort and your attitude and being focused. He was always so very poised.
“It was focus on the details, that’s how the football coach came out of him. It was this step, it was that movement. It was this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it. It was never really big picture. Fry focused a lot on the forest; Ferentz focused on the tree, from my perspective.”
While we have two Hawkeyes who were in the room and who have perception super powers, we have to ask about the differences between Fry and Ferentz’s voices.
Let’s not compare what they did on the field. That’s a tougher mudder.
What were they like? What did they say? We stay a little bit on that first speech, too. Fry retired two days after the finale against Minnesota in 1998. Things were moving pretty fast.
“I think he was just at the point where he was nervous, he could tell on our faces, too, that we were nervous as players,” Bowen said. “We didn’t know him. It was a brand-new voice. The thing I always tell people, it was such a different voice than Hayden.
“When Hayden starts talking, he starts telling stories, and they’re great stories. Everyone is laughing and it’s really laid back. Kirk is more ... I guess I’d say a presidential tone when he talks. Very professional in everything he does. And very NFL-like, to be honest. Looking back on it now, after playing in the NFL, he talks like an NFL head coach. Like he’s talking to grown men and professionals, which I appreciate.
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“It was that moment for me — and some guys will have a different answer, my answer is mine — but I liked it. It showed he was human. Thinking about it today, if I were a young 40-something talking to a Big Ten football team, I’d be nervous as heck, too.
“I’ve been coaching high school ball for four years. There are times when I talk with our team, and I’m not the head coach, and I get nervous. Some of these guys can’t even drive cars. So, for me, I really appreciated it, that Kirk was a little nervous in his tone. It was something new for him, and I felt reassured by it, I did.
“He’s just a guy like us.
“When I was a freshman and even as a sophomore, Hayden Fry was a big deal,” Bowen said. “Even growing up here in Illinois, Hayden Fry’s name was a big deal, a very big deal. He was one of the pillars of college football at that time. When I would talk to Hayden, I’d be pretty nervous, I was.”
Fry was a psychology major at Baylor. He kept every brain theory in the tool box.
“Fry would rely a lot on history and psychology,” Bickford said. “Like, ‘The last time Wisconsin beat us at home was 1976.’ I can remember him saying that in 1998. And it’s like, man, they beat us in ‘97, you know what I mean? He relied a lot on psychology. He was a hall-of-fame coach, he’s phenomenal. There was a whole lot of build-up, a whole lot of context. Ferentz is all about efficiency and effectiveness. Do this, do that. Focus on this. Small details. The minutiae, the nuances.
“Fry talked a lot about big-picture things. Ferentz is very focused on the details. It was a huge change.
“Fry was a really easygoing guy, but he commanded the room. He owned the state of Iowa, it seemed. He was bigger than the governor. Ferentz came off as a regular guy who more than anything wanted to work hard. He wanted to focus on the details and work hard.
“It was great. For me, I got to see him as a head coach, but I also got to spend some time with him in the position room, because he was an O-line guy. When (Joe) Philbin would be on recruiting trips, Ferentz would step in and handle some position meetings.
“Oh, really appreciated it, really appreciated everything about that year I spent with him.”
There’s probably not an instrument that can measure the competitiveness in a college football player’s soul.
Bowen can push past the 1-10 as a 41-year-old. There were times during his senior season when he couldn’t.
One day in practice, he lost it. Then-defensive coordinator Norm Parker called a “Steeler,” a double A gap blitz.
“I was out of control as a player and I really wanted to impress Kirk,” Bowen said.
“I really wanted to impress him. I was the kind of player that if things weren’t going my way, the helmet was going flying. There were times during Kirk’s first spring ball, I would slam the helmet to the ground and everything would fly out. There were times I took snaps with no ear pads because I couldn’t find them. They just flew into the weeds somewhere at practice. I couldn’t find them.”
The defense was getting shredded. Bowen couldn’t remember who the QB was, either Reiners or Kyle McCann. QBs wear red jerseys in practice with the idea that you stop and don’t hit them. For Bowen, in this moment and time, it was the red cape of the matador in front of the bull.
“I jumped at the line of scrimmage and I blasted the quarterback, who did have a red shirt on. I was, ‘I don’t care anymore. This is what I’m going to do. I’m a senior trying to make a play. If quarterback is in the way, he’s in the way,’” Bowen said. “I know Kirk was upset with it, I know he was. I went and talked to him that night. He was just hired in late December. We didn’t really know each other that well. I was a senior and going into my final year and he had just gotten there.
“I was a player who had an out-of-control temper at times. I wanted to impress him so bad. I wanted my senior year to be so special, I did. I remember going into his office that night and talking to him. It was at that moment where I knew he was going to be a special coach.
“He was very open and honest and, of course, he corrected me, which he should. I would’ve done the same thing if I were the coach and I had an out-of-control nut job at safety,” Bowen said. “For a head coach at a Big Ten program, to call him up and ask if I could come in? And he says, ‘Sure, come on in’? He’s a people person and not only that, he was willing to listen to what was going on in my head and why I was playing like that and why I was doing the things that I was doing.
“I thought it was so cool.”
In 2015, the Hawkeyes made it to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. To use a Hayden-era term, you bumblebees swarmed (and actually striped the inside of) Lucas Oil Stadium.
Iowa fans took over the J.W. Marriott. Bowen soaked in it. This Fry-Ferentz thing has been 40 freaking years now. All eras of players hung out and strolled by at some point.
Then, it hit Bowen.
“They’re (Fry and Ferentz) strong and believe in what Iowa football is. That has never changed,” Bowen said.
“We basically took over the J.W. Marriott bar. It was all Iowa people. But the coolest thing was there were guys there from ’91. Guys from the ’80s. Guys from the early 2000s, my years, the late ’90s. And guys who just graduated.
“We’re all the same.
“All those guys are successful in whatever career path they chose. They all are similar in their character and personality. That’s always stuck out to me with Iowa football. People will always look at recruiting rankings and all of that. A lot of time everything zeros in on character and the people and who they are.
“Recruiting has changed in terms of geography. With Hayden, it was Texas and New Jersey. When I was in school, you could be in the locker room and the guy next to you grew up on a hog farm in South Dakota. The other guy next to you is from Dallas, Texas. Everyone is so similar and yet from completely different backgrounds. Everyone was raised similarly. Everyone had that character that fit what Iowa football. I always thought that was so cool, because Iowa needs to recruit everywhere.
“We’re all the same and I still think that’s very cool. That’s 40 years right there, that’s what it is. Forty years! I don’t feel old. It makes me smile that we’re all so similar.
“Sitting at that J.W. Marriott, we love Iowa football. We love everything it stands for. Character, accountability, all of those things that you need later in life, that’s what you get at Iowa.
“I’m forever grateful. Even though that year was so challenging and tough, I needed it.”
So, was Ferentz’s first speech good?
“The speech was great. It was presidential,” Bowen said. “It was straight pro-level. Now, I just think he was so young.
“And people need to understand this: He wasn’t taking over for a coach who was fired or went three years and ran the program into the ground, which you see in college football. He took over for Hayden Fry. Hayden Fry!”
Kirk Ferentz took over for Hayden Fry. There’s probably a “seeing 20/20” joke in here somewhere with the symmetry of 20 years for each. Let’s just not do that.
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