Kirk Ferentz's super secret to success on the road? Do your job

Iowa goes into Michigan Stadium and 'Once the game gets going, it's all about the game'

October 4, 2019 | 8:00 am
Iowa's Bruce Nelson and D.J. Johnson (5) celebrate with Hawkeye fans after beating Michigan, 34-9, at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2002, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Associated Press)
Chapter 1:

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Twenty-plus years in, this is as close as most of us have been to a Kirk Ferentz pregame speech.

The scene was Michigan Stadium, 2002. The Hawkeyes were 7-1 (4-0 in the Big Ten) and ranked No. 13 in the country. Michigan was 6-1 and ranked No. 8.

Iowa athletics hired a writer to be a fly on the wall for the trip. It was all access, like all all access. Ferentz’s style remains reserved, unless you’re an official and he has a point he wants to make. There were some fans in the early years who demanded someone check Ferentz for a pulse.

Of course, ludicrous. You don’t mealy mouth your way into a Power Five college football head coaching position, not in 2002 and not now.

From the story:

Saturday, 11:56, Michigan Stadium

“Let’s move guys,” barked Ferentz, as he stood in front of the door leading to the tunnel. “Everyone to their feet.”

“This is a big crowd but we’ve been through that before. We have to have poise through the ups and downs. I want you to be a good, aggressive football team.”

And then the good part.

Ferentz raises his voice as the Michigan team can be heard coming out of the locker room across the tunnel.

“You’ve paid the price! There’s nothing magical out there! We’ve just got to bust our ass; that’s what we do! Let’s go out there and attack them on each and every play!”

Here the Hawkeyes are again.

Iowa (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) is ranked No. 14 going into Saturday’s matchup with No. 19 Michigan (3-1, 1-1) at the Big House.

Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi (12) walks onto the field before the team’s game against Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. (The Gazette)
Chapter 2:

Prepared for the road

You certainly can’t argue with the note Ferentz hit in 2002.The Hawkeyes crushed Michigan, 34-9,which then was the Wolverines’ worst loss at Michigan Stadium since 1967.

So, what’s the note Saturday?

“We want to be road warriors anyway,” safety Geno Stone said. “Going into another team’s house and getting a win is really important to us, especially if we want to be in the Big Ten championship. You’ve got to win the away games, you’ve got to win the close games.”

Stone, a junior strong safety and a second-year starter, is a great place to start. Yes, Iowa is a fairly young team, with eight senior starters, but you could argue it’s veteran in the right spots for success on the road.

Senior quarterback Nate Stanley is a three-year starter. He’s led the Hawkeyes into 100,000-seat stadiums (Penn State) and has two successful starts at Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium, considered the most hostile stadium Iowa visits on a regular basis.

“That’s a very intense rivalry with a lot of passion wrapped into it,” said Stanley, who, oh by the way, has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions this season. “It’s a great test environment-wise.”

Stanley has been in enough of these situations to know what he needs to see from his teammates.

“You have to keep your cool, keep your composure. Things can always get heated,” he said. “(Iowa State) was a great opportunity for us to see what playing on the road is really like, especially for the young guys who haven’t done it yet.”

Iowa also has enough experience in the offensive and defensive lines to win on the road.

Junior offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs has 24 career starts. Guards Levi and Landan Paulsen are fifth-year seniors. On the D-line, ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston have played enough football to be considered experienced. Tackle Cedrick Lattimore is a senior.

Home or road, good defenses don’t care. The Hawkeyes are No. 5 in total defense nationally going into Ann Arbor.

“We are veteran in a lot of the places you need to be veteran in,” senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. “You’re only as good as your weakest link on offense or defense. Bringing the younger guys up and being all on the same level is key. If you’re not on the same level, they’re going to key on your weak spots.”

The scene that awaits Iowa on Saturday at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Associated Press)
Chapter 3:

'It's all about routine'

Another insight from the 2002 story is the importance Ferentz puts on routine during road trips. There’s no play-by-play on this, but Ferentz’s road routine probably hasn’t changed much in 20-plus years and it’s probably not all that different from Hayden Fry’s approach. Some things in football don’t need tinkering, road routine seems to be one — offensive and defensive meetings that reemphasize the game plan and maybe a Friday night snack.

“It’s all about routine,” quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe told the writer. “We’re not superstitious, but giving the players a level of comfort on the road is important. They feel more comfortable when they are in a routine that they can count on.”

The road is something veteran players do reach out with younger players on. Imagine a veteran QB looking into a young wide receiver’s eyes and seeing nothing but wide eyes and panic.

“I think a lot of guys have their own game plans to deal with it,” Stanley said. “Going into Iowa State, we tried to tell them it’s going to be crazier than you think it’s going to be. I think they now have a good idea of what to expect. We try to give them advice, but they need to figure out what works for them.”

This is going to come off as anti-climactic. You know where Ferentz is going to go in these types of deals. It’s not going to any hypnosis or even a pep talk as brief as the one in 2002.

More No. 14 Iowa at No. 19 Michigan: The Big Analysis

“Really the trick is just to focus on the game, as simple as that sounds,” Ferentz said. “But it’s like everything. Focusing on what’s important, it’s tougher and tougher to do than any one time we’ve ever had probably, so I think that’s really the key is understanding that once the game gets going, it’s all about the game, and it’s all about our preparation and staying focused on that. I think that’s probably the biggest thing.

“But it’s no different from a couple weeks ago (in Ames). If you go in there wide-eyed and you’re paying attention to everything going on outside of what’s going on on the field, it’s going to work to your disadvantage.”

That’s Ferentz’s way of saying, “Do your job.”

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com