Twenty decisions that helped to shape Kirk Ferentz's legacy at Iowa

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Kirk Ferentz pleads for a holding call. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Let me start by saying thanks for all the great feedback and insight that helped to compile the following list.

I originally had planned to rank Kirk Ferentz's 10 best decisions as the Iowa football coach, but expanded the list to 20 after receiving so many worthy suggestions.

Ferentz's Twitter ban hadn't even been considered until it was suggested to me on Twitter of all places. Now it's in the top 10 because it's ongoing and so far-reaching in its influence.

My inspiration for writing this column came partly from being reminded recently just how valuable Reese Morgan is to the Iowa staff. Ferentz took a chance that Morgan could make the move from high school to big-time college football, and Ferentz was right in a big way.

So that had me thinking about some other wise decisions that Ferentz has made as the head Hawk and I decided to compile a list.

And here is that list: 

1. Stayed loyal to Iowa: This decision has to be ranked first because none of the others decisions on the list would’ve mattered much if Ferentz had bolted from Iowa a long time ago. He could’ve moved on to the NFL and been successful, or he could’ve been a bust and fired after two or three seasons.

Who knows where the 62-year old Ferentz would be now if he had been fired as an NFL head coach. It's unlikley that he would have been given a second chance to be an NFL head coach if he had failed the first time.

Ferentz might have returned to college and been a head coach again if he had failed in the NFL, although, probably not for an elite program, or he could've spent the latter years as an NFL position coach, working behind the scenes and making far less money than he makes as the Iowa head coach.

Of course, it's all speculation, but to have left Iowa and then failed as an NFL head coach would've definitely changed how Ferentz is perceived.  

Ferentz has stayed loyal to Iowa and Iowa has stayed loyal to him. The journey has been rocky at times, but the good still far outweighs the bad.

Ferentz is a Hawkeye legend, largely because he resisted the temptation to leave for greener pastures.

Ferentz often talks about the importance of recruiting players who are the right fit for the Iowa program. It’s the same with head coaches. Ferentz was obviously the right fit for Iowa and vice versa or he would’ve left a long time ago.

2. Hired Norm Parker as his first defensive coordinator: Ferentz didn’t have to concern himself too much with defense during the initial rebuilding phase due to Norm Parker’s presence, and that was huge because it allowed Ferentz to focus on other things like rebuilding the Iowa offensive line.

Parker had over three decades of experience and had previously served as defensive coordinator for three different Division I programs, including Michigan State, when he joined Ferentz’s staff in 1999. Parker coached at Michigan State from 1983-94, and for Illinois and Minnesota prior to that. So he already was familiar with the Big Ten landscape.

He also was a defensive genius who preferred to work behind the scenes and away from the spotlight. Parker could inspire with his dry sense of humor and with his funny sayings known as Normisms.

He was the perfect complement to Kirk Ferentz and a big reason why Ferentz has succeeded at Iowa.

Parker passed away on Jan. 14, 2014 at the age of 72. He was replaced as defensive coordinator by Phil Parker (no relation) and that is another decision from which Ferentz has benefitted as you’ll see later.

3. Hired Chris Doyle as his strength and conditioning coach and has kept him: The muscle and much of the motivation behind Iowa football hasn’t changed since Ferentz took over nearly 20 years ago.

Chris Doyle has gone from a being a young and mostly unproven strength coach when he arrived at Iowa to one of the most respected in the business. Every program relies heavily on the strength and conditioning coach, but that is especially true for a developmental program such as Iowa where many of the players aren’t ready to compete physically when they join the team.

Doyle is demanding, well-organized and a master motivator based on the feedback I’ve received from players over the years. He knows how to push the right emotional buttons, and he knows his stuff.

His reputation took a hit in 2011 after 13 Iowa players were diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis after participating in an offseason workout.

Rhabdomyolysis is an acute breakdown of muscle fibers resulting in the release of muscle fiber contents (myoglobin) into the bloodstream affecting the kidney's ability to clear toxins.

All of the players made a full recovery and Iowa stopped using the workout that caused the outbreak.

The Rhabdo case was an unfortunate incident and a learning experience for Doyle. It also was an isolated incident and the only real blemish in an otherwise sparkling career.

4. Added Reese Morgan to the staff: One of the key things Ferentz did after his 1-10 debut season in 1999 was add a local high school coaching legend to his staff.

Reese Morgan had built Iowa City West into a state power and was widely respected for his knowledge of the game, for his ability to inspire greatness from his players and for his ability to identify and develop talent.

Morgan also was familiar with the lay of the land and had numerous in-state connections when Ferentz hired him after the 1999 season. Those connections have since paid huge dividends with regard to recruiting in Iowa.

5. Took a chance on Bob Sanders at the advice of Joe Moore: Ferentz trusted the opinion of his former high school coach so much that he offered the 5-foot-8 Sanders a scholarship without having watched him on film. An endorsement from Joe Moore was enough to convince Ferentz that Sanders was worthy of a scholarship.

And to say that Moore was right about Sanders would be an understatement.

Sanders seized the opportunity by becoming arguably the greatest defensive back in the history of the Iowa program, earning All-Big Ten accolades in 2001, 2002 and 2003. He was a ferocious tackler and his presence helped to change the culture under Ferentz more than any other player.

Ohio was the only other school to offer Sanders a scholarship.

The Erie, Pa., native would go on to achieve stardom in the NFL and was named the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year as a member of the Indianapolis Colts.

6. Moved Dallas Clark from linebacker to tight end: Part of being an effective head coach is putting players at positions where they can maximize their potential while helping the team.

Dallas Clark was an unheralded walk-on linebacker when Ferentz replaced Hayden Fry shortly after the 1998 season. By 2001, Clark was starting at tight end, and by 2002 he was arguably the top player in college football at his position.

Clark won the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate tight end, as a junior in 2002. He then skipped his senior season to enter the 2003 NFL Draft where he was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the first round. He then played 11 seasons in the NFL, made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and helped the Indianapolis Colts win the Super Bowl after the 2006 season.

7. Moved Bruce Nelson, Eric Steinbach and Robert Gallery from tight end to the offensive line: In all three cases, the decision to switch positions worked to near perfection.

All three made first-team All-Big Ten after switching from tight end to the offensive line and would go on to play in the NFL.

In fact, Gallery was the second player chosen in the 2004 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders and he earned millions while playing at the highest level.

Iowa’s offensive line was in shambles when Ferentz took over, so he had to think outside the box a little bit in order to fix things.

Ferentz had the vision and foresight to know that Gallery, Nelson and Steinbach would flourish as offensive linemen. They helped build the foundation that remains strong today.

8. Banned Twitter: I used to question this decision, thinking it was too rigid and controlling, but not anymore.

Making sacrifices is part of playing college football, and staying off Twitter is a sacrifice that Ferentz demands from his players. He does it to limit distractions and to make sure that his players don’t do something in the heat of the moment that they will regret later.

Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery should consider enforcing the same policy. Some of his players, including starting point guard Jordan Bohannon, appear to spend a lot of time on Twitter and are adversely affected by it to where it becomes a distraction.

9. Stayed patient while assembling his first coaching staff: I hadn’t given this any thought until somebody on Twitter mentioned it to me. So yes, Twitter has a good side, too.

It makes sense, though, because I remember wondering why it took so long for Ferentz to hire his original staff. And I remember fans complaining that it took so long.

The hiring process shed light on Ferentz’s meticulous approach to coaching and his attention to detail. He was more concerned about finding the right fits than filling spots that might excite the fans due to name recognition.

And it’s hard to argue with the results, considering Iowa played in a bowl game in Ferentz’s third season and then finished a combined 31-7 in seasons four through six.

10. Recruited Brad Banks as a quarterback: Former Iowa assistant Ron Aiken went to Hinds Community College in Mississippi to evaluate a different player when Brad Banks caught his eye.

The Iowa coaches looked more into Banks, who had just finished his sophomore season playing quarterback after being a receiver as a freshman, and he eventually was offered a scholarship.

“They want me to come up there and do some QB-ing and other things,” Banks said shortly after committing to Iowa in 2001.

Ferentz deserves credit for listening to his assistant coach in this case and for trusting him.

Banks, as a dual-threat quarterback, was a dramatic change from Iowa’s tradition of using pro-style quarterbacks.

He served as Kyle McCann’s backup in 2001 before emerging as a star during Iowa’s record-breaking 2002 season. Banks went from being a reserve to runner-up for the 2002 Heisman Trophy, a stunning rise that nobody saw coming.

11. Embraced the walk-on program: Imagine the Iowa program without walk-ons. I know, it's not pretty.

No walk-ons would mean no Dallas Clark, no Bruce Nelson, no Derek Pagel, no Brett Greenwood, no Kevin Kasper, no Tyler Luebke, no Matt Tobin, no Riley McCarron, no Cole Croston, no Bo Bower, no Brandon Snyder and no Miguel Recinos among many others.

Ferentz knew from coaching under Hayden Fry for nine seasons at Iowa that walk-ons were an essential part of the program, but even more so now with the 85 scholarship limit.

12. Offered scholarships to Josey Jewell and Chad Greenway: Two of the greatest linebackers in the history of the Iowa program were mostly ignored as Division I recruits, except for one school and one head coach.

Ferentz and his assistants saw something special in Greenway and Jewell that nobody else saw and were rewarded for it in a big way. It took them a while to offer Jewell, but Ferentz finally gave his approval, thanks largely to Reese Morgan’s persistence.

13. Made C.J. Beathard the starter over Jake Rudock: Switching quarterbacks is never easy, but especially in this case with Rudock having been a two-year starter.

But the program needed a spark after Iowa was crushed by Tennessee in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl, and Ferentz felt that switching to Beathard would provide it. And Ferentz was right.

Beathard led Iowa to a school-record 12 victories as the starter in 2015 and made second-team All-Big Ten. He also led Iowa to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1990 and finished 21-7 as the starter.

Rudock graduated from Iowa and then transferred to Michigan where he played as a graduate student in 2015, leading the Wolverines to a 10-3 record under Jim Harbaugh.

14. Made Ricky Stanzi the starter over Jake Christensen: The 2008 team was sputtering until Ferentz finally moved Stanzi ahead of Christensen for good heading into the fifth game. Stanzi would go on to win 25 games as the full-time starter and was 3-0 in bowl games.

Christensen played his final season at Eastern Illinois in 2009.

15. Moved Marvin McNutt from quarterback to receiver: The St. Louis native came to Iowa as a quarterback and left as the school’s all-time leading receiver with 2,861 receiving yards on 170 receptions. Enough said.

16. Promoted Phil Parker to defensive coordinator: Phil is no relation to Norm Parker, but shares the same knack for coaching defense and for being a leader..

17. Gave Shonn Greene a second chance: Shonn Greene's career was in jeopardy when he left Iowa in 2006 to attend junior college for a year.

But Greene took care of business and Ferentz took another chance on the New Jersey native that paid huge dividends. Greene rushed for a school-record 1,850 yards in 2008, surpassing 100 yards in all 13 games. Greene also won the Doak Walker Award that season as the nation's best collegiate running back.

18. Kept Bret Bielema on staff: The decision to keep Bret Bielema as a holdover from Fry’s staff helped significantly with recruiting, especially in Florida. Bielema recruited some of the key players from Florida who helped lay the foundation under Ferentz, players like linebacker Fred Barr, defensive lineman Colin Cole and receivers Maurice Brown and C.J. Jones.

19. Had Ken O’Keefe rejoin the program as quarterbacks coach: Iowa has a unique and potentially awkward setup with Brian Ferentz serving as his father’s offensive coordinator.

Kirk Ferentz brought O’Keefe back before the 2017 season to serve as a mentor to Brian and to help Brian adjust to a job that O’Keefe held from 1999 to 2011.

Iowa also now has a full-time quarterback coach, which might help to explain why Nate Stanley threw 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions as a first-year starter this past season.

20. Philanthropic commitment: This doesn’t have much to do with football, but it shows the human side of Ferentz and his willingness to help those less fortunate through his good fortune. With that comes a level of respect and admiration that shines a positive light on the football program.