By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Ken O’Keefe had just finished addressing the media on Tuesday, but he had one more thing to say before stepping away from the podium.
“Hey, you guys know what the biggest story is here this year?” O’Keefe asked reporters.
Somebody answered by saying the snow, which drew a funny response from O’Keefe, who spent five years as an assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins from 2012 to 2016 before returning to Iowa last season to coach the quarterbacks. “
“Yeah, that has been a big story,” O’Keefe said. “When I got up this morning I saw snow on the ground still.
“By the way, don’t ask me how I like it back in Iowa when it’s twenty below. That seemed to be a big question this winter. And I appreciate the guy who plows my drive way way more than I ever appreciated the guy that would cut down the coconuts from my palm trees. I can tell you that right now.”
Reporters laughed at O’Keefe’s joke before he referred back to his question about the biggest story.
“The biggest story here is the head coach, the guy has been the head for a division one program for the last twenty years,” O’Keefe said in regard to his boss and close friend, Kirk Ferentz. “I think that’s a pretty darn big deal.
“You ought to find out how that happened. Never mind all this little stuff.”
O’Keefe was right to say that Ferentz’s longevity is a big deal because it is in so many ways.
Ferentz is preparing for his 20th season as the Iowa head coach. He is the dean of Big Ten coaches by a huge margin and the longest tenured college football coach nationally.
To put Ferentz’s longevity in perspective, Urban Meyer still was two years from being a head coach when Ferentz was hired at Iowa shortly after the 1998 season, while Jim Harbaugh still was two years from retiring as an NFL quarterback.
The 62-year old Ferentz has withstood the test of time and the temptation to leave Iowa for what could be perceived as better jobs. Ferentz has stayed loyal to Iowa and vice versa at a time when loyalty is in short supply.
It’s easy for Iowa fans and the Iowa media to take Ferentz’s longevity for granted because we live with it every day. Ferentz has been coaching the Hawkeyes for so long that it’s hard to envision anybody else running the program at this stage.
It was the same way when Ferentz’s predecessor and former boss, Hayden Fry, coached the Hawkeyes for 20 seasons from 1979 to 1998.
Ferentz already has matched Fry in career victories at Iowa with 143 and will also match him in longevity this coming season.
Part of the reason Ferentz has lasted for so long is because of the people he has surrounded himself with, people like O’Keefe, who are devoted and who accept their roles.
O’Keefe served as Ferentz’s offensive coordinator from 1999 to 2011 before taking the job with the Dolphins.
O’Keefe was sort of a mystery to Hawkeye fans when he joined the Iowa staff nearly 20 years ago. He had been the head coach at Fordham for just one season in 1998 when Ferentz convinced him to move to the Midwest.
They already had coached together at Worcester Academy in 1978 and 1979, only their roles were reversed with O’Keefe the head coach and Ferentz his trusted assistant.
In addition to becoming close friends, they also had developed a mutual respect for each other as coaches.
That friendships and respect helped to build a healthy environment at Iowa that ultimately led to the program being rebuilt under Ferentz.
There were some concerns when Ferentz assembled his original staff at Iowa that he had surrounded himself with a bunch of obscure yes men who were just happy to finally have made it to the big stage.
But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Ferentz hired assistants that he felt would fit nicely in the culture that he wanted to build at Iowa. Ferentz already was familiar with the Iowa program after having coached the offensive line under Fry from 1981 to 1989.
Behind every successful head coach are assistants who are the difference between winning and losing.
Fry was recognized for having one of the greatest coaching staffs in the history of college football while at Iowa. He helped launch the head coaching careers of Barry Alvarez, Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops, Dan McCarney and Ferentz among others.
Fry always tried to hire assistants who aspired to be head coaches because he felt that would make them work harder and stay hungry. And for the most part, Fry was right judging from his success and his vast coaching tree.
Ferentz hasn’t groomed near as many head coaches as Fry, but it just shows that both approaches can be successful.
O’Keefe has been a valuable assistant to Ferentz in so many ways on and off the field.
It made perfect sense when Ferentz brought O’Keefe back to coach the quarterbacks because Ferentz’s son, Brian Ferentz, had just been promoted to offensive coordinator and it was important to find the right fit and mentor for his son.
O’Keefe is the right fit now just like he was when Ferentz hired his original staff at Iowa. They work well together because they like and trust each other and because of their football acumen.
O’Keefe was right to say that Ferentz’s longevity is the big story around here. O’Keefe needed to say it because sometimes we forget or take it for granted.