Iowa's coaching longevity in football is special, unique and a source of pride

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Kirk Ferentz and Brian Ferentz in the moments before kickoff at Kinnick Stadium. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – If familiarity truly breeds contempt as the old saying goes, then how do you explain the Iowa football team's coaching staff?

How do you explain the fact that Kirk Ferentz, Phil Parker and Chris Doyle have worked together at Iowa since 1999, and that Reese Morgan has been a member of the staff since 2000?

Throw in quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe and Director of Football Operations Paul Federici, both of whom are entering their 15th season overall at Iowa, and the circumstance under Ferentz is without question the exception to the rule.

Few, if any other college football programs, have what Iowa has when it comes to coaching continuity and stability.

What is happening under Ferentz might never happen again because it’s so unusual for that many coaches and staff members to stay together for one decade, let alone for two.

And of course, it starts with the 63-year old Ferentz, who is the dean of Big Ten football coaches by a long shot and the longest-tenured FCS coach in the country.

Ferentz is entering his 20th season as the Iowa head coach and will match the legendary Hayden Fry in longevity at Iowa this season, which stars on Sept. 1 against Northern Illinois at Kinnick Stadium.

Ferentz also will surpass Fry as Iowa’s all-time-winningest football coach with his next victory, with both currently tied at 143 victories.

And speaking of Fry, his 20-year reign, which preceded what soon will be Ferentz’s 20-year reign and counting, helps to make Iowa’s situation even more unusual.

“I think it’s all about two things,” Ferentz said. “Where I work is a big part of it, and then the people I’ve worked with. I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by great people at all levels.”

The fact that Iowa has had only two head football coaches since 1979 is staggering when you consider the circumstances at most other schools.

Minnesota has had nine different head football coaches since 1979, while Illinois and Iowa State have had eight and seven different head coaches, respectively, during that time, and Nebraska has had five since 1998.

What you’re seeing at Iowa is easy to take for granted after nearly four decades, but Iowa  hardly is immune from instability in football.

Football coaches at Iowa used to come and go like the changing of the seasons before Fry arrived in 1979.

Iowa had four different head football coaches in the 1930s, three in the 1940s, two in the 1950s, three in the 1960s and four in the 1970s, including Fry, who was hired to replace Bob Commings shortly after the 1978 season.

Fry didn’t just rescue the Iowa program from nearly two decades of misery, he rebuilt and changed the culture, and much of what he did still is present today under Ferentz.

Fry’s decision to take a chance on a 25-year old graduate assistant coach from Pittsburgh named Kirk Ferentz would go on to change the course of history at Iowa.

Fry saw something special in Ferentz despite Ferentz’s limited body of work, and Fry became a coaching legend by trusting his instincts.

Ferentz coached the Iowa offensive line for nine seasons under Fry from 1981 to 1989. That was when Ferentz learned to appreciate and to admire what Iowa had to offer from a personal and from a professional standpoint.

It was just Ferentz and his wife, Mary, when the family came to Iowa City in 1981 and planted roots.

The family relocated for nine years from 1990 to 1998 when Ferentz was the head coach at Maine for three seasons and an NFL assistant coach for six season.

This season will be Ferentz’s 29th season overall as a member of the Iowa staff.

All five of his children graduated from Iowa City High School, which might not seem like a big deal to your average Joe, but it is a big deal when a big-time college football coach can proudly say that all five of his children graduated from the same high school.

“That means a lot to me and Mary,” Ferentz said.

Ferentz has been a model of stability in the unstable world of big-time college football.

Some of his Big Ten coaching peers were asked to comment on Ferentz’s longevity at Big Ten media day last month in Chicago.

“I think he's a genuine man, as well as a great football coach,” said Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. “He's got a system that he believes in. His coaches believe in him. I think you factor all those things in, you weigh them together and he's going to have success. He's going be right there in the thick of it every year and I anticipate that happening again."

Iowa isn’t in the thick of it every year, but rarely are the Hawkeyes out of it, either, under Ferentz.

Just twice since 2001 has Iowa finished with a losing record under Ferentz.

Longevity doesn’t come without winning enough games to sustain it.

Ferentz averages between seven and eight wins per season at Iowa, and has won at least 10 games in five seasons since 2001.

Ferentz also represents the Iowa program, and the University of Iowa, with class and integrity, and that contributes to his longevity.

Ferentz has given no indication that he is thinking about retiring, but it’ll happen at some point, maybe sooner than later, considering his age.

It is widely assumed that his son, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, is being groomed to replace his father as head coach.

But a lot of winning has to occur for that to happen, and Kirk and Brian both know that.

They also both know that being the head coach at Iowa is a special job at a special place.

It has to be for two head coaches to have stayed for almost 40 years combined.