Kirk Ferentz had to survive as the Iowa head coach before he could thrive

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Kirk Ferentz talks with Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek during the Kids Days practice in August. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The tears of joy that flowed at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday were a testimony to the importance of patience, trust and loyalty.

Kirk Ferentz first had to survive as the Iowa football coach before he could thrive, but it wasn’t easy at the beginning.

A former Iowa player was charged with extortion for threatening to ruin Ferentz’s reputation and for taking two playbooks, and that was before Ferentz had even coached in a game.

Iowa then lost 18 of its first 20 games under Ferentz in 1999 and 2000 and the naysayers were out in full force screaming “I told you so.”

Making matters worse was the fact that Bob Stoops had led Oklahoma to the 2000 national title in his second season as head coach.

Stoops had been the overwhelming favorite with Iowa fans to replace Hayden Fry as head coach for lots of reasons, including his background as a former All-Big Ten defensive back under Fry in the early 1980s.

Stoops interviewed for the Iowa job, but it just didn’t work out, so he took the Oklahoma job instead and would go on to become a Sooner coaching legend before stepping down before the 2017 season.

Ferentz, meanwhile, would go on to become a Hawkeye coaching legend as signs of a resurgence finally surfaced late in the 2000 season.

Iowa defeated Penn State on the road and Northwestern at home in back-to-back weekends in early November, and the timing was critical because there was a point in the 2000 season when Ferentz had started to question if he could succeed at Iowa.

Ferentz said it was the only time as the Iowa head coach that he doubted himself.

But he stayed the course and had the unwavering support of the University of Iowa administration.

Iowa then won seven games in 2001, including the Alamo Bowl in which Ferentz declared afterwards that the Hawkeyes were back, and he wasn’t kidding.

The same head coach who was written off by some after starting so poorly at Iowa is now the school’s all-time winningest football coach and a legend-in-the-making.

The 63-year old Ferentz achieved that milestone in Saturday’s 33-7 victory over Northern Illinois in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium. It was his 144th victory as the Iowa head coach, moving him past Hayden Fry into first place.

“It takes a lot of things to go right and it take a lot of people, the administration, the leadership from our athletics directors, I mean three athletic directors since (1970),” Ferentz said in his post-game press conference. “So it’s a big picture. And I know it’s cliché, most clichés are true throw in in football, it’s all about a collective effort and nothing happens in football, nothing good happens typically, unless that’s the case.”

That was vintage Ferentz in how he deflected the praise to others. It never has been about Kirk Ferentz and it never will be.

And that is part of Ferentz’s appeal.

In this age of self-promoting head coaches who often jump at the next best opportunity, Ferentz is old-school. He prides himself on being loyal, but so does his employer, and that’s why this relationship has withstood the test of time.

Iowa truly is a unique place with just two head football coaches since 1979 and just three athletic directors since 1970 as Ferentz pointed out on Saturday.

You just don’t see that kind of stability and loyalty in big-time college athletics anymore.

And it wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of trust and patience from both sides.

Part of the reason Ferentz has withstood the temptation to leave Iowa is because the UI administration has made it hard for him to want to leave.

Ferentz is paid handsomely and has a lucrative buyout that sometimes becomes a source for debate when Iowa is struggling.

But Ferentz also has earned his money by sustaining success, by graduating his players at a high rate and by conducting himself with class and dignity.

Combine those successes with all of the money that Ferentz has donated to charitable causes and you have a head coach who uses his power and influence to help those less fortunate.  

Some head coaches as they grow older lose the desire or the ability to relate to their players, but not Ferentz.

“He’s a great coach, I love coach Ferentz,” sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa said after Saturday’s historic win. “I think it’s a special moment for him, obviously, with the most wins in Hawkeye history. That’s so big, obviously.

“It’s an honor to play for somebody like coach Ferentz, and we’re obviously very happy for him.”

Social media was filled with tributes to Ferentz on Saturday from former players who were grateful and proud to have been influenced by him.

The media was also happy for Ferentz and fortunate to have a chance to write about history being made.

It doesn’t take a homer to appreciate the chance to cover a great coach, who also happens to be a gentleman.

Even when Ferentz disagrees with a reporter and wants to convey that message, he does it with professionalism in private or in public.

Unlike Alabama coach Nick Saban, who unleased on a reporter on Saturday just because he didn’t like her question about his two quarterbacks competing for playing time.

Saban is an incredible football coach, maybe the best in the history of college football, but he is also a bully who often uses his power and temper to intimidate people.

With all the focus on bullying in schools, it is unfortunate and hypocritical that Alabama would allow its head football coach to bully a sideline reporter who was simply doing her job.

Ferentz could coach for another 100 years and he never would treat any member of the media so rudely.

I speak on behalf of my fellow media scribes in saying that we’re very lucky in that regard.

That doesn’t mean we gladly accept and agree with everything that Ferentz says or does. But there is a mutual respect that helps us coexist.

I’ve written columns that were critical of Ferentz or his team, and I’m sure the narrative will change if Iowa loses to Iowa State this coming Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

But what won’t change is Ferentz.

He will congratulate the Cyclones if they win, deal with the media in a professional manner and then move on.

Ferentz has been moving on for nearly two decades, and what we’re witnessing now with Ferentz in his 20th season as head coach, and with son, Brian Ferentz, serving as his offensive coordinator, we’ll probably never see again.

Kirk Ferentz shared a story after Saturday’s game about his reaction to being told that Hayden Fry was retiring.

Ferentz was coaching the offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens in 1998 when team executive Ozzie Newsome shared the news about Fry’s retirement being reported on television.

“I do have a Kodak moment when coach Fry did retire,” Ferentz said. “We were in the old Colts Building. It was kind of a funky building, but (Ozzie) walked over and said, ‘hey, you might want to see this. They had a press conference on.

“So it really struck me. That was something I’ll never forget because you never envision your dad dying. I don’t think any of us envisioned coach Fry retiring. So it’s just not something you think about. I’m pleased. I know he wanted it to stay in the family, so I’m thrilled we can keep it going.”

Iowa fans should feel the same way.