By Pat Harty
TAMPA, Fla. – Kirk Ferentz certainly doesn’t need me to defend his performance as the Iowa football coach, but I felt compelled to do it anyway.
I felt compelled to do it because there is a part of the fan base that insists on minimizing his accomplishments, and who feel that he is too secure in his job, and that he plays favorites and no longer has that burning desire to win.
Some of those fans reached out to me on Twitter after Iowa’s 27-22 victory over No. 18 Mississippi State in the 2019 Outback Bowl on Tuesday.
Instead of celebrating the fact that two former walk-ons – receiver Nick Easley and defensive back Jake Gervase – both played significant roles in the Outback Bowl, they used that as a reason why Iowa never will be elite under Ferentz, because in their opinion, he mostly settles for average recruits.
There is also a misguided narrative that Iowa hasn’t defeated anybody of significance under Ferentz, when in fact, Iowa has defeated Penn State nine times, Michigan seven times, including five of the last six meetings, and Michigan State seven times.
Ferentz also has led Iowa to victories over Florida, Louisiana State, South Carolina, Missouri, and now Mississippi State.
And let’s not forget about the Buckeye beat-down from 2017 when Iowa demolished Ohio State 55-24 at Kinnick Stadium.
These aren’t just antagonists and trolls on Twitter that I’m talking about.
It is a part of the fan base, and maybe just a tiny part, but they’re loud and always ready to sound off, even after a milestone win.
Fans have a right to their opinion, and I understand why some might be suffering from what is called Ferentz fatigue after 20 seasons with him as the Iowa head coach.
I have a few friends that feel that way. They respect and appreciate what the 63-year old Ferentz has accomplished over the past two decades, both on and off the field, and they know from experience that there is always a risk with making a change.
But they’re just bored with Ferentz and they have a right to feel that way.
Some also don’t like Ferentz’s one-sided buyout, or that his son is the offensive coordinator and that his son-in-law is the director of recruiting. And again, they have a right to feel that way.
My problem isn’t with those fans, but rather the ones who are delusional and unrealistic about what is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to winning, and who say that Ferentz is now mostly invested in himself and detached from his players.
I’m not naive enough to think that Ferentz builds a special bond with all of his players, or that the way in which he relates to his players is perfect.
It’s a shame that Noah Fan’t career as an Iowa tight end didn’t end on better terms. But somewhere along the line a decision was made to reduce Fant’s role this past season, and that decision made no sense to me and seemed counter-productive.
So to call me a Ferentz apologists for writing this column would be unfair and misguided.
I think what really compelled me to write this column were those special few moments when Nick Easley was asked about playing for Ferentz during the post-game press conference at the Outback Bowl.
“Coach with him, what you see is what you get,” Easley said. “I just get emotional talking about. I’m just thankful for him and the opportunity that him and his staff have given me.”
Ferentz was standing just a few feet from Easley near a door in the press room, and you could feel and see the special bond they share as they both fought back tears.
It was a powerful moment that went viral on Twitter.
There are so many of Ferentz’s former players who go out of their way to praise him for changing the course of their lives and for helping to turn them from teenagers to young men. They talk about how much Ferentz cares for his players, and for the University of Iowa, and you know they mean it.
As for Iowa’s performance on the field, the current senior class won 37 games, including the past two bowl games, and were part of a 12-2 Rose Bowl team in 2015.
That doesn’t qualify as elite, but a four-year average of slightly more than nine wins per season is impressive.
So is winning at least nine games in seven of 20 season, as is the case with Ferentz after winning the Outback Bowl.
Some fans will consider the 2018 season as a disappointment, and it was when you consider that Iowa’s four losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern were by a combined 23 points, and that Iowa led in the fourth quarter of all four of those games, but couldn’t close the deal.
The season was hardly a failure, though, or reason to suggest that Ferentz isn’t getting the job done.
Maybe my standards are too low, but it seems unfair to call a 9-4 season at Iowa a failure.
It would be at Alabama or Clemson, but Iowa isn’t Alabama or Clemson.
But as I was reminded shortly after posting this column, even mighty Alabama isn't beyond struggling.
Mike Shula finished 26-23 as the Alabama head coach from 2003 to 2006, including 4-9 in 2003, while Mike DuBose was 24-23 from 1997 to 2000.
That is eight seasons in which the mightly Crimson Tide did worse than the standard set at Iowa under Ferentz.
With the win in the Outback Bowl, Iowa improved to 8-8 in bowl games since 2001, and only Ohio State (9) and Wisconsin (9) have more bowl wins among Big Ten teams during that time.
That’s an impressive statistic because it signifies long-term success and stability.
Iowa also has built and sustained a rich pipeline to the NFL under Ferentz as numerous players, including some who were lightly recruited, have defied the odds by making it to the highest level.
Ferentz’s class and character also should count for something, along with his charitable causes, his loyalty as the longest-tenured college football coach in the country, and that his players graduate at a high rate.
The only thing Ferentz hasn’t done in 20 seasons at Iowa is win enough games for Iowa to be considered elite.
But even the legendary Hayden Fry didn’t meet that incredibly high standard.
I'm old enough to remember the dark years of Iowa football, the two decades of consistent losing from the early 1960s throughtout the 1970s.
Iowa fans shouldn't be afraid of change because of what happened nearly a half century ago.
But they should appreciate what they have now in Ferentz because history shows that it could be worse at Iowa, much worse.