Ferentz worthy of Coach of the Year honors
John Ferentz hurried to catch the beginning of his son’s first T-ball game. As he got out of his car at a ballpark in a small Michigan town, he realized he was too late.
Kirk Ferentz already had played the first half-inning of his baseball career. John felt like he had disappointed his son, but Kirk came running to his father with a smile that would warm a polar-bear club a few minutes after submerging.
“He looked happier than the dickens,” John said.
Then, John inquired about the score.
Kirk replied, “21-0”.
John said, “Oh, you’re ahead.”
Kirk, still with a huge grimace plastered on his face, replied: “We haven’t batted yet.”
Kirk might have been just beginning his sports life, but the charisma and optimism that has pushed him to the top of the college football world was part of his character from the get-go.
“He’s always been that way,” John said. “He figures something good is eventually going to happen.”
So, when Ferentz won just two of his first 20 games in the biggest job of his life — as Iowa’s head football coach — he didn’t panic, didn’t waver in his confidence in what his team was doing.
“Life is full of disappointments — certainly sports are,” Ferentz said Friday afternoon from Houston while on a recruiting trip. “You always have to focus on what’s possible. You see so many people dwell on the bad things, you have to move on. That’s one thing sports teaches you is, if you have your breath, you have on opportunity to do something.”
In the two-plus seasons since that horrid start, the Hawkeyes have gone 19-7, won a bowl game and received the program’s first invitation to the Orange Bowl. No. 3 Iowa (11-1) plays No. 5 Southern Cal (10-2) in the FedEx Orange Bowl at 8 p.m., Jan. 2 in Miami.
The pot has gotten even bigger in the past week. Ferentz, 47, an Upper St. Clair High School graduate, took home The Associated Press College Coach of the Year award. Iowa quarterback Brad Banks was awarded AP College Player of the Year and named a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“I extended his contract by five years last spring,” said Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby, who pushed Ferentz’s base salary to $510,000 per year with the extension. “I felt good about it then and feel better about it now.”
REPLACING A LEGEND
When Iowa hired Ferentz from his assistant job with the Baltimore Ravens in December of 1998, not many were singing his praises.
He was replacing an Iowa icon in Hayden Fry, who had led the Hawkeyes for 20 seasons and brought the program from obscurity to respectability, with 14 bowl games and three Big Ten Conference titles.
“The one thing I always tell people is you follow, you don’t replace someone like (Fry),” said Ferentz, an Iowa offensive line coach from 1981-89. “I was honored as the guy to follow him. When he came here in the 1970s, we had no modern tradition or facilities in football. Now, we have great tradition and facilities because of him.”
Ferentz wasn’t close to being the fans’ or even administration’s first pick as coach. Former Iowa football great Bob Stoops was the hottest commodity in the coaching carousel that offseason after a successful stint as Florida’s defensive coordinator. But before Iowa could hire Stoops, he signed with Oklahoma and eventually led the Sooners to the 2000 national championship.
“I look at it in a couple of ways: I’ve never been the favorite candidate in any job I got,” Ferentz said. “It never fazed me. I was glad people had an interest. Any of that talk wasn’t going to affect what we were doing. The bottom line was focusing on what we were doing.”
Former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long also was a finalist. But what Iowa fans and alumni didn’t know was that in Ferentz, they were getting a driven man with a variety of coaching experience.
“Initially, many of our boosters thought Stoops should have the job,” Bowlsby said, “but we agreed (Ferentz) was the right choice for the job.”
It didn’t always look that way. Ferentz made his Iowa head-coaching debut with a blowout loss to Nebraska, then fell to arch-rival Iowa State. The only win that season came over Mid-American Conference member Northern Illinois.
“He had some tough times in the early days,” Bowlsby said, “but I would go over to practice and spend a lot of time watching them coach our team. I remember watching them preparing to play Minnesota. They didn’t have much to play for, yet our kids were running from one position to another with enthusiasm and it was obvious they believed in the system and the coaches.”
That showed in a 25-21 loss to No. 17 Minnesota in the season finale. Iowa had the ball inside the 5 with less than a minute to play.
“Our team played our best game in the final game, when we were 1-9, which showed a lot character,” Ferentz said.
But it still was one of the worst seasons in Iowa history and the first time since 1973 that the Hawkeyes hadn’t won a Big Ten game. The defense was one of the worst in the country, giving up more yards than any Iowa team in the past 50 years.
“There were no shortage of second-guessers,” Bowlsby said. “There (was) lots of second-guessing, but the impressive thing was (that) he never made any excuses or pointed any fingers.”
After the loss to Minnesota, Iowa senior Jay Bickford spouted off about the season and his career to the local newspaper. When asked about what the future might hold, he told the Cedar Rapids Gazette: “If I had money right now, I’d buy (the next) 10 years of season tickets. And it’s not because I’m a little emotional after my last game. This team’s going to turn it around. To tell you the truth, I’d be shocked if they don’t go to a bowl game next year.”
A NEW HOPE
Bickford was only a season off on his prognostication. After a 3-9 mark in 2000, Iowa went 7-5 in 2001 and defeated Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.
“He’s done an excellent job,” said former Iowa and Kansas City Chief offensive tackle John Alt, who played for the Hawkeyes when Ferentz was an assistant. “He’s got the team that reflects his personality.”
Ferentz was a modestly gifted athlete. He played football and baseball at Upper St. Clair after moving there when he was 9 from his native Royal Oak, Mich. He then went on to play linebacker and was a senior captain at Connecticut.
“He always held up to every expectancy we had for him,” said Larry Naviaux, Ferentz’s coach at Connecticut. “He wasn’t the biggest or strongest kid we had, but he was always around the ball. I’d like to take credit for the work ethic, but I can’t because it was him.”
This season’s Hawkeyes have taken on the same kind of identity. In the AP Top 25 preseason poll, 50 teams received votes, but Iowa wasn’t one of them.
“It’s a little bit ironic,” Ferentz said. “A lot of our team is like that. We have a lot of guys that have played well that weren’t big recruits.”
Banks is one of them. Coming out of junior college, few Division I schools were interested.
“Anybody in America could have had him,” Ferentz said. “He wasn’t recruited by anyone to be a major Division-I quarterback. (Defensive line) coach Ron Aiken was looking at defensive linemen (at Banks’ school) and someone told him to take a look at this guy. He ended up being our top-rated quarterback. The next thing you know, he’s having a storybook season.”
Ferentz also has grabbed players from western Pennsylvania that local schools overlooked. Pitt didn’t recruit Erie Cathedral Prep graduates Bob Sanders, a junior safety and two-time all-Big Ten pick, or Ed Hinkel, a freshman receiver who caught a touchdown in the Hawkeyes’ overtime victory over Penn State.
“He’s getting it done,” Cathedral Prep coach Mike Mischler said of Ferentz.
Iowa went undefeated in the Big Ten this season for the first time since 1922 and posted the first 11-win season in program history while tying Ohio State for the conference title.
“Because Iowa and the people in the administration are really behind Iowa football, there is no limit (to what Ferentz could do),” Alt said. “With what coach Fry did with a 20-year run, there is reason coach Ferentz can’t do the same thing.”
ALWAYS A COACH
John and Elsie Mae Ferentz raised three children — sons John and Kirk, and daughter Julie — in a middle-class family with good values and a strong work ethic.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be raised in a great family and been around a lot of people that have cared about me,” Ferentz said.
Sports was a major part of the children’s upbringing.
From the beginning, Kirk showed uncanny leadership ability.
“His father was his baseball coach right from the time he began Little League,” said Elsie Mae, who still lives in Upper St. Clair with John. “He always said if he wanted to get the team to do anything, he used Kirk as the tool.”
Whether it was John reprimanding Kirk to show the rest of the team how to do things right or Kirk knowing the right time to give a word of inspiration or criticism, he showed a tendency toward coaching.
“There is no question about it,” John said. “I’ve said that from the time he was 13 years old. The things I couldn’t get through to the team, I could get through by him. The kids were responsive to him. He was like a pied piper around here. He has leadership qualities. It’s been that way most of his life.”
After learning from his father for many years, Ferentz found his coaching mentor in Joe Moore, who took over the Upper St. Clair football job for the late Bill Merritt during Ferentz’ senior season.
“He had a tough time, but he handled it beautifully,” Ferentz said of Moore, a Mt. Lebanon resident who is now battling cancer. “After coach Merritt’s last year, I was going to go somewhere else and play, but I ended up staying for my senior year. That’s when coach Moore entered my life, and he’s played such a prominent role.”
Moore became the offensive line coach at Pitt and, in 1980, made Ferentz his graduate assistant under Panthers head coach Jackie Sherrill. The next season, Moore helped Ferentz get the offensive line coaching job at Iowa. Ferentz took the techniques Moore taught him to Iowa and helped 11 players reach the NFL.
Alt was his most prominent protege. He came to Iowa as a tight end and developed into an NFL tackle who played in two Pro Bowls and was named All-AFC five times.
“He took a green talent,” Alt said, “and turned me into a pass blocker.”
This past October, Alt added another honor to his resume. He was inducted into the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame.
“I mentioned him as one of the key ingredients (at my induction),” Alt said. “To learn the pass blocking through him, through Joe Moore, helped me tremendously.”
Moore taught Ferentz the intricacies of coaching the offensive line, but he already had the quiet confidence that players and other coaches respected.
“He’s got that steely look in his eyes,” said Naviaux, who coached the Huskies from 1973-76. “If you made a mistake, he would stare right through you. If you made a mistake, you knew it.”
Ted Marchibroda kept Ferentz, a holdover from Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns staff, as his offensive line coach when he coached the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-99. Marchibroda noticed the same intangibles in Ferentz.
“I knew he would do well,” Marchibroda said. “You could just see. He’s an outstanding man with tremendous character. He has all the ingredients that are needed for a coach. He’s well-respected by players, and I knew he was going to do well.”
Ferentz decided he wanted to be a coach in 10th grade. More than 30 years later, that — and spending time with his wife, Mary, and five children — is all he wants to do.
“It keeps you busy,” Ferentz said. “You have to have a great wife. You have to have a fantastic wife. She’s done a fantastic job with our kids. You have to make time, when you do have time, it goes to them. I don’t play golf or have any hobbies to speak of. You have to be selfish with them that way.”
Just this week, Ferentz’s schedule took him to five different states — and that didn’t even include Saturday’s trip to New York for the Heisman presentation. But he said it doesn’t get to him. Other than the weather in Iowa, few things do.
“It’s not the greatest,” Ferentz said, “but that’s all I have to complain about.”
|THE FERENTZ FILE|
- ConnecticutGraduate assistant1977
- Worcester (Mass.) Acad.Offensive line1978-79
- PittsburghGraduate assistant1980
- IowaOffensive line1981-1989
- MaineHead coach (12-21)1990-92
- Baltimore/ClevelandOffensive line1993-98
- IowaHead coach (22-25)1999-present
Despite some displeasure with the Bowl Championship Series not sending Iowa to the Rose Bowl, fans can’t be too upset about the Hawkeyes’ season:
The Iowa football program proves there is light at the end of the tunnel, even though it might be impossible to see from the far end.
19991-10First winless Big Ten schedule since 1973
20003-7Win 2 of 3 to end season and show signs of hope
20017-5First bowl game since 1997 ends with win in Alamo Bowl
200211-1No. 3 Iowa faces No. 5 USC in Orange Bowl on Jan. 2