CHICAGO — Here’s what you don’t do: Leave the check blank.
Or the years.
Oh, Lordy. Especially the years.
If Kirk Ferentz and trusty sidekick/agent/muscle Neil Cornrich want six seasons, great.
Counter with four.
If they ask for escalators, fine. Tie them to wins. Tie them to APR scores. Tie them to season-ticket sales.
The more incentives, the merrier.
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta is officially doubling down on Ferentz, telling the Hawkeye media throng at Big Ten Media Days that they’re working on a ‘retirement extension’ that will officially close the books on the longtime football coach — who turns 61 in August and heads into his 18th season at the controls.
Ferentz has four years remaining on a 10-season contract that runs through January 31, 2020, a sweetheart deal with a reported annual base of $4.07 million. Barta was courteously vague on the specifics when pressed, save the bit where he noted that anything new on the table would look like an extension as opposed to a continual 1-year rollover.
Which is interesting. Because now that the braying from the Hawkeyes’ 2011-’14 dip is back down to a murmuring grouse, Ferentz’s current pace — 7.5-ish wins per season, on average — could have him passing the legendary Hayden Fry as the program’s all-time winningest coach sometime in the fall of 2018.
Ferentz goes into the autumn with a career mark of 127-87 (.593); Fry, for whom the current Hawkeyes coach worked nine years as an assistant and eventually replaced, went 143-89 (.613) in Iowa City from 1979-’98.
It shouldn’t take Ferentz through 2020 — or even 2030 — to pass Fry, if that’s the carrot at the end of this particular stick. But if we learned anything from eight years ago, it’s that it might be wise not to offer Ferentz so much leash that the university ends up getting its collective ankles tangled in it.
If they demand a bowl of pudding, fair enough.
Counter with a cup.
The Hawkeyes are coming off their first Rose Bowl berth since 1990-’91, although the game itself (Stanford won, 45-16) wasn’t much to write home about. The last time Iowa played in a BCS-level postseason game, the 2010 Orange Bowl, Barta rewarded Ferentz with a raise and a 10-year contract extension that ran through 2020.
It seemed a reasonable, if a bit overreaching, idea at the time. But it wasn’t without an element of risk, and when the Hawkeyes hit icebergs again some 18-24 months after that — including a 4-8 campaign in 2012 — fans started scrounging around their pockets for loose change that would help alleviate a sizeable buyout. Less than two years after toppling Georgia Tech on an unseasonably cold South Florida night, Ferentz became to Iowa’s coffers what baseball player Ryan Howard is to the Philadelphia Phillies’ payroll: An anchor and an albatross.
Conventional wisdom would dictate avoiding a similar pre-nup the second time around. Then again, “conventional” and the Iowa athletic department have not always been the most logical of bedfellows, especially where football is concerned.
The Hawkeyes have played in bowls in 13 of the last 16 seasons. Ferentz’s tenure includes two Big Ten titles, one West division crown, three BCS-level bowls — the 2002 Orange, the 2010 Orange and the 2016 Rose — and the program’s first BCS-level postseason victory since Forrest Evashevski’s Big Ten champs steamrolled Cal in the 1959 Rose Bowl.
But if the ceiling is high, the floor has sometimes looked — well, shaky. In the five years prior to 2015, Iowa went 5-12 against trophy rivals Iowa State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 2013 and ’14, the Hawkeyes, the most popular college entity in a college-mad state, sold out only one home game.
And sometimes the shaky gave way to the outright bizarre. As many as 13 Iowa players were hospitalized in 2011 with a muscle disorder called exertional rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure or death. One of the 13, Willie Lowe, sued the university in 2014; a settlement of $15,000 was announced this past January.
In 2012, Ferentz added his son Brian, a former Hawkeye lineman, to his staff, despite red flags over the university’s policy on nepotism. The next year, Ferentz reportedly attempted to hire his future son-in-law, Tyler Barnes, a gambit which raised even more red flags. In May, after a stint at Vanderbilt, Ferentz got Barnes back into the fold again, this time as the program’s new director of recruiting.
All of which would lead the assumption that whatever Ferentz wants, whenever Ferentz wants it, is probably in the cards, and that Barta’s negotiating position is primarily of the fetal variety.
But perhaps those assumptions are wrong, and that those who don’t know history’s mistakes aren’t doomed to repeat them. At last count, the buyout was reportedly in the $8-million range. Ferentz turns 65 on Aug. 1, 2020. Adding, say, five seasons to that puts him at 70 — or 52 in Bowden Years.
Although, to be frank, unless a health problem would force the issue — as it did with Fry — it’s hard to picture a sideline without the Hawkeyes coach. Somewhere. Spurrier has golf. Holtz has pontificating, or whatever the heck he’s doing at the moment. But football has always seemed more central to Ferentz, especially the teaching side of it.
Several of those who’ve covered the coach over the past decade-plus envisioned a similar retirement plan — which is, to say, not much of a retirement at all. It’s not hard to fathom Ferentz as the wise old owl on a large NFL staff somewhere, or an offensive line consultant, marveling at the kids and their speed these days, teaching them the verities of footwork and leverage, same as ever.
In Barta’s defense, the devil you know beats the living underpants off the devil you don’t. No question. But if they ask for steak, you pick the cut.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler