CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — For seven seasons, the weekly “On Iowa Live” television show originates from a Cedar Rapids establishment and the talk always centers on the Hawkeyes.
When Iowa sports are humming, say in 2015-16 when the football and men’s basketball teams were ranked in the top 5, the set is packed. Whenever there’s a disappointing loss — and there have been plenty — the crowd thins. But two super fans, one white and one black, sit together almost every week no matter where the show airs.
Eugene Pinney and Craig Taylor have combined for maybe five missed viewings since 2007. Each week, Pinney and Taylor ask questions of panelists, guests and coaches. That includes Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz last spring in an outdoor showing that brought hundreds of fans.
On this particular early December night, Pinney and Taylor are sitting at a table waiting as Iowa legends Chuck Long and Marvin McNutt are about to join the panel. The fans talk about the upcoming Pinstripe Bowl trip and Iowa basketball’s recent loss. Then the conversation turns to Ferentz.
Iowa’s football coach, just 1 win from tying Hayden Fry for the most in school history at 143, just finished a 7-5 campaign. Over the last 17 years, the Hawkeyes have been bowl eligible 16 times with 15 trips. Ferentz ranks sixth in all-Big Ten wins and is the longest-tenured coach in the FBS.
At many schools, Ferentz already might have a statue outside the football stadium. At Iowa, fans are somewhat split. Many, if not the critical mass, believe in Ferentz, his approach, his success and how he conducts the football program. A vocal minority see Ferentz as overpaid, too conservative and tied to mediocrity.
Pinney traveled to the Rose Bowl two years ago and sometimes wears outlandish Iowa gear, like a Hawkeyes zoot suit. He calls himself “middle of the road” on Ferentz but supports the coach, too.
“I like him because he’s run a clean program, kids graduate, they’re hard-nosed. They’re tough,” Pinney said. “I do get frustrated, though, with the Kirk way. Running the ball on first down, not kind of opening up the offense. But we know what we’re getting. That’s Kirk Ferentz. I think he’s starting to maybe see the end of the road, trying to make some improvements when he goes out, he goes out with a positive legacy. Not going to 4-8 his last two or three years and leaving us with the Hayden Fry problem.
“I understand the frustration of the fans; that’s why we’re fans,” Pinney added. “But I prefer the clean program, the kids that graduate. Believe me, I’d love to be national champs every year. But it is Iowa, and there’s some reality with that.”
Should fans expect more than what Ferentz gives? Is it “just Iowa” and Ferentz has overachieved? Or has the coach underperformed? In many ways, there’s a counterargument for every argument.
Getting the most out of Iowa
Ferentz replaced Fry after the 1998 season when the legendary coach retired after 20 years. Ferentz was Fry’s offensive line coach at Iowa from 1981-89 until he became the head coach at Maine. Ferentz later coached under Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns and was the assistant head coach of the Baltimore Ravens before he took over the Hawkeyes at age 43.
Concurrent with Ferentz’s first offseason, the Iowa men’s basketball program endured a polarizing situation. Tom Davis, the program’s all-time wins leader, did not have his contract renewed by athletics director Bob Bowlsby. Davis led the men’s basketball team to the Sweet 16 in his final year. In 13 seasons at Iowa, Davis made the NCAA Tournament nine times and never lost a first-round game.
Davis’ consistency was solid, but the Hawkeyes never won a Big Ten title. After Davis’ second season until his final campaign, Iowa failed to advance beyond the second round. Davis missed on high-profile in-state recruit Raef LaFrentz — who went to Kansas — and to many fans and boosters, the Hawkeyes were a trajectory of mediocrity. Davis was well-liked and appreciated, yet the program appeared stagnant.
Bowlsby then hired Steve Alford as coach to take Iowa to the next level. Instead, Iowa became inconsistent. There were off-the-court issues with guard Pierre Pierce twice being charged with rape. Alford became disliked. Alford left Iowa a year after he led the team to a 25-win season and a Big Ten Tournament title. Todd Lickliter followed with a disastrous three-year run, including a 10-win final season. Current coach Fran McCaffery has led Iowa to three NCAA Tournaments in four years but nearly 20 years after Davis’ departure, the program hasn’t exceeded any of his accomplishments.
When the football program was 34-30 overall and 19-21 in Big Ten play from 2010 through 2014, dissatisfaction with Ferentz reached a high level with fans. Season ticket sales plummeted 17 percent, and attendance at spring I-Club banquets was cut in half. Although Ferentz had a $12 million-plus buyout, many casual fans called for his firing. Donors, however, did not.
In countless conversations over the years, older fans and donors evoked Davis’ name when discussing Ferentz. The fear in falling apart was worse than the chance to leap ahead. Ultimately, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta remained steadfast in his support of Ferentz, who rewarded himself and the program with the school’s first 12-win season in 2015.
Happy and unhappy endings
Ferentz is tied for third in Big Ten history with six bowl victories. He’s won the Orange Bowl, the Capital One (now Citrus) Bowl and two Outback Bowls. He’s also appeared in another Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl. But he’s also dropped five bowls in a row.
The 2009 season was his most successful with an 11-2 record, a No. 7 final ranking and a 24-14 win against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. But Ferentz’s best team was in 2002, when it shared the Big Ten title with eventual national champion Ohio State. After a seven-week layoff, Iowa lost its first Orange Bowl appearance 38-17 to USC.
In 2015, Iowa won the Big Ten West Division title with a 12-0 record. The Hawkeyes dropped a 16-13 heartbreaker in the final seconds to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Iowa advanced to the Rose Bowl, where it was thumped 45-16 by Stanford and trailed 35-0 at halftime.
Iowa won three straight bowls from 2008-10. In the Hawkeyes’ most recent losses, opponents have outscored Iowa 120-47. Those defeats — coupled with the location — have contributed to waning interest among fans toward attending the Pinstripe Bowl this year.
Ferentz acknowledges the bowl drought has become a talking point among fans, but he’s more concerned with a win Wednesday in New York rather than in past defeats.
“You have to prepare well and then certainly play well on game day,” he said. “I think you guys get tired of my answers, but every game is a unique experience and bowl games are the same way.”
Ups and downs
Ferentz had to live to Fry’s lofty standard. After 19 consecutive non-winning seasons, Fry guided the Hawkeyes to a co-Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl trip in 1981. The Hawkeyes competed in 14 bowls during Fry’s 20 years, including three Rose Bowls. Iowa also won or shared three Big Ten titles.
In his 19 seasons, Ferentz’s resume is similar. In Fry’s final season, Iowa fell to 3-8 and the program was stripped bare. Ferentz had Iowa in a bowl game by Year 3 and earned a co-Big Ten title in his fourth season.
Twice Fry’s teams finished ranked in the nation’s top 10 (1985, 1991). Ferentz has done that five times (2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2015). But Fry’s other squads finished in the Top 25 eight other times. Ferentz has managed that feat one other time.
|Wins at Iowa||Bowl wins||Big Ten titles||Top-10 finishes||Total Top-25 finishes|
There are differences in the eras. During Fry’s tenure, competitive disparity between a major program such as Iowa and a squad from the Mid-American Conference was palpable. The gap, while still wide, is closer now. Fry’s 20 squads curb-stomped Northwestern (17-3), Wisconsin (15-2-1) and Iowa State (16-4), while all three programs now are unrecognizable from that time period. Ferentz is 10-9 against Iowa State, 8-9 against Northwestern and 7-10 against Wisconsin.
Ferentz’s teams play lower-level competition more regularly than Fry. Fry was 16-2 against lower-level teams, while Ferentz is 34-5. However Ferentz’s losses seem to linger. Iowa’s loss to Western Michigan in the 2007 finale kept the 6-6 Hawkeyes from a bowl game. Iowa has 3 losses over the last six seasons (Central Michigan in 2012, Northern Illinois in 2013, North Dakota State in 2016). All three were lost on field goals in the game’s final four seconds, but it’s a resume stain.
Additionally, Fry’s teams generally whipped bad Big Ten teams. Ferentz plays most squads close and owns an 18-31 mark in games decided by 3 points or less. From 1999 through 2005, when Ferentz’s teams were favored by double digits, they were 18-0 straight up and 16-2 against the spread. Since 2006, Iowa is 40-13 when favored by at least 10 points and 19-34 against the spread. That means when Iowa was considered a decisive favorite, it has lost 13 times the last 12 seasons.
But Iowa also notches massive upsets as well. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 against AP top-5 teams since 2010. The only loss came against Penn State on the game’s final play. From 2007 through 2012, every year the Hawkeyes beat either an 11-win team or one that competed in a BCS game.
Developing players and respect
Perhaps no program does a better job at developing mid-level recruits into NFL prospects like Iowa.
Under Ferentz, Iowa has 63 NFL draft picks, including 14 in the first two rounds. Over the last 15 years, no Big Ten team has sent more offensive linemen to the NFL than Ferentz.
“A very successful program, has been for a long time,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said of Ferentz and Iowa. “I think you have a very good idea of the type of player that’s going to come out of the University of Iowa. From a coaching standpoint, we’ve got two coaches on our staff. [General manager] Ted Thompson has a very good relationship with those guys over there. To me, that’s what this business is all about, having those relationships and just being in tune. On a yearly basis it’s always different, but they have a way that they go about it, they’ve been very successful with it;we’ve had success with their guys.”
Iowa has eight national award winners under Ferentz, 29 players with All-America honors and 10 consensus All-Americans. Nearly all of his former players who lasted through their graduation swear by Ferentz.
Senior guard Sean Welsh lauds the way Ferentz stood by him in 2014 when he sat out spring practice because of depression. It wasn’t just the coach; it was the entire system.
“He was just as consistent for me coaching wide-reach block as handling my ordeal,” said Welsh, a first-team All-Big Ten performer this year. “He helped me every step of the way. It wasn’t just him, it was Brian [Ferentz], it was [strength and conditioning] coach [Chris] Doyle, those three were really kind of pivotal when helping me out in that time. They really helped out.”
Ferentz also is known to apply tough love, and the program’s no-nonsense approach doesn’t fit everyone. In Iowa’s 2013 class, 12 of the 22 signees left Iowa with eligibility remaining. Considering two others graduated after 2016 and another was a JUCO prospect, the Hawkeyes have only seven original scholarship players competing from their 2013 class.
“I know one thing, Coach he does have a lot of patience for younger guys, first-year guys, kind of like second-year guys,” said running back Akrum Wadley, who has fit inside Ferentz’s doghouse throughout his career. “At a point in time if you ain’t doing the right thing, you know. It is what it is.”
Respect from peers and fans
Ferentz generates more reverence from his peers than many fans. He has won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award four times and twice was named National Coach of the Year.
“I’ve had so much respect for him,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I think he knows the game, respects the game. Obviously, when you think of his teams, there’s a toughness component to it. Well-coached teams and then you put it with some talented players. So talented players that are well-coached those are hard teams to play against, those are fun teams to play against because you’ve got to be at the top of your game. He and his staff are really good.”
“He’s the model for how to do things right with class and dignity and a great football coach,” said Boston College coach Steve Addazio, who will face Ferentz on Wednesday in the Pinstripe Bowl. “[He’s] had this program be a premier program for all these years.”
But on social media, some fans repeatedly want Ferentz fired for all the flaws listed above. They come unglued after a loss, even to good teams. Iowa’s wins against good teams such as Michigan in 2016 and Ohio State in 2017 complicates his legacy because in those years the Hawkeyes lost to North Dakota State and Purdue, respectively.
Ferentz, whose high salary always generates headlines, and his family have given millions of dollars to the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. They spend countless hours of time promoting causes and the university. Iowa’s graduation rate of 76 percent is among the highest in school history. That’s why it’s difficult for middle-of-the-road Iowa fans, such as Pinney and Taylor, to advocate for someone different.
“I think he’s run a clean program; he’s kept the university very respectable,” Taylor said. “He’s always got his squad, where in society the Hawkeyes are looked up to by a lot of people. No matter where you go, the Iowa Hawkeyes play a good game on the field, but academically they also graduate.”