IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz sits atop a category few expected 19 months ago, much less 19 years ago.
With longtime friend and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops opting for retirement on Wednesday, Ferentz now is the dean of FBS coaches. They both wanted the same job — to replace Iowa coach Hayden Fry after the 1998 season. When then-Iowa athletics director Bob Bowlsby piddled around with Stoops during the interview process, Stoops jumped to Oklahoma. A day later, Bowlsby hired Ferentz.
Bowlsby originally wanted to hire Iowa City native and then-Kansas coach Terry Allen. The fan base wanted Stoops, who played safety for Fry before leading both the Kansas State and Florida defenses. Ferentz was Iowa’s offensive line coach before leaving for Maine and then for the NFL under Bill Belichick. To many fans at the time, Iowa settled for Ferentz.
The base was energized by Stoops. Ferentz largely was unknown. Two years into his Iowa tenure, Ferentz was 4-20. Stoops won a national title in his second season at Oklahoma. Iowa fans naturally were restless and perturbed. Ferentz continued to build the program with his vision, and it paid off. By year four, the Hawkeyes were a behemoth, with an 8-0 Big Ten mark and an Orange Bowl berth.
Ferentz didn’t gloat. He took the situation in stride. In an 8-year period, four times a Ferentz squad finished in the top 8 nationally. He churned out competitive teams every year and only once since 2001 has Iowa not been bowl eligible.
Fast forward to 2012. With Joe Paterno’s departure at Penn State, Ferentz became the dean of Big Ten football coaches. It was a focal point at Big Ten media days that year. As usual, Ferentz diffused any of the questions about his longevity and instead touted the program’s stability. Fry lasted 20 years. Wrestling icon Dan Gable coached 21. Iowa generally stays with coaches its values, like Ferentz’s hometown Pittsburgh Steelers.
“We got off to a less‑than‑stellar start,” Ferentz said that day in Chicago. “But I never really thought much about [his tenure] and I still don’t. We kind of take one year at a time.”
That’s the approach Ferentz applies to coaching. He’ll turn 62 in August and he’s become more introspective the last few years, starting with the 2015 offseason. The Hawkeyes won 12 regular-season games and advanced to the Rose Bowl. This fall, he’ll enter his 19th season at Iowa. If he wins eight games, he’ll tie Fry for the school record at 143. He also would tie Fry for fifth on the Big Ten’s wins list.
Since 1939, Iowa has finished in the AP top 10 in 13 seasons. Ferentz’s teams own five of those rankings.
Last December, Ferentz knew he was within single digits of Fry on the wins list. But typically, he pushed the subject aside.
“Aware of that, kind of, not the exact number, but now you’re in the neighborhood at least,” Ferentz said in an interview with Land of 10. “I think that speaks to a bigger topic and that is longevity. For that I really feel fortunate. I think it’s all about two things: where I work is a big part of it and then the people I’ve worked with.”
Ferentz was part of a coaching machine in the 1980s, perhaps the greatest collection of coaches in this generation. Along with Stoops and Ferentz, Fry’s tree included offensive coordinator Bill Snyder, linebackers coach Barry Alvarez, defensive line coach Dan McCarney and later on, Bret Bielema.
Stoops (Oklahoma), Snyder (Kansas State), Alvarez (Wisconsin) and McCarney (Iowa State) all are the winningest coaches in their programs’ histories. Ferentz could reach that milestone this year.
As he approaches year 19 at Iowa, it’s unlikely Ferentz will have a party tonight to commemorate his feat. Maybe he’ll enjoy it with a nice beverage, but if there’s a decorative cake it’s not of his doing.
When he’s asked about it throughout the summer, Ferentz will offer up self-deprecating lines about getting old. It’s almost as predictable as … you Iowa fans know him well enough to fill in that blank.
Ferentz is as meticulous and detailed-oriented as any goal-driven individual. But his low-key personality and caring nature somewhat belie his powerful status. The longest-tenured coach in major college football gets visibly uncomfortable recognizing his own marks when he’s focusing on everyone around him.
Perhaps that’s one reason why he’s persevered for 19 years in a fishbowl like Iowa City. Perhaps that’s the same reason why he’s deserved to coach at a place like Iowa for 19 years.