IOWA CITY, Iowa — Status quo is a double-edged phrase for Iowa athletics that cuts in both positive and negative directions.
Since 1970, Iowa has employed three athletics directors. Since 1979, just two football coaches have graced the home Kinnick Stadium sidelines. It’s a run of stability that is admired by the outside world, but some detractors complain that it has led to a lack fresh or new ideas.
From the day Hayden Fry brought his signature white pants to Iowa City to current coach Kirk Ferentz’s steady example, the Hawkeyes have engaged in a consistent run of good-to-great results. In 39 years, Iowa has produced seven top-10 seasons (five by Ferentz) and nine other top-25 campaigns (eight by Fry). The Hawkeyes have competed in 28 bowl games, fifth-most among Big Ten competitors. At 6-5 this season with one game remaining, Iowa will play in another bowl game next month.
Likewise, there is stability at the top. Bump Elliott served as athletics director from 1970 through 1991. Fry was his third football hire and, Elliott famously quipped, his last. Bob Bowlsby, the current Big 12 commissioner, worked as Iowa’s athletics director from 1991 through 2006. He hired Ferentz to replace Fry, who retired after the 1998 season. Gary Barta succeeded Bowlsby in 2006.
Fry and Ferentz have combined to win 284 games, compared with 186 losses and 6 ties. To observers, the program’s success is tied to its consistency.
“I think you look at the stability in the athletic director, you look at stability in the coaching office,” BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo told Land of 10 last month. “Obviously Kirk’s been there longer than Gary, but I think when Gary came in he understood the situation.”
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Barta joined the program after Ferentz’s seventh season and the duo ranks as the second-longest serving AD-coach tandem in the country. Elliott and Fry worked together for 13 seasons. That cohesiveness has helped Iowa remain a winning program.
Elliott built an indoor practice bubble in 1984 and kept Fry happy in Iowa City when suitors pursued him in the mid-1980s. When multiple NFL teams and college football blue bloods tried to lure Ferentz, Barta extended his contract three times, mostly notably to a 10-year deal in 2010 and last year through 2025. Iowa opened a $55 million football practice facility in 2015 after the team fell behind its Big Ten brethren.
Ferentz grew up in Pittsburgh and equates Iowa’s leadership permanence with that of the Steelers.
“The Steelers since Chuck Noll went there in ’69, they’ve had three head coaches since that time, and I would argue if it is not the most successful organization in the NFL, certainly one of,” Ferentz said before the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game. “What I point to is the leadership of the Steelers, the organization. They see the big picture. I think they understand the value and stability of having good people.
“We don’t live in a world that thinks like that anymore. That’s clear, especially in the sporting world where everybody has opinions, observations to make.
“So, A, I feel very fortunate to work at a place where stability is appreciated and encouraged. Secondly, one thing about doing something competitive, this is a very competitive conference, it always has been, more competitive now than it was 17 years ago when I came to Iowa. Not every season is going to go the way you want, not every game is going to go the way you want.
“To me it’s more about finding solutions and trying to find what do we need to do to repair things or make them better instead of just making people walk the plank. That’s what I believe.”
However, many believe Iowa slipped in Fry’s later years and that Ferentz’s modest on-field success fails to measure with his paycheck. Bowlsby provided the first major salary bump after Ferentz finished a third straight 10-win season in 2004. At the time Bowlsby said the only thing worse than being in the arms race is being left out of it.
From 2002-09, Iowa won 71 games and earned five top-20 finishes, including four in the top 10. The most recent eight seasons, Iowa is 60-42 with one top-10 finish — a school-record 12-win season in 2015 — but without any other season in the national rankings. Ferentz’s performance has left fans polarized with many wanting him retire at Iowa and others wanting him fired immediately.
The birth of that discussion began in 2014 when Iowa expected to challenge for the Big Ten West Division title and instead finished 7-6 overall. Early that season, Chris Smith of Forbes wrote, “The first problem that has arisen for Iowa is that Ferentz’s performance has fallen off since signing that new deal.”
After the 2014 season — one in which Iowa lost all four trophy games — the Hawkeyes’ overall record for a five-year period stood at 34-30 and just 19-21 in Big Ten action. With one of the most lucrative contracts in college football, it appeared Iowa’s return wasn’t there on the investment.
ESPN’s Travis Haney wrote that Ferentz was the nation’s most overpaid coach: “Coaches agree that Iowa isn’t the easiest place to win, but the resources and facilities are well above average and the division is the most winnable in the country. For $4 million per season, the Hawkeyes should get something more — far more — than Ferentz’s 6.8 victories a year since he signed the extension.”
Additionally, Ferentz’s contract demanded the school pay him 75 percent of his remaining salary and supplemental expenses if he’s dismissed. Entering the 2015 season, apathy had crept into Iowa’s football kingdom and season-ticket sales fell 17 percent from 2014. It had many wondering if Iowa was willing to part with Ferentz should he put together another mediocre season with a mid-level bowl.
“If [Barta] finds himself on the fence, it might come down to whether he’s actually willing to make such a far-reaching decision if the on-field results don’t make the decision for him,” wrote Matt Hinton, then for Grantland. “Expectations are as low as they’ve been at any point since the earliest days of the Ferentz era, meaning they may also be easier to exceed.”
Barta doubled down on Ferentz just days before the 2015 season. He told me in a one-on-one interview, “Seven wins, there’s a lot of programs across the country that would have been excited to say, ‘Eight wins two years ago, seven wins last year, let’s go get ’em in 2015.’ But because our expectations were set so high, and why were they set so high? Well, Kirk has proven over a long career that he can get to the very highest points. So we were all disappointed. Our fan base was extremely disappointed, and I understand that.”
Ferentz and the Hawkeyes then produced one of the great seasons in Iowa history. For the first time, Iowa won 12 games and finished regular-season play unbeaten. It claimed the Big Ten West and earned the program’s first Rose Bowl trip in 25 years. Ferentz gained another contract extension, which was somewhat panned locally and nationally, although without the heavy noise.
“I’m not basing my decision on one season; I’m basing it on 10 years of working with Kirk,” Barta said afterward. “I also watched as we went through difficult times, how he reacted, how he stayed the course, how the foundation stayed strong. So even in years where we maybe didn’t reach the level we wanted to reach I admired and appreciated his value system. He didn’t compromise those less successful seasons.”
Fry wasn’t immune to preventing a downturn, either. After three Big Ten titles from 1981-90 and a 10-1-1 season in 1991, Fry’s Hawkeyes were 43-35 in his final seven seasons with just four bowl appearances. Opposing coaches often used his age and diminishing results on the recruiting trail before he retired. In 1997, Iowa was 4-0 and was ranked No. 11. The Hawkeyes lost five of their final eight games to finish 7-5. Fry was 3-8 in his final season.
Despite the ups and downs, Iowa athletics directors stuck with Fry and Ferentz. Both coaches had losing seasons in their first two years. Fry won a Big Ten title in his third season, Ferentz his fourth. Both endured rocky seasons and administrative changes, but leadership stayed the course. It’s different from the rest of college football and places such as Nebraska, which fired Bo Pelini with a 67-27 record in seven seasons. Pelini never lost more than four games and won at least nine every season.
At Iowa, administrators remained committed to their football coaches, no matter the turbulence.
“I’m not trying to pass commentary on anybody else,” Ferentz said. “Every situation when it comes to coaching changes, every situation is unique. I’m certainly not passing judgment on the people that make decisions. I’m glad I’m at a place where we have had strong leadership and have had for a long time. “