TAMPA, Fla. — Kirk Ferentz’s contract has the same effect at Iowa as a large grandfather clock does in the corner of a living room.
It’s always there, but most of the time it’s barely noticeable. Depending on the context, it can be a gift or an eyesore. But it’s also omnipresent.
Kirk’s contract first became a focal point after Iowa won a share of the Big Ten title in 2002. After winning 70 games in eight years, Ferentz gained a 10-year deal in 2010. In September, he was extended again through the 2025 season. It’s reasonable to suggest this is the final contract for the 61-year-old Ferentz, but that conclusion — like life — remains undetermined.
In a recent interview with Landof10.com, Ferentz nodded and smiled when the question came about his contract. He knows as the state’s highest paid public employee that anyone can access what he makes. Ferentz doesn’t shy from discussing his contract, but he instantly churns it into a football analogy.
“It’s a recent phenomenon that the offensive coordinator position has become such a lightning rod position,” Ferentz said, relaxed on an office couch with a cup of coffee in his left hand. “That has become such an interesting spectator sport for me to look at. That’s really a position that you can’t win, basically, unless you’re getting 600 yards a game and 45 points a game. So that’s just a fact of life. Beyond it, the contract thing is kind of in that category in some ways.”
After becoming Iowa’s coach after the 1998 season, Ferentz’s first extension came in July 2002. His salary? $510,000 plus another $400,000 in supplemental income. Two years later, after the Hawkeyes’ second shared Big Ten title in three years, his total pay jumped to $2.84 million with a new contract. He was extended again after the 2008 season. After an 11-2 record and a No. 7 national ranking — the highest finish since 1960 for Iowa — Ferentz inked a 10-year deal in 2010 worth $4 million annually. His buyout clause was 75 percent of total compensation.
For Iowa, it either was the smartest deal or the worst deal. The football program’s 70 victories and four top-10 finishes from 2002 through 2009 was the most in either category in the school’s history. NFL teams called Ferentz annually, and so did major college programs. Iowa athletics director Gary Barta thought giving Ferentz a 10-year deal with a pay raise ranking among the best in college football was a good investment.
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) December 17, 2015
However in 2015, the entire athletic department appeared shackled to the contract. From 2010-14, Iowa went 34-30 overall and 19-21 in the Big Ten. While the Hawkeyes experienced only one losing season, they lacked one with more than eight wins. Iowa began 2010 ranked eighth nationally and finished 8-5. Ferentz’s contract was discussed almost daily on message boards and social media platforms. National outlets offered annual takes on whether Iowa could afford to fire the coach.
In a 2015 interview, Barta walked a careful line of supporting Ferentz and admitting the football program had not achieved expectations.
“I never have and may never again give a coach a 10-year contract, but it wasn’t just about winning,” Barta said. “It was the way he went about his business. The graduation rates, the approach to his students in life, creating them to be future leaders and, yes, the winning. All of that combined.”
While the critical mass of Iowa fans hedged on Ferentz, the longtime coach produced a 2015 season for the ages. Iowa finished the regular season 12-0, its first unblemished record since 1922, and earned a Rose Bowl berth for the first time in 25 years. Ferentz was named Big Ten coach of the year for the fourth time and became a two-time winner of the national coach of the year.
The clock also was ticking on his 2010 contract. With a January 2020 expiration date, Ferentz had only four years remaining on his deal. Five years is the norm so coaches can offer recruits security. In mid-summer 2016, Ferentz, his agent Neil Cornrich and Barta met to hammer out the framework of another extension. It added six years on top of Ferentz’s four remaining seasons and changed the financial structure. Ferentz is guaranteed $4.5 million this year. His incentives include a $500,000 bonus for eight wins and $100,000 for bowl eligibility. If Iowa stays in the top 25, he picks up another $125,000.
— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) December 25, 2016
All of this open discussion about personal finances could make one uncomfortable. Ferentz is unfazed, and not because he’s smug. In fact, it’s the opposite. He’s not interested in owning fancy cars or living an extravagant lifestyle. But college football is a business. Iowa’s athletics department has a $102 million budget. Football ticket sales fill 24 percent of that budget. Indirectly, through conference media rights deals and fundraising, football is responsible for earning as much as another $60 million. In states with major college athletics, college football coaches usually are the highest paid public employees.
“It doesn’t matter what your salary is, once you make a significant amount of money — which I fully appreciate that I make a significant amount of money and I’m very appreciative of that — but really that’s a product of the market,” Ferentz said. “That’s exactly what it is. The facts are if you’re successful and you win every game, then nobody’s going to have a problem with that. But if there’s a bump in the road, then that becomes a discussion point. So it’s a nature of the whole topic.
“There’s no reason for me to get too involved in it. I know it’s going to happen or I know it’s going to be OK with people as long as we’re winning, whatever that number of games you have to win in order to qualify for that. It’s just how it goes. I don’t spend too much time burning energy on it.”
In a knee-jerk world, Ferentz’s contract was a bargain in September 2010 and an albatross by December 2010. The 2016 extension was warranted two weeks into the most recent season and became a blight in mid-September.
“That’s really what it comes down to, as simple as that,” Ferentz said. “It’s so predictable, too. The good thing is you know that discussion is coming, either way. Probably, the only thing I’d add in there is 12 games would be OK for a while, then 13 or 14. There’s always that thirst for more. I get that, too. That’s a part of sports.”
Barta, who took over at Iowa in 2006, judges Ferentz beyond wins and losses. Yes, victories need to happen. A 17 percent drop in season ticket sales for 2015 indicated the fan base had grown tired of mid-level play. A 41-14 loss at Penn State this year “was tough” for everyone involved. But the way Ferentz and the team regrouped in the aftermath with the same approach and won the final three games is something Barta admires.
“You mean he’s not on the hot seat this year?” Barta asked somewhat tongue-in-check. “How many times have I been asked that over the years? In all seriousness, my answer to that is the same this year as it was two years ago and that is that the full package is still terrific. The season’s not done yet; we have one more game. We want to win that one more game. But when it’s all said and done, I’m on record many times saying Kirk’s just a terrific, well-wounded coach in terms of winning, graduating and doing things the right way.”