IOWA CITY, Iowa — Unfulfilled football expectations and Kirk Ferentz’s contract buyout became midsummer 2015’s most discussed topic related to Hawkeye sports both inside and outside Iowa’s borders.
Iowa football’s run of mediocrity from 2010-2014 resulted in a 34-30 overall record and a 19-21 mark in Big Ten play. Ticket sales were down 17 percent, attendance on the spring I-Club circuit dropped by half and fans questioned whether Iowa had the money to fire Ferentz and pay his massive buyout.
Athletics director Gary Barta insisted then — as well as today — he’s always had the money to pay off Ferentz. Had the 2015 season extended the football indigestion, Ferentz’s buyout would have cost Iowa about $9.2 million had the school fired him. But Barta, who joined Iowa after Ferentz’s seventh season, never wavered in supporting the coach. As a result, a vocal minority of fans demanded the athletics director’s ouster, in part because he had awarded Ferentz a 10-year extension in 2010.
“I get negative attention no matter what I do,” Barta said Tuesday. “If I do something, there’s a group that’s upset about it. If I don’t do something, not just in this case but anything I do (people are upset).
“My decision to remain and stay the course with Kirk was based on all the values and all the past experience, not based on the buyout. The buyout is something we could have done financially, but I chose to stay with him because of who he is and what he had done.”
Barta, 53, had the support of former Iowa president Sally Mason, who retired in 2015. Barta’s contract was set to expire in June 2016 and speculation swirled in late 2015 that incoming president Bruce Herrald would dismiss him.
Ferentz rewarded Barta’s patience and faith with a 12-win regular season in 2015. Iowa qualified for its first Rose Bowl in 25 years, and Ferentz earned national coach of the year honors by multiple groups. Consequently, Barta’s contract was extended by five years last winter. After months of discussions, Iowa officially announced a contract extension for Ferentz through 2026.
Neither Ferentz nor Barta had lost the support of Iowa’s donors, who lauded the extension. Cedar Rapids anesthesiologist Brent Feller, who has naming rights to Iowa’s largest club room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, is one of Ferentz’s strongest supporters. He has advocated publicly for Ferentz both during the lean years and, now, after a ranked season.
“(Ferentz is) a great guy, he really is,” Feller said. “I know sometimes the fan base doesn’t always care about that. But when you’re the guy like Gary is at the top of the food chain, you not only want a guy who can win, but a guy who’s not going to create issues. That’s as much of this as it is the winning. Kids graduate. They don’t get in trouble. When they do get in trouble, they have a very short leash. I think that’s what the people in the administration of athletics as well as the university appreciate.”
Ferentz and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (who played and coached at Iowa concurrently during Ferentz’s years as an assistant) are Division I’s longest consecutively tenured head coaches at 18 years. The 10-year relationship between Barta and Ferentz form the third-longest AD-coach combination. In only three seasons with Barta has Ferentz won at least nine games. But the athletics director believes in his coach, which made it easy for Barta to stand up for Ferentz.
“I don’t feel comfortable saying I’ve been validated,” Barta said. “What I feel great about is the instincts of myself and the people around me. The values that Kirk has demonstrated, not only the 17 years as head coach, but from what I understand as an assistant coach, he hasn’t changed the way he approaches things. So validated might not be the word I’d choose, but I feel great about the fact I want good things to happen to good people. There’s a lot of great people who work at the University of Iowa, a lot of great student-athletes. So it feels terrific to me that this has come to fruition.”