IOWA CITY, Iowa — A handful of days before Christmas, Kirk Ferentz’s office appears both immaculate and nondescript. In other words, exactly how one would picture it.
The longtime Iowa football coach has the trinkets associated with anyone coaching a sport at one location for 18 consecutive years. There are game balls from wins against Penn State in 2009 and 2010. There are photos of former players celebrating the NFL draft, interacting with the community and buckling down with academics.
There’s also a coffee machine near a U-shaped grouping of furniture. On this particular day, both are necessary. Ferentz is in the middle of several interviews with reporters before taking his Hawkeyes to their 10th January bowl game. In Part 1 of his interview with Landof10.com’s Scott Dochterman, Ferentz addresses several topics ranging from chasing Hayden Fry’s school record for career wins (Ferentz sits eight behind the mark of 143) to annually telling the NFL no. Ferentz also discusses his son, Brian, his coaching pedigree and the day he considered quitting Iowa.
DOCHTERMAN: Looking at your career record, you’re only eight wins behind Hayden Fry. As you know, Fry is a legend here. You worked for him for nine years. Have you stopped and thought about the significance of that potential accomplishment?
FERENTZ: “The answer is really not really. Aware of that, kind of, not the exact number, but now you’re in the neighborhood at least. 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. I relate it to my experience here back in the ’80s where I was with a staff that was together for seven years intact and then Barry (Alvarez) left. To be at a place where I think they understand what it takes to be successful, that’s part of it and also to be able to have people around you that allow you be successful, that’s the other part of it. I think those two things are a great combination. I don’t want to talk for coach Fry, but I would think he’d probably tell you those were really important to him, too, when he was here.”
SD: You’ve talked quite a bit about the breakthrough Iowa made in 1981 that benefited everyone in the Big Ten, that kind of broke up the Big 2. In some ways, your success has been just as impressive by maintaining the program because Iowa isn’t Ohio State or Michigan or Penn State. I always look at Wisconsin, a 20-year stretch where it couldn’t beat Iowa. Northwestern went 21 years without beating Iowa, 15 for Iowa State. All of those programs got a lot better around the time you took over. Is it more difficult now to maintain what you helped start in the 1980s than what Hayden and you guys collectively did in the early ’80s?
KF: “I’d say the challenges are the challenges. We had them certainly in the ’80s, at least the nine years I was here. It was never an easy game. If it turned out to be easy then it was, but I think overall, we’ve added to it with Barry (Alvarez) going to Wisconsin. We added to the equation, I guess, like with Dan Gable’s guys who left and made other (wrestling) programs a lot more competitive. There’s certainly ebb and flow with every conference. I think that’s one thing we can all be proud of is that not every year has been perfect here, but we’ve been able to maintain a level of success in the big picture for quite some time. Coach Fry built a great foundation here. A lot of what we try to do is probably the roots of what I learned in my nine years and if you talked to Barry, if you talked to Bill Snyder, Dan McCarney, guys who left here and had opportunities, they’d probably tell you the same thing. There’s some consistencies probably with all the programs.”
SD: Let’s say you do get past Hayden. You’re then fifth all-time in Big Ten wins, sixth in Big Ten-only wins. Those are significant accomplishments, rare territory. Any thoughts on that?
KF: “That’s the kind of stuff that’s kind of like on a season basis. When we get done with this bowl game, I am going to put on the Michigan game and enjoy it. I haven’t been able to do that yet, but I do have a copy of the broadcast. Maybe when I get done with coaching I’ll look back and say we did some really good things. You kind of live in the minute and live in the period that you’re in when you’re in coaching. Your focus is really present-driven, if you will. When I say present I also mean short term; what are we going to have to do to get ready for the next year? It’s ongoing. It’s one of the things that keeps you invigorated a little bit and keeps you on the edge of your seat when you’re coaching.”
SD: Hayden seemed to be reluctant on stepping down. In 1995 he wins the Sun Bowl and Bill Brashier retires — he said he thought about retiring a lot at that point. But then he probably looked at Sedrick Shaw and Tavian Banks and Tim Dwight and said ‘I’ve got a few more years.’ But he also said he’s concerned about his assistant coaches — what can happen to them, especially after a bowl game, are there any jobs left? Have you given much thought to when that happens in 10 years, five years …?
KF: “I haven’t thought about that stage, yet. At some point I’m going to have to, obviously. To the one point you brought up, that’s one of the responsibilities of being a head coach. Anytime you choose, it’s a complex equation, if you choose to change your venue. If somebody else chooses it for you, there’s nothing else you can do. So you leave. But if you make the choice to leave where you’re at, it does affect and impact a whole lot of people. That’s one thing I witnessed in the NFL. You’ve got the Black Monday thing. People don’t realize how many lives are impacted when those take place. I lived through that in Cleveland when Bill (Belichick) was let go on Valentine’s Day on 1996. In ours it was really extreme because the franchise was going to move eventually. So when you see how it affects lives in the entire building, it’s pretty sobering. So that’s one of the responsibilities coaches have to carry with them, I guess, if they do make a change. If they leave for another job, it might impact a lot of people. You think about coaches with kids in school, high school aged, that’s a bad time to be moving kids. There are a lot of ramifications to it. So it’s one more thing until you’re a head coach you never really think about, then when you are in that position you realize, ‘Boy, there’s a lot of responsibility you haven’t thought about sometimes.’ It’s one of those deals.
“Whenever it’s time for me to end my coaching career, it’s something you’ll have to think about a little bit, I’d imagine. You’ll probably communicate it with your staff and give them ample warning or ample time. But one thing for sure, we have guys on our staff that will outlive me in coaching, I think.”
SD: A lot of people in your position that worked in the NFL and have been successful, especially worked for a guy like Bill Belichick, take that jump, maybe almost all of them do. Other than liking Iowa and where you work, what’s kept you from even giving it a shot at the NFL?
KF: “The biggest thing is what you touched on, I really like it here on a lot of levels. I’ve never spent much time in my life feeling like ‘I’ve got to.’ I remember reading a book, I think Lou Holtz had a list of 136 things he wanted to do. I can’t count that high, first of all, but I’ve never really kind of thought in those terms. My mentor, Joe Moore, he used to talk about head coaches. He said there are two kinds of coaches. The guys who love coaching and the guys who want to be head coach and that’s their sole mission in life. I was never in that category. I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve had, whether it’s Worcester Academy, working here certainly, I enjoyed being a GA. I enjoyed my time in the NFL greatly. But when I left there, I never felt like, ‘Boy I’m a failure if I don’t coach in the Super Bowl.’ I didn’t get that opportunity as an assistant, I certainly didn’t as a player and I’ve never had that craving as a head coach. There are schools that are ‘bigger names’ than Iowa, but I never felt like I had to coach at one of those ‘superpower schools’ or ‘elite schools.’ To me it really gets down to your day-to-day experience. That’s the best career advice I’ve never been given. It’s all about your day-to-day and the people that you’re with on a daily basis. Coincidentally, the nine years I was here as an assistant were nine of the best years I’ve ever had in my professional life. When I had the chance to come back here, I could say the same about the last 18. People that I work with, whether it’s the players or the staff, support staff, the people that help, the people that clean our building are unbelievable. It was the same way in the other building. The players, in 27 years, we’ve had a lot of great guys come through that have been fun to work with.
“Beyond it, on a personal level, the fact that our family has had a chance to have five kids graduate from one high school is really important to us and it was important to us when we came back because our kids were at that age where you don’t want to be moving them. There’s so many things. You almost need a compelling reason to leave. Things aren’t right here, leadership’s not good, it’s concerning, etc., the sport’s not good. Or there’s something so attractive and enticing out there. But I’ve never … I doubt I’ll ever have a Mercedes. I’ll never say never. It’s just not on my list. I’m not big into material stuff. I’ve never felt like we have to have the most bats in our dugout. We need enough bats so we can hit the ball, but we don’t need the most or the most expensive. I guess that’s how I was raised.
“This seems to be a good fit for me. I guess I’ve never had that “have to” part of things in my life.”
SD: I get the impression that if and when your career ends here, that you’d be more than happy to be an offensive line coach for a Division-III school?
KF: “I would love it.”
SD: Just teaching the game and coaching at a level where you’re out of the spotlight and just do …
KF: “That’s kind of how I was raised so that would be a good way to end things. It wouldn’t be all bad. Players are players and young people are young people. They’re just fun to work with. It’s no different than if your kids play Little League. You see the improvement in two months’ time or six weeks’ time. That’s the fun part of coaching. You see that growth. That can be done at Division III, Division I, in some cases the NFL. There are those cases, too, where you see the light comes on for them. That’s fun when you’re a part of it.”
SD: You brought your son, Brian, back to coach here. When he was done with the Falcons as a player, he goes to the equivalent of a coaching boot camp with the Patriots under Belichick. You don’t survive that without being a pretty good coach or you change careers quickly. You brought him back here. Most people assess that he’s going to be a head coach at some point. He’s 33, is he ready to lead a program now?
KF: “I think he could. We have several guys that probably could. Part of the equation that I would use, you could argue that I wasn’t prepared well enough to be the line coach here in 1981. On paper, I wasn’t. But coach Fry took a leap of faith with me and it worked out. Hopefully I’m a better coach now than I was in ’81. You jump in the water and start going. On his point of being in New England, there were two things that I was pretty sure of. One of the things about working up there in the role that he started (scouting assistant), you’re going to find out if you really like it or not because it’s not real glamorous. The work you do is not real glamorous, the hours are bad, the pay is really bad. That’s how I started out with Bill, too. I had a different title, but I was the lowest-paid line coach in the league. There’s nothing easy there. But I knew the education you would get would be first class and part of that education with him is it’s hands on. Once you demonstrate you can do something, he’s going to let you go. Brian ended up having tight ends there for a couple of years and so the experience he got there was really good that way. You could argue he wasn’t prepared to take those tight ends, either. But when he did, he figured it out and got it done. That’s what good coaches do.”
SD: In your case, you were here nine years originally then you went to Maine in 1990. It was a shock probably with things like travel and expenses. Even though Iowa may not be Ohio State, it’s a little different environment. Would you recommend that for Brian or anybody else to say, ‘OK, you start a little low, you probably make some public mistakes that go under the radar whereas here …’
KF: “Absolutely. That was one of the benefits. I called (then-Iowa director of football operations) Bill Dervich immediately 3 weeks into it and I said, ‘They should have hired you, not me.’ He’s our administrative guy, the ops guy. I said, ‘I’m not coaching football. That’s all I’m doing, is ops work.’ It was a real eye-opener for me. But, yeah, all the mistakes I made there, people weren’t as in tune with them as they would have been at a different situation most likely. So when I came back here, at least the things I stubbed my toe on, the things that I knew I stubbed my toe on, at least I avoided making that mistake here. Not that I didn’t make other ones. It’s valuable experience. But I think anything you do, you can learn. If you don’t do it that way, then you certainly want to call upon people who have experience for what you’re about to experience. Learn from the things, what were the challenges. I think to me anybody who takes a high school job in Iowa is crazy not to call (Iowa D-line coach) Reese Morgan up and come over and have a cup of coffee with him and ask him, ‘How did you do it at West High? How did you build that thing?’ To me that’s smart coaching or smart anything. People that have done a good job of learning from their trials and tribulations.”
SD: Chuck Noll, on “A Football Life,” said on his first day of training camp he went home, shut the door, called his wife in and said we’re going to be really bad this year and I want you to know that. Did you ever go home in your first year and say, this is going to be a little bit tough?
KF: “Joe Moore did it for me, actually. When I took the job he was the one who told me, ‘Don’t win too fast.’ That was his advice. Then he came out in the spring and said, ‘Don’t worry about that; it’s going to be a while.’ We’ve all had those moments in coaching. All of us have. Wherever you’re at, it’s all about trying to move forward.
“The only time in 18 years that I really went home at night wondering if it’s going to work was before the Ohio State game in 2000. Somebody ran into Sam Aiello, who had a bad back, ran into him and Sam went down like he was shot. I don’t know. He was like the fifth lineman we got hurt in that month. But it was like, it kind of broke the camel’s back. It was the straw. Are we going to catch any breaks at all? What else is going to happen? So for that one night I did go home thinking maybe this isn’t meant to be. Maybe just maybe. Then you wake up the next morning and you go back to work. You can’t dwell on those kinds of things. But we’ve all had those moments where this could be tough.”