Kirk Ferentz has been infamous among the college football pundit world for being an unfireable (I know, I know, I made up a word) coach.
He parlayed success early in his coaching career into a buyout the university could not afford, and everyone knew it. His critics pointed out that since then, he produced nowhere near the same level of results which justified the contract. For years, his critics felt he was no longer the right man for the job. They claimed that his salary and buyout were way too high and unjustified. His critics were right about his production tapering off. They were dead wrong about him not being the right man for the job.
This season has naturally readjusted the debate over Ferentz, but the answer still would have been the same without a spectacular 2015 run.
Ferentz took over a struggling program at the end of the 20th century. In his fourth season as head coach, he won a share of the Big Ten title by taking the Hawkeyes to 8-0 in Big Ten play. True, due to the nature of the Big Ten schedule at the time, he managed to avoid Ohio State (the eventual national champion that year), but it was still the Hawkeyes’ first appearance in a major bowl in over a decade. Ferentz backed up that season with two more 10-win seasons, including another share of the Big Ten title in 2004. With three consecutive top-10 finishes, Ferentz earned his place in Hawkeye lore, his massive contract, and the buyout that came with it.
The problems emerged since then. The Hawkeyes have only been ranked at the end of the year twice since 2004, and it hasn’t happened since the 2009 season (though this year will break that streak). They have lost three consecutive bowl games, last year’s in embarrassing fashion. A win over Georgia Tech in the 2010 Orange Bowl bought Ferentz a reprieve, but coming into this season he had very little success at Iowa for five consecutive seasons.
What makes Ferentz the right man for the Iowa job? Intermittent success at a major program might not be a bad thing, but why am I celebrating it? What about Kirk Ferentz makes his model the perfect one to bring to Iowa?
First, let’s briefly mention Ferentz’s coaching philosophy. It’s simple, yet there is beauty in its simplicity. He wants to break the game down to its base components. He wants the game to be a possession-by-possession battle with each team having to play consistently and methodically to find success. He takes what college football fans have derisively called “Tressell-ball” to an even greater level. His team will be consistent. His team won’t make mistakes. His team will gain a little more out of each possession than your team will. That is why his team will beat you.
This philosophy is a match made in heaven for a school like Iowa, with a proud football tradition, but not a very strong one. The school claims one national title, but it’s questionable at best. The AP and Coaches’ Polls both awarded the 1958 title to LSU, which went undefeated. Iowa had a loss, but the FWAA awarded the Grantland-Rice Trophy to Iowa because the Hawkeyes played several more ranked teams than LSU did, along with having a more impressive bowl victory than the Tigers. (Iowa was also retroactively awarded several national titles by minor selectors for seasons in the 1920s, but the school does not claim any of those.) Iowa can also claim only four wins in major bowls in its history, not a good number for a team that has been in the Big Ten for well over a century.
Most importantly in the current era of college football, Iowa does not have a fertile recruiting ground. There are certainly talented players in the state, but not nearly enough to consistently compete with the best of other schools around the country. If Iowa got into recruiting wars with the cream of the crop in states such as Florida, Texas, California, and Georgia, it would lose. Sure, the Hawkeyes might get some very good players there. They do now with Ferentz lightly recruiting those areas, but it is not a formula for success in a place like Iowa.
What is a formula for success? Keeping the best players in the state, coaching them up, and–most importantly–playing a style that accentuates the strengths of in-state athletes. Iowa does not get that many skill position players or defenders with elite top-end speed. What the Hawkeyes do have, in abundance, are strong NFL-caliber linemen and powerful running backs and tight ends. They get big guys who can be beastly on the defensive line, and they always manage to find a few guys fast enough to play in the secondary against top competition.
Kirk Ferentz’s philosophy is the type that, with a disciplined team, will eventually wear opponents out. It also creates an offense that can run the ball methodically and, with an effective game manager at quarterback, can pass efficiently when needed. Iowa has that perfectly right now with a senior-laden team and C.J. Beathard manning the helm at quarterback.
The defense is a basic defense that doesn’t make mistakes and won’t give up big plays. The Hawkeyes don’t pull too many stunts or play fancy coverages. The philosophy comes through here as well. It forces the offense to be consistent and not make mistakes; make a mistake and the defense will pounce. Iowa will be tested heavily against Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and Christian McCaffrey is probably the fastest and shiftiest offensive player the Hawkeyes have faced all season.
All of this brings us to today. Ferentz’s system worked beautifully this year. He was graced with a team that could apply his philosophy to the letter, and a favorable schedule that allowed Iowa to go undefeated in the 12-game regular season. The Hawkeyes are now one win away from what will likely be their first year-end top-5 finish since 1960. They are one win away from their first Rose Bowl victory since the aforementioned national championship season of 1958.
Maybe this is the peak of what Ferentz can bring to Iowa. Maybe the ceiling is a chance at a national title or a major bowl every few years when a senior class is talented and disciplined enough to play “Ferentz-ball” to perfection. Yet, even if this is the peak, and even if Ferentz can’t build a national contender on a yearly basis, fans should realize what they have. Iowa isn’t in a position to annually compete for national titles.
Kirk Ferentz is bringing the absolute best that anyone possibly can to Iowa City. A major bowl every few years is far more than Iowa was dreaming before Kirk Ferentz got there. Right now, that is what he is delivering.
Ferentz is the perfect person to bring the Hawkeyes to their ceiling. They were two plays away from being in the Playoff this year. It probably won’t happen again next year, but it probably will happen again within the next five years. I don’t think any other coach in the country could have Iowa in that position. That is why Kirk Ferentz is the right man to lead the Hawkeyes for a long time to come.