The biggest question hanging over the Iowa football program besides when or if Kirk Ferentz will start tweeting is whether he can bring the program back to elite status.
Or will the latter stages of his reign unfold like Hayden Fry’s did at Iowa?
The longer Ferentz coaches the Hawkeyes, the more he resembles his legendary predecessor and former boss.
Not in the physical sense because unlike Fry, Ferentz never has had a mustache while coaching the Hawkeyes. Ferentz doesn’t wear cowboy boots off the field or white pants on it. He doesn’t wear sunglasses on a regular basis. And he doesn’t use colorful phrases like “scratch where it itches” or “hitch in his get-along” as Fry did.
It’s from a performance standpoint where Ferentz resembles Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach.
He and Fry both built rebuilt the Iowa program to elite status, but they also both leveled off and became ordinary.
Of course, the difference is that Ferentz isn’t through coaching yet.
He still needs to win one more Big Ten title to match the three that Fry won during his 20-year reign at Iowa from 1979-1998. But there is still plenty of time for Ferentz to do it, seven more seasons if he were to coach for as long as Fry did at Iowa.
Ferentz isn’t considered old by coaching standards at 57, and he enters his 14th season as the Iowa coach with a guaranteed contract that runs through the 2020 season.
Ferentz also is in a situation where as long as Iowa doesn’t sink to the bottom of the Big Ten standings, it’s all systems go and leave him alone.
The NFL still comes sniffing around every now and then, but the connection with Ferentz doesn’t seem as strong as it used to be.
Ferentz also hired his oldest son as an assistant coach during the offseason and he welcomed his youngest son to the team this summer as a walk-on freshman tight end.
So it’s looking more and more like this is Captain Kirk’s last voyage as a head coach just like it did with Fry at the same stage in his career at Iowa exactly 20 years ago.
This past offseason was unique because it was filled with change, most notably coaching changes, including having two new coordinators.
Fry dealt with the same thing after he rebuilt the Iowa program, although, most of the coaching changes on his watch happened earlier in his reign.
Barry Alvarez was the first noticeable assistant to bolt from Fry’s staff, leaving after the 1986 season to become the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz.
Offensive coordinator Bill Snyder then left after the 1988 season to become the head coach at Kansas State, where he orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of college football and still is coaching there nearly a quarter century later.
Dan McCarney and Bernie Wyatt both resigned from Fry’s staff after the 1989 season to work under Alvarez, who at the time had just been hired as the new coach at Wisconsin.
Ferentz himself also resigned as Fry’s offensive line coach after the 1989 season to become the head coach at Maine, where he stayed for three seasons before moving to the NFL.
Fry still held the ship together, leading Iowa to a share of the Big Ten title in 1990. The Hawkeyes also finished 10-1-1 in 1991, which was Fry’s 13th season as coach.
However, in seasons 14 through 20 under Fry, Iowa never finished above third place in the Big Ten and also finished sixth or lower in the conference standings in five of the seven seasons.
And now Ferentz enters his 14th season at Iowa with many thinking his program is sputtering after back-to-back seasons in which Iowa finished 4-4 in the Big Ten.
Even Ferentz acknowledged that there were chinks in the armor, saying during the offseason that his program needed a reboot.
Part of the reboot was nearly a complete overhaul of his staff with running backs coach Lester Erb and receivers coach Erik Campbell the only assistants who still have the same position jobs as last season.
“Anytime you’re 13 years into something, you need to look at everything,” Ferentz said.
It’s obvious now that Fry lost a wealth of knowledge when coaches like Alvarez and Snyder moved on. They weren’t your typical assistant coaches, and it showed while they were at Iowa, but more so after they left and became legendary coaches.
Ken O’Keefe was an original member of Ferentz’s staff at Iowa and served as the offensive coordinator for all 13 seasons until resigning in February to become the receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins.
And though it’s almost certain that O’Keefe never will come close to matching what Alvarez and Snyder did after leaving Iowa, it’s still uncertain how the Iowa offense will respond under O’Keefe’s replacement, Greg Davis.
It’s also uncertain if former defensive backs coach-turned-defensive coordinator Phil Parker will have the same success that his predecessor and former boss Norm Parker (no relation) had in the previous 13 seasons at Iowa.
The Iowa program is sort of at a crossroads, as was Fry’s program at about the same time 20 years ago.
It turned out that Fry’s better days were behind him at Iowa.
The challenge for Ferentz is to avoid that kind of ending.
By the numbers: 13 years coaching at Iowa
Overall record at Iowa: 96-66 (13 seasons).
Big Ten record: 57-47.
Big Ten titles: Two (2002, 2004).
Bowl record: 5-5.
Double-digit win seasons: Four (2002, 11-2; 2003, 10-3; 2004, 10-2; 2009, 11-2).
Honors: 2002 Associated Press Coach of the Year, Big Ten Coach of the Year (2002, 2004, 2009).
Players drafted by the NFL: 51.
Players selected in the first round: Six.
Heisman watch: Senior quarterback Brad Banks finished runner-up for the 2002 Heisman Trophy.
Hayden Fry after 13 seasons at Iowa
Overall record: 100-51-5.
Big Ten record: 70-32-4.
Big Ten titles: Three (1981, 1985, 1990).
Bowl record: 4-5-1.
Double-digit win seasons: Three (1985, 10-2; 1987, 10-3; 1991, 10-1-1).
Honors: Big Ten Coach of the Year (1981, 1990).
Players drafted by the NFL: 46.
Players selected in the first round: Five.
Heisman watch: Senior quarterback Chuck Long finished runner-up for the 1985 Heisman Trophy.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football