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EXCLUSIVE: Kirk Ferentz opens up to the Register’s Bryce Miller

[ 0 ] May 18, 2013 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The list of BCS-level football coaches who have led the same programs since at least 1999 is short, which probably isn’t surprising in a game long on win-or-else demands, financial pressures and leadership erosion because of hiring sprees and NCAA storm clouds.

Frank Beamer accepted the job at Virginia Tech in 1987. Mack Brown started at Texas in 1998. And in ’99, Bob Stoops began his current run at Oklahoma — the same season a relatively public unknown named Kirk Ferentz was hired to repair Iowa’s listing and listless ship.

Fourteen seasons later and counting, Ferentz remains in charge of the Hawkeyes after resurrecting the program with six bowl
victories and a string of three
consecutive top-eight finishes during his tenure. Over the same span, bedrock programs such as Ohio State (4), Florida (5) and Alabama (5) have shown the volatile nature of longevity in the game’s bright spotlights.

Iowa struggled during one of its most difficult seasons in 2012, though, winning just four games.

Ferentz sat down with the Des Moines Sunday Register last week for a 45-minute discussion about a range of topics — from the play call he’d most like to change, to questions about hiring practices and his thoughts on a situation simply known in the state as “rhabdo.”

The 57-year-old Ferentz, the state’s highest paid public employee, also opened up about the light-hearted elements of his life while holding a job stacked equally high with expectations and rewards. Yes, he has a vice. And yes, he had an uncomfortable high school nickname.

Settling into his office on Iowa’s campus, Ferentz was asked if he would have enjoyed coaching himself.

“I think so. I think we’d hit it off OK,” he said. “I’d rather have somebody with more speed, as a coach. As a player, I’d probably rather have somebody smarter.”

Ferentz took over from legendary coach Hayden Fry, who retired after a 3-8 season when talent and fan enthusiasm nose-dived. After two wins in Ferentz’s first 20 games, a double-overtime win at Penn State and a victory the next week against Top 25 Northwestern sparked hope. From 2002-05, Iowa won 25 out of 32 Big Ten games — but sits 27-29 in the conference since.

If someone asked you in 1999, would you believe you’d be here in 2013?

“Yes and no. I think probably, maybe 14 or 15 months later (after starting), people might’ve doubted it. We were like 2-18 our first 20 games. At that point, there were probably a few people wondering.”

Success led to job opportunities. How close were you to ever leaving the program?

“Not close, that I’m aware of. There have only been a real small number that have caused me to stop and even think about it for a minute. Nothing that really got too far at any given point.”

Did pressure from fans or media cause you to ever think the college game here wasn’t the right fit?

“I think the fact that we’re here is demonstrative of the fact that we really love this lifestyle. It’s funny how it works. The six years I was in the NFL, I didn’t pay attention to college football — you just don’t have time. When you did have time, it was ACC football and, all due respect, it just wasn’t grabbing me on a Saturday afternoon.

“The only thing I really paid attention to, for obvious reasons, was Iowa … and Wisconsin and Kansas State because I’d worked with Barry (Alvarez) and Bill (Snyder) and had great respect for them, and Dan (McCarney) later over at Iowa State.”

“I’ve never necessarily had a career plan or dream job. One thing I took note of, though, with both Bill and Barry’s situations, at least college — and obviously coach Fry — college afforded maybe, I don’t want to say realistic, but maybe a potential opportunity to establish some roots and maybe call it a semi-normal lifestyle where you’re not moving every three or five years.”

Was there a moment where you finally felt like you had it rolling or figured out?

“It’s like golf — you learn that you never have it figured out. It just doesn’t allow you to ever feel content, or feel like, ‘Boy, we’ve got this thing wired.’ Because you never do.

“But we were obviously in dire need of some success when we played the Penn State game. The Northwestern game the next week, too. Maybe as big a moment as any might have been the second half against Indiana in 2001. Because we were struggling and we were having trouble with (mobile quarterback Antwaan) Randle El — and for good reason, because he’s a great player. That was a pretty pivotal moment for us. We kind of dug in during the second half and found a way to win that game.”

Did you ever doubt you’d get it turned around at Iowa?

“The only real moment where I started to wonder a little bit, was a Wednesday, could have been a Tuesday, a mid-week practice prior to our game with Ohio State in 2000. One of our backs ran right into the back of (lineman) Sam Aiello and Sam went down, right down to the ground. We’d had a series of injuries at that point, and we were having a hard time gaining traction.

“When I went home that evening, and that was the one night where I allowed myself to think, ‘You know, maybe this isn’t meant to be.’ But the next morning, I was fine. … That’s probably about the only Kodak memory I have about wondering whether maybe it was coming down from the heavens that some force greater (was against us).”

Iowa policies on nepotism and conflicts of interest were called into question when Ferentz hired his son, Brian, the team’s current offensive line coach, and Tyler Barnes, who is engaged to Ferentz’s daughter, Joanne.

Was too much made of that?

“Absolutely. I guess what I find offensive — to me, there’s a suggestion that I don’t realize this is a competitive endeavor. That’s how I interpret it. I’m sure it goes well beyond that, but in my mind, it’s as simple as that. What we do is extremely competitive. You can say a lot of things about me that are negative, but I’d take issue with anyone who says I don’t treat this as serious. This is really serious to me, coaching. I want to get the best people here I possibly can. That’s one of my jobs, that’s one of our responsibilities.

“The other suggestion is, people might want to stop (and think), a lot of people we hire, they have other opportunities. This isn’t the only place they could be. But that’s the world we live in, so I get it.”

Tyler’s leaving for a job at Vanderbilt …

“We were by far getting the better end of that deal, having him work here, I’ll say that. One thing I’ll share with you. The worst part about that episode: We were going to do a family night for the first NIT (basketball) game. It was to the point that my daughter requested that we get her tickets separate of our tickets. We don’t get to do a lot of things as a family — and that’s the downside.

“I’m not complaining about it. It’s part of the territory, but there’s something sick in that. She didn’t want that to become a spectacle. We just wanted to go watch a ballgame and have a nice night as a family.”

Ferentz is a unique public figure, in that one of his most dominant characteristics is used as a basic for both praise and criticism. In front of cameras and behind the scenes, he’s known for being steady — without big emotional highs and lows. Many wonder: What are the light moments behind the focused exterior?

What’s the last song or CD you intentionally played?

“It would probably depend on the year. I could cite years for you. For instance, ’04, I guess it was U2 — ‘Atomic Bomb,’ whatever that CD would have been. (For the record, it was ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’ with the song ‘Vertigo.’) That’s the one I kind of got locked in on. When we beat South Carolina (Outback Bowl, 2008 season), I think it was Bruce Springsteen live from Philly — a bootleg CD, a three-set thing that somebody had sent me.

“Jamie Johnson (The Jamie Johnson Band), for the Missouri game (Insight Bowl, 2010 season) — there was a month there. … I just learned about Jamie Johnson and I kind of got wired into him that month.”

How do you celebrate after a big win, or vent after a tough loss?

“I might knock out a couple of Ben & Jerry’s (ice cream) after a good win. I might knock out three of them after a loss. I guess Saturday night’s are for Ben & Jerry’s for me, either way. Cherry Garcia is the old standby. The Red Velvet (Cake) they’ve got now is pretty good, too. And I’m a huge (Wells) Blue Bunny fan.”

Do you have an ice cream problem? Do you need counseling?

“I do, big time. I’m trying to control it. I’m winning the war, temporarily, though.”

Ferentz is tied for third in Big Ten history in bowl wins, with six. It was a bowl loss, however, that sticks in his mind. Iowa, a major underdog to defending national champion Texas, sprinted to an early double-digit lead before losing 26-24 during the 2006 Alamo Bowl. The Hawkeyes had the ball with senior quarterback Drew Tate with less than 3 minutes left when Iowa called a wide receiver pass play on a reverse. Dominique Douglas was tackled for an 11-yard loss, forcing Iowa to punt a few plays later. The Longhorns ran out the clock.

Is there one play call you’d like to have back?

“There are probably several I’d like to have back. But there was one, we ran that reverse pass against Texas. That was just a bad thing. Bad result. Beyond that, I got greedy — which is a bad thing to do. And we had a senior quarterback who was playing pretty well. So in effect, we took the ball out of his hands. In retrospect, I’d like to have that back. That’s one that jumps out right away.”

Iowa’s current contract with Ferentz of more than $3.8 million per year makes him the fourth-highest paid coach in the nation, according to USA TODAY Sports. The deal includes a substantial buyout protection through its conclusion in 2020. The contract committed Iowa so deeply that some questioned whether athletic director Gary Barta had tied the university’s hands if fortunes dipped.

When you hit a rough patch — which is inevitable in college football, really — what do you think when fans bring up your salary?

“That comes with the territory. If I was making a quarter of what I make — which would still be a very healthy level of income — it would still be an issue. That just comes with signing the contract.”

Your boss, Gary Barta, has received some flack for the heavy, long-term commitment in the contract. What did you think about that kind of support?

“It was important to me. Part of the reason is, if you look around football, pretty much at any level of college or pro, there are going to be ups and downs. I don’t know a lot about a lot of things, but I kind of pay attention to that. Coaches like Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy — who’s no longer in it. All three of those guys were let go from other positions and then … Bill goes to New England, now he’s heading to the Hall of Fame. Tom Coughlin has a couple of Super Bowls in New York. And they let Tony Dungy go (in Tampa Bay), and he built a team (Indianapolis) that ended up winning the Super Bowl.

“That’s kind of the nature of the deal.”

Is the profession more treacherous for coaches these days?

“I go back to when we played USC in the 2003 Orange Bowl, 2002 season (a 38-17 loss to USC), the year before that, they played Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl (and lost). They went through a period. How does that happen to USC? The question to me wasn’t why they were so good when they got good. The question was: What happened prior to that? Well, it just happens. You’d like to try to avoid that. Chances are, though, that there will be valleys as well as peaks.”

“In today’s climate, it was important to me to know we’d have the security that we could do things the way we wanted to do them, and do things we think are best for the program.”

Iowa’s coach is known for keeping his life away from football relatively close to the vest. In moments, though, he shares a few of the smile-producing stories.

Did you have a nickname in high school or college?

“I’ve had a few.”

What were they?

“There were some.”

Such as? Name one? Is there one you can admit?

“Fetus Head, that was one. Helmets didn’t fit so well back in the day. I’ve got a head that’s kind of shaped like an almond, I guess. So, yeah. I used to have a big lump that would form over my head (pointing to bridge of nose). That probably explains some of my problems and my issues right now — 35 years later.

“During football season, I tended to look like a Neanderthal creature. So a couple of my friends came up with the nickname Fetus-Head Ferentz.”

What’s the goofiest thing you’ve ever done — dancing or karaoke or something like that?

“Those are questions I struggle to answer. I’m sure I’ve done a lot of goofy things.”

Ever done karaoke?

“No. No, that would take a lot, yeah.”

If you had to, could you pull off a song?

“That would take a lot, too, to get me to do that. I can’t sing, I know that. I know what my weaknesses are — and that’s a big one. … On the singing topic, I had to sing in front of the (Cleveland) Browns. It was a rookie initiation (coach) in 1993. I belted out a Bill Murray rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’ That was safe.”

High-dollar college programs often create headlines for incidents when players run afoul of police or NCAA rules. Stories about charity events and hospital visits sometimes are less publicized. Iowa is about to hold the third-annual Ladies’ Football Academy — a women’s-only chance to learn more about the team and sport while raising money for the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. The event, spearheaded by Ferentz’s wife, Mary, has raised almost $500,000 in two years.

What’s a good-news story around the program that might not get the biggest headlines?

“Well, the Ladies’ Football Academy. We’ve raised a lot of money with it. But more importantly … last year, for instance, we had over 350 women go back to their communities after having a chance to interface with 60-plus of our kids. So the money we’re raising is great. But they get a chance to see the kids, the players, the coaches on a more personal basis, and it humanizes things a little bit. My wife got a note from one of the people who attended last year, it was after the season. She said, ‘Normally, as a fan, I would be really, you know (down on 4-8 season), but after the academy it changed her perspective on things.

“Our guys, the benefit they get from community service and how fortunate they are to do it. This is a volunteer activity for all of them — and it helps a lot of kids.”

What have you learned about college athletes people don’t always realize?

“You did a really nice piece on James Vandenberg (at the end of last season). Nobody could have had a tougher year than James, and nobody could have handled it with more class. He just did a great job. We knew there had to be some really tough moments he experienced, those moments late at night and those sorts of things. The way he handled it was tremendous.

Read the November column about Vandenberg

“On the I-Club circuit right now, Eric May (former Iowa basketball player). We tried to recruit him five years, tried to make him a linebacker or a tight end. He’s a great guy. I got a chance to sit with (former Iowa women’s basketball player) Jaime Printy at Polk County the other night — just an outstanding person. Had a great career, had to deal with an injury and the kind of person she is.

“It would be really nice if there was a way for fans to really get to meet these young people and get to know them better.”

In January 2011, 13 members of Iowa’s football team were hospitalized after an intense workout. The cause was determined to be a stress-induced condition called rhabdomyolysis. Iowa examined its policies related to a workout it had conducted before, and told USA TODAY the different workout result was due to the long holiday layoff just before the drills — rather than the workout itself. The situation was one of the toughest, national public chapters for the program under Ferentz.

Much has been written about the rhabdo situation. One thing that has been speculated out there, is that you created the first assistant coach of the year award and gave it to (strength and conditioning coach) Chris Doyle to make a point to media and critics …

“That’s a chapter that’s really interesting. I still have in my files in there two articles that were national that were really irresponsible. I mean really irresponsible. I had a chance to talk to one of the writers. Walked by another (at an event), but didn’t know him or recognize him or I would have said something.

“The award, that wasn’t my idea. That was the Polk County I-Club. It’s hard to say, it’s like your children — I like this one better than that one. But Chris has been a building block of this program from Day 1 — and that was by design in 1998 when we came, and it remains that way. For Chris, it was a big-picture award. He’s been the one constant. I feel really fortunate we were able to hang on to him, and I hope we can keep him here for a long time. I don’t think he has a peer in the field — that’s just my personal opinion.”

There were so many questions that arose out of the rhabdo story …

“That whole incident is unfortunate in a lot of regards. If you look back, no one really knew what rhabdo was at that point. I’ve had two kids in the room do that test. And if I thought they were in harm’s way, they wouldn’t have been in there. There’s the coach aspect, but also the parental aspect.

“We know a lot more about it now.”

The 45 minutes — serious, silly and otherwise — wound down to its end.

At your retirement ceremony, what will be the happiest moments you’ll talk about when someone asks?

“There have been so many good things, and not all game- or season-related. At the end of the day, the best part of it is the traditions. The fact that Nate Kaeding was here two hours ago, a guy who played for us a decade ago — there’s still that connection. That’s really the fun part about this.

“Go back to spring ball. We had two days in a row where Marshal Yanda and Sean Considine addressed the team. Coincidentally, two guys who played on a Super Bowl championship team (Baltimore Ravens). The Saturday before, Jim Caldwell (former NFL coach of the Colts) was in the office. Just because he cares, he’s still connected to the University of Iowa (as a former assistant). Jim and I never overlapped, but there’s still a bond there. That’s what’s fun about working here.”

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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