IOWA CITY, Ia. — When he travels the state on the I-Club circuit each spring, Iowa football Kirk Ferentz answers a lot of questions.
Two get asked more than others. One, what do you write on that card during games? And two, what kind of gum do you chew?
“It’s about all I’m known for, I guess,” Ferentz said.
First, it’s sugarless Bubble Yum. Ferentz has been a gum chewer since he was a kid playing baseball.
And taking notes on a 5-by-8 index card, something he started doing as an assistant coach in the NFL, is a way for him to keep a pulse on the game as it unfolds.
“When people ask, I tell them it’s a crossword puzzle I do just to keep entertained during games,” the 16th-year Iowa coach said.
At the Register’s request, Ferentz pulled out several of his index cards from the 2013 season to get behind what he’s actually scribbling in the heat of the moment — and why it’s important.
“It’s just an index card, folded over,” Ferentz explained. “On one half I keep track of each series, offensively and defensively — a drive, where it starts, how it ends. And then on the flip side of that I track special teams, penalties, turnovers, takeaways, that’s pretty much it. And then on the inside I’ll just jot down any thoughts I might have as the game is going on. Maybe what I need to touch on at halftime, or comments for after the game if something comes to mind.”
At the bottom of the right side of each card are a series of first names — the officials working the game.
“That’s my reference chart, just so I can be buddy-buddy with those guys,” Ferentz said.
As an offensive line coach at Iowa from 1981 to 1989 under Hayden Fry, Ferentz had a manager chart things on a board so he could review them during a change of possession.
He started charting things by himself when he went to the NFL in 1993, since he didn’t have a manager by his side. In the NFL, he also had pictures of each play to review with his team.
He doesn’t have those pictures at Iowa, and his oversight has expanded from just the offensive line to the entire field.
Ferentz balks at the idea of a manager keeping track of the game for him now.
“Everybody does everything for me already,” Ferentz said. “I don’t want to look like I’m helpless, at least on game day.”
Ferentz calls the index card a reference tool.
“It just gives me a way of keeping my mind in order a little bit,” Ferentz said. “And if I have to go back and reference it, either at halftime or during a ballgame, it’s there. At least I have something that’s fairly accurate without having to talk to someone else. There might be nothing there. But there might be something significant.”
Ferentz charts offense on the left, defense on the right. The start of each drive is noted, and the score of the game if it changes after the series. For instance, on Iowa’s first possession of the second half against Michigan he wrote:
“-30 (TD-4/15) 14-21.”
Iowa started its first drive of the second half at its own 30, and scored on a touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Rudock (No. 15) to Tevaun Smith (No. 4). The narrowed the Hawkeyes’ deficit to 21-14.
Under turnovers in the Michigan game, Ferentz’s first entry reads: “Pick 6.” Rudock was intercepted by Michigan’s Brennen Beyer on Iowa’s first play from scrimmage and scored a touchdown.
Ferentz doesn’t note everything. Michigan’s sixth and final possession of the second half is designated with a +30, meaning the Wolverines started at the Iowa 30. He didn’t make any reference to Anthony Hitchens’ strip of quarterback Devin Gardner. He also didn’t make note of Iowa’s ensuing possession, which ran out the clock of a 24-21 victory.
On the back of the Northwestern card, Ferentz wrote “Start fast. Get stops and score” as his team headed to the locker room with a 10-0 lead. The Hawkeyes did just the opposite, but still won in overtime, 17-10.
Ferentz keeps track of special teams play and penalties for his team only, not the opposition. And he does it in his own style.
“I have the handwriting of a doctor,” Ferentz said.
His index card for last season’s game at Nebraska has blood on it.
“Must have cut my finger,” Ferentz said as he reviewed the card of Iowa’s 38-17 victory in the regular-season finale.
After the game is over and Ferentz has an official play-by-play summary in his possession, the index card becomes obsolete.
“That tells more of the story than what my card does,” Ferentz said.
But he still puts the index card into the game folder, which goes on file for several seasons before being discarded.
But between the lines, that card is a small piece of the strategy behind the game.
“It’s a poor man’s play-by-play, to help keep things in order,” Ferentz said. “You’ll rarely see anything profound on there. Like really rarely. If I have a good idea, I stole it.”