IOWA CITY, Iowa – The circumstances on Tuesday seemed ideal for members of the Iowa football team to discuss what I thought was the growing phenomenon called New Kirk.
There was one problem; the players seemed oblivious about the subject.
“I haven’t heard about that,” senior offensive guard Jordan Walsh said of the New Kirk storyline. “That’s actually news to me. Coach Ferentz has been the same guy as even when I was getting recruited here as a senior in high school. So he hasn’t changed.”
If junior cornerback Greg Mabin didn’t know anything about New Kirk before Tuesday’s weekly press conference, he did afterwards.
“I’ve been asked the question like two or three times already,” Mabin said with a not-this-again look on his face. “I haven’t seen a difference in him. He’s still the same old coach to us.”
I interviewed five players on Tuesday and their answers were all the same, that New Kirk was news to them.
Even after being reminded of evidence such as Ferentz’s impulsive switch at quarterback in January, his two fake field-goal calls already this season, his switch to morning practice and his willingness to play starters on special teams; the players still were reluctant to say that anything had changed.
“He hasn’t changed one bit,” said senior defensive end Nate Meier. “Even when we practice, or in the film room or in meeting rooms, he has not changed one bit.”
The Iowa players were interviewed about two hours before Ferentz held his weekly press conference at the Iowa Football Complex.
Ferentz already had addressed the New Kirk storyline by the time he met with the Iowa media early Tuesday afternoon. He had been asked about it on the Big Ten teleconference earlier on Tuesday. So when it came up again at his press conference, Ferentz first joked about it before getting serious.
“This new me stuff has really taken legs,” Ferentz said. “I got asked on the teleconference. That’s interesting stuff. But the bottom line is I think when you’ve been somewhere for a long time and you go through the peaks and you go through the valleys and you have a chance to really evaluate things, evolve hopefully, and make changes that are going to be productive.
“We’re not home, yet, obviously. We’ve played five ball games. But I think we’re doing well right now. But the challenge is to get a good sixth win.”
Iowa will seek its sixth win against Illinois on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The Illini are another pleasant surprise in the Big Ten, overcoming the firing of head coach Tim Beckman just days before the start of the season to be 4-1 overall.
So there truly is a new coach at Illinois, new Bill so to speak, in reference to interim head coach Bill Cubit, who was promoted from offensive coordinator after Beckman was fired.
As for Ferentz, it depends on your point of view whether he has changed.
It appears to fans and to the media that Ferentz has changed because he seems more willing to throw caution to the wind by calling fake field goals and by going for it on fourth down and by benching a two-year starting quarterback who had impeccable character in reference to Jake Rudock.
That’s when hints of New Kirk surfaced for the first time, in mid-January shortly after the TaxSlayer Bowl when he promoted C.J. Beathard over Rudock, who has since transferred to Michigan where he now starts at quarterback as a fifth-year graduate student.
Ferentz then ended a long-standing tradition by switching practice time from late afternoon to the morning.
He also made his son, Brian Ferentz, Iowa’s first running game coordinator in addition to already being the offensive line coach.
Combine those those things with what is perceived as a more aggressive approach to coaching based on four or five play calls this season and we have the makings of New Kirk.
In this case, I think everybody is right to a certain extent.
Ferentz, who turned 60 years old on Aug. 1, hasn’t changed how he deals with his players or how he interacts with people, including the media. He even joked on Tuesday about telling the same bad jokes. He also still chews gum during games, one piece after another, almost like a chain smoker.
Kirk Ferentz the person never would change, nor should he.
I don’t think Kirk Ferentz the head coach has changed too much, either, at least not as much as the New Kirk hype would suggest. He still takes it one game at a time. He still treats each and every opponent with the same amount of respect. And he still demands that his players stay off Twitter and look presentable when doing interviews, meaning no hats and sunglasses.
I think what we’re seeing is Ferentz responding to a desperate situation. He might not agree that it was desperate, but that’s how it felt after the TaxSlayer Bowl, that the program was unraveling to where Ferentz couldn’t fix it.
Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta raised a few eyebrows when he called last season unacceptable. Ferentz wouldn’t go that far, instead calling the 2014 season disappointing.
But the fire was lit.
Ferentz took a chance by promoting his son to running game coordinator and by switching quarterbacks. And right now, both of those decisions are paying huge dividends with the Iowa rushing attack being more productive and with the strain of a quarterback controversy being removed.
The players have rallied behind Beathard, making the team more unified.
“Obviously, I think he’s got more confidence and trust in us because some of the leadership that has emerged on this team,” said Beathard, who is 6-0 as Iowa’s starting quarterback. “It kind of makes it easier on him when guys as leaders of this team are kind of correcting things if the younger guys on the team are doing some dumb stuff, the older guys, the seniors are going to correct that.
“And I think he trusts us to make that right. There is just a different feeling around here. I feel like we’re a family. But overall I don’t think coach Ferentz has changed much.”
Now, of course, winning helps to build trust and helps to keep the family closer. The current Iowa team already has overcome its share of adversity, mostly with injuries, but it still hasn’t had to cope with a loss. It’s impossible to know how a team will react to a loss until it happens.
So whether you think New Kirk is real or not, the amount of change that has occurred on the football field since the TaxSlayer debacle is just short of stunning.
By change, I’m talking about the level of performance and results rather than how it’s being done because that hasn’t changed. The new facilities have helped to energize everybody associated with the Iowa program, along with Beathard’s impact at quarterback. But the coaching philosophies being preached by Ferentz and by his assistants are still pretty much the same.
Iowa football when operating effectively under Ferentz still mostly consists of ground-and-pound between the tackles mixed in with play-action passing, solid defense and opportunistic specials teams.
So perhaps the only real change with Ferentz is that he’s winning again.