IOWA CITY, Iowa – While the debate rages on about the legitimacy of the undefeated Iowa football team, can we at least agree on one thing?
Kirk Ferentz deserves to not only be the Big Ten Coach of the Year for the fourth time, but also the national Coach of the Year for the second time, and there shouldn’t have to be a debate.
To me, it’s a no-brainer.
Outsiders will dismiss me as a homer whose judgment is clouded by the Iowa football team’s historical journey to 12-0. But I’m just stating what seems obvious.
No other Division I coach has done more with what was thought be less than Ferentz has this season.
The same Iowa team that was picked by many to finish fourth out of seven teams in the Big Ten West Division is now one of only two Division I teams that are still undefeated, with top-ranked Clemson being the other. Iowa has made it this far without losing despite being riddled by injuries.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney certainly deserves consideration because it’s not easy leading any team to 12 consecutive victories.
Just ask Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
He might have the best team in the country right now, the latest proof being Saturday’s 58-23 beat-down against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. Both teams entered the game with 10-1 records, but it was a mismatch almost from the beginning.
And yet, despite all of its talent, depth and coaching expertise, Oklahoma still couldn’t avoid losing to a mediocre Texas team in the fifth game of the season on a neutral field in Dallas. The 24-17 loss on Oct. 10 shows how hard it is to stay undefeated for 12 games.
It shows that anything can happen on any given day if a team exhales or takes its foot off the gas. The Iowa players have brought the same mindset into every game this season and have seized every opportunity put in front of them.
Ferentz deserves the award over Swinney and Stoops because of what I previously said about doing more with less. Clemson and Oklahoma both were consensus top-25 teams heading into the season. They both have exceeded expectations, but nothing close to what Iowa has done in Ferentz’s 17th season as head coach.
It’s the same situation with Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who will lead the 11-1 Spartans against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday in Indianapolis. Dantonio has done another incredible job of coaching, but the Spartans also were a consensus top-25 team heading into the season, a top-10 team in the opinion of some.
My runner-up for Big Ten Coach of the Year would be Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald for guiding his team to a 10-2 record in the regular season after the Wildcats had finished 5-7 in each of the previous two seasons.
Critics will hold Iowa’s schedule against Ferentz, but where will they find another coach who has done more with less based on preseason rankings.
Athlon Magazine, for which I work as a contributing writer, had Michigan State, Clemson, Oklahoma and Iowa ranked 7th, 14th, 17th and 53rd, respectively, in its preseason magazine. But in fairness to Athlon, virtually every other media outlet had Iowa ranked that low or lower heading into the season.
The situation heading into this season was thought to be so bleak under Ferentz that some believed that his expensive buyout was all that was keeping him from being fired.
Others felt that he should’ve been fired after last season’s collapse in which Iowa lost its final three games, including an inexcusable 45-28 rout against Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Some in the media even went as far as to write shortly after last season that Ferentz should be fired because the situation had become hopeless. It made them popular at the time to criticize Ferentz because fans were clamoring for a change. It’s hard to say how many fans wanted to change coaches, but the ones who did were loud about it on social media and ready to embrace anybody in the media who shared their belief.
But it was wrong to say Ferentz should be fired because the good still outweighed the bad once you put emotions aside.
The Iowa program certainly needed help, though, because something was wrong from within. The situation had become stale under Ferentz.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta voiced his displeasure by calling last season unacceptable, while Hawkeye fans showed their displeasure by not purchasing tickets.
Ferentz, meanwhile, went back to work, acknowledging that changes had to occur. The transformation to New Kirk started with C.J. Beathard being named the starting quarterback over Jake Rudock in January.
Ferentz also switched practice from late afternoon, which had been a long-standing tradition, to the morning.
He created a new position of running game coordinator to which he appointed his son, Brian Ferentz.
And he became more aggressive during games by calling for fake punts and by going for it more often on fourth down.
The result has been perfection up to this point.
Ferentz has a team that is unified and focused more on the journey than the destination. The way in which he has convinced his players to buy into the team-always-comes-first philosophy has been nothing short of extraordinary under the circumstances.
But with all of the changes, Ferentz also has stayed firm in his belief that football should be played a certain way. He isn’t worried about style points because winning is all that matters.
Ferentz is correct in saying that the situation wasn’t as bad as it might have seemed last season. Iowa was 7-3 when it suffered a heart-breaking 26-24 loss to Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes also led Nebraska 24-7 before losing 37-34 in overtime in the regular-season finale at home.
The line between finishing 9-3 and 7-5 during the 2014 regular season was razor thin for Iowa last season.
It seems to have been a case where the situation had to get worse before it could better. The worst came at the end of last season and it’s been getting better ever since.
It’s been better than anybody could have imagined in their wildest dreams with Iowa 12-0 for the first time in school history and with a chance to make the College Football Playoff.
That’s why Ferentz should be the easy choice for national coach of the year.
Kirk Ferentz coaching honors
2009 – Regional Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association
2009 – Dave McCalin Big Ten Coach of Year
2004 – Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year
2002 – Asociated Press national Coach of the Year
2002 – Walter Camp national Coach of the Year
2002 – Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year
Note: Ferentz is one of four coaches to be named Big Ten Coach of the Year at least three times. The others are Hayden Fry (Iowa), Joe Paterno (Penn State) and Bo Schembechler (Michigan)