IOWA CITY, Iowa – With Kirk Ferentz, it’s the little things that define him.
He wouldn’t remember this, but not long after he was hired as the Iowa football coach, we crossed paths at an Iowa City grocery store in early 1999.
If memory serves me correct, Ferentz was purchasing ice cream, while I had a six-pack of some type of beverage in my hands.
We had interacted a few times in press conferences since he had been hired, including introducing myself as a reporter for the Iowa City Press-Citizen – a job I held from June 1991 to Oct. 2014 – at his introductory press conference. But we hadn’t had any one-on-one interaction.
Ferentz still hadn’t coached in a game for the Hawkeyes when we crossed paths almost 17 years ago. I don’t think spring practice had even started yet.
It’s hard to remember all the facts because it was a chance encounter that probably lasted 30 seconds.
What I do remember is that Ferentz looked me right in the eye, addressed me as Pat and said hello. I was blown away that he remembered my first name so shortly after being hired.
But that’s Kirk Ferentz.
In addition to having attention to detail, Ferentz also has a genuine respect for people that you notice right away, and that you believe.
I bring this up because we’re seeing what happens when you stick with a proven head coach who is also a quality person and a tireless worker.
Say all you want about the New Kirk phenomenon because it has been fun and there is something to it. But it’s the same Kirk who mostly has led this improbable resurgence, which has Iowa playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in a quarter century.
It’s the same Kirk who almost brought all-Big Ten senior Austin Blythe to tears on Sunday as he talked about his head coach for the past five years.
I had just told Blythe that Ferentz had tried to deflect all the attention to his players during the press conference on Sunday that was held shortly after Iowa’s Rose Bowl matchup against Stanford was announced.
“He’s the first person to give credit to somebody else,” Blythe said. “He’s a player’s coach. Just what he does for us is incredible. He definitely tries to deflect credit and he’s the first one to give us credit.”
The 60-year old Ferentz is being rewarded handsomely for Iowa’s 12-1 record, including being named the Woody Hayes Coach of the Year on Tuesday and the Big Ten Coach of the Year last week. He also was recognized as the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Region 3 Coach of the Year on Monday and has earned several financial incentives.
Blythe had the privilege of congratulating Ferentz on behalf of the players during practice last week.
“It was nice, I was able to stand up and recognize him for coach of the year,” said Blythe, who is one of three finalists for the Rimington Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate center.. “And for me, that was pretty special because he’s done so much for me as a player and for everybody else on the team as players, and just people.”
I’ve heard countless players, past and present, rave about Ferentz, the man, probably more than the coach, how he inspires them to make the right choices in life, how he always puts the team in the spotlight and that there is no substitute for hard work.
That’s a big reason why I wasn’t ready to give up on Ferentz after last season’s meltdown. I just felt the good still far outweighed the bad, partly because of Ferentz’s high character and his attention to detail. I felt that Ferentz had won too many games and impacted too many players’ lives in a positive sense to force him out.
I felt that Iowa fans owed it to Ferentz to give him more time to steer the program back in the right direction. And boy, has he.
“It means a lot,” senior free safety Jordan Lomax said of helping Ferentz reach the Rose Bowl. “We’ve got the utmost respect and love for coach Ferentz.
“The time that this entire coaching staff puts into this football team, and for us to buy into their philosophy and for them to put so much effort, heart and love into this game and sharing it with their players, it means a lot to get our coaches there.”
Ferentz has a chance to do what Hayden Fry failed three times at doing as the Iowa coach, which is win a Rose Bowl. Ferentz was Fry’s offensive line coach at Iowa for two of the Rose Bowl losses in 1982 and 1986.
So it would mean a great deal to Ferentz to win a Rose Bowl. And I guarantee that Fry and the Iowa players would be the focus of Ferentz’s victory speech.
“We still have some unfinished business,” Ferentz said Sunday when asked about Fry coming up short in the Rose Bowl.
Fry’s vast coaching tree has produced some Rose Bowl success, thanks to Barry Alvarez leading Wisconsin to three victories during his coaching reign from 1990-2005.
But doing it for Wisconsin isn’t the same as winning a Rose Bowl for Iowa. Imagine the thrill Ferentz would have in sharing the victory with Fry.
Another case in which Ferentz’s character shined brightly came when I wrote a story in 2001 that focused mostly on his relationship with his parents. His mother told a story about waking up early one morning when Kirk was visiting their home in Pennsylvania and seeing her son writing letters of encouragement to his players at Iowa.
His mother said in the story that she was proud of the leader that she had helped to raise and that she admired Kirk’s work ethic and compassion.
Shortly after the story was published in the Press-Citizen, I received a handwritten letter from Ferentz thanking me for doing the story and for the approach that I took with his parents.
Let’s just say I wasn’t used to getting those kinds of letters of appreciation until working with Ferentz. It made me proud, but also showed that he cared about people.
I’ve written some columns over the years in which Ferentz didn’t agree with my opinion. But it never has affected our professional relationship. He always has treated me fairly and with respect.
So maybe I was a little biased during the offseason while defending Ferentz against his critics.
But one thing is certain; Iowa couldn’t have had this historical season without the players respecting their head coach to the fullest.
Ferentz makes it easy to respect him because of the little things, like remembering somebody’s first name when most wouldn’t have.