IOWA CITY, Iowa – Since 1979, the Iowa football program has had two head coaches.
Before you say tell me something I don’t know, I bring it up because it’s a big deal that we mostly take for granted around here.
We might never see anything like it again, two head football coaches spanning nearly four decades.
Kirk Ferentz is overseeing his 18th spring practice in preparation for his 18th season as the Iowa head coach.
The 60-year old Ferentz is three seasons from matching his predecessor, Hayden Fry, in coaching longevity at Iowa.
Fry coached the Hawkeyes for 20 seasons from 1979 to 1998.
Much has changed on and off the field from when Fry was hired to coach Iowa until now.
Central air conditioning still was relatively new when Fry took over at Iowa in December 1978. The old practice bubble, which has since been replaced by a $55 million indoor facility, was only a vision back then. And Penn State still was over a decade from joining the Big Ten Conference in 1979, while the television hit series M*A*S*H was in its heyday.
The Big Ten Conference has had 88 different head football coaches since 1979. Iowa has had the fewest during that time with just two, while Illinois has had the most with nine.
No other Big Ten school besides Penn State has had fewer than four different head football coaches since 1979. Penn State has had three, but two of the changes have come since 2012 in the post-Joe Paterno era.
So much has to fall in place for two head coaches to combine for nearly four decades of uninterrupted service.
Of course, the most important factor to having longevity is winning.
Fry’s sense of humor and his willingness to use what he called exotics on offense would’ve bought him only so much time to resurrect the program. At some point, Fry had to lift Iowa over the hump, which he did in his third season by leading the 1981 Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl.
It was the same situation when Ferentz replaced Fry shortly after the 1998 season.
Nobody expected Ferentz to work any over-night miracles, but victories had to come at some point or he ultimately would’ve been shown the door. Ferentz’s breakthrough season also occurred in year three as the Hawkeyes went from winning just four games in his first two seasons as head coach to winning seven games in his third season in 2001.
Only once since then has Iowa won fewer than six games in a season under Ferentz.
The ride hasn’t always been a smooth for Ferentz. But he always seems to have an answer just in time to silence his critics.
"In my 25-year association with this program, our fans have been just absolutely fantastic,” Ferentz said. “They deserve a good football team. That’s always been the goal.
“I’m fully aware of that. I understand that, our staff understands and our players do, too. We’re working hard to provide them what they deserve from our perspective.”
Ferentz made that statement at media day prior to last season. His detractors were ready to pounce on Ferentz last summer until he led yet another resurgence in the fall as Iowa finished 12-2 in 2015, setting a school record for most victories in a season.
Some athletic directors might have panicked or bowed to the pressure and pulled the curtain on Ferentz’s long-running act, but Gary Barta didn’t.
Iowa’s Director of Athletics stayed firm in his belief that Ferentz was the best person for the job and was rewarded for his trust and loyalty. Barta didn’t coddle Ferentz, but he didn’t meddle, either.
Barta let Ferentz do his job, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
Outside of winning, there is nothing more important to coaching longevity than trust, patience and loyalty. Iowa has been fortunate to have leaders who possess those qualities and two head coaches in Fry and Ferentz who are extremely loyal.
Born and raised in west Texas, Fry very easily could’ve bolted from Iowa and from the cold weather after rebuilding the program in the early 1980s. He was in his mid-50s and a hot commodity, hot enough that elite programs like Southern California reached out to Fry in the mid-1980s.
But Fry stayed loyal to the Hawkeyes until he was ready to retire.
It seems Ferentz is on a similar path, with four years left on his contract.
Ferentz also could’ve left Iowa for a more prestigious college job or to coach in the NFL. But just like his predecessor and former boss, Ferentz has stayed loyal.
He has spent nearly half of his life in Iowa City if you count the nine seasons Ferentz served as Fry’s offensive line coach from 1981-89.
So you have to give some credit for Iowa’s coaching stability to the community. Iowa City grows on you after a while.
I should know after having lived here for nearly 25 years.
No matter how important your job might be as the head football coach at Iowa, there is more to life than just working. A person has to feel fulfilled away from the job.
Ferentz’s five children all graduated from Iowa City High School. He provided them stability in an unstable profession.
Ferentz and his wife, Mary, have embraced the community and used their influence to help those less fortunate by making multiple charitable contributions.
Neither Ferentz nor Fry grew up in Iowa. Fry also moved to Mesquite, Nev., for his retirement and still lives there today.
But for 20 years, Fry stayed put in a profession where many head coaches are constantly looking to climb the next step on the ladder.
And now Ferentz is doing the same thing.
His critics will say it’s easy for Ferentz to stay put because of the money he earns and the power he wields.
There probably is some truth to that. But Ferentz could’ve landed another well-paying job along the way if that had been his choice.
But he stayed put, as did Fry. And sometimes, that’s just worth pointing out so we don’t take it for granted.
Number of Big Ten head football coaching changes since 1979
Penn State 3
Ohio State 5
Michigan State 7