By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Let me start by saying I don’t think Kirk Ferentz is going anywhere except back to work in preparation for his 20th season as the Iowa football coach.
But he could, and it wouldn't shock me if the 62-year old Ferentz wanted to finally give the NFL a shot as a head coach because there would be multiple teams willing to interview him and several that probably would want to hire him.
That doesn’t mean Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta should extend Ferentz’s contract because the eight years that Ferentz currently has left on his contract is more than enough.
It just means that Ferentz still has value outside of the Iowa program, and especially in the NFL where he is highly respected as both a coach and person.
His age could be a factor to some, but 62 really isn’t that old in the NFL. And Ferentz, outside of his hair turning gray, appears to be a young 62, if there is such a thing.
He still seems to enjoy being the Iowa head coach, at least most of the time, and unlike his legendary predecessor and former boss, Hayden Fry, Ferentz has a team that is built for success in year 20.
Ferentz will enter the 2018 season tied with Fry as Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach with 143 victories.
With exception to Wisconsin, Iowa’s 2018 roster either compares favorably to or holds its own against every other team in the Big Ten West Division.
Iowa’s 2018 schedule also looks manageable on paper, but if we’ve learned anything about the Hawkeyes under Ferentz, what looks a certain way on paper doesn’t always carry to the field.
Replacing a talented senior class that includes All-America linebacker Josey Jewell and star running back Akrum Wadley, won’t be easy, nor will replacing departing juniors Josh Jackson and James Daniels, both of whom recently declared for the 2018 NFL draft.
With Jackson, Iowa loses one of the most productive and dynamic defensive backs in school history, while Daniels was expected to anchor the offensive line next season as a three-year starter at center.
Both losses are significant, but the void left by Daniels could be even bigger due to Iowa’s reliance on a strong running game.
But even without Jackson and Daniels, the 2018 Hawkeyes look vastly superior to Fry’s last team in 1998 that finished 3-8 overall.
You could make a strong case for Iowa to win at least eight or nine games next season based on paper strength.
It also helps that the players and coaches have positive momentum heading into the offseason for a change with Iowa having defeated Boston College 27-20 in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27 at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
The victory ended a five-game bowl losing streak for Iowa and marked the 10th time in 19 seasons under Ferentz that Iowa has won at least eight games.
“Probably as much as anything I was pretty lucky in 1981 when I went there,” Ferentz said in reference to when Fry hired him to coach the Iowa offensive line. “I had no idea what I was walking into.
“It was a great time in Iowa football history to work with coach Fry and the great staff that we had and the players. And the last 19 years have been a lot of fun, most of the time.”
It is only natural to compare Ferentz with Fry now that they share the distinction of being Iowa’s all-time winningest football coach.
But with Fry, the circumstances were different after his initial rebuild because that by itself made Fry a legend. He did what many thought was impossible at the time by making lowly Iowa a winner again.
Fry changed the culture and built the Hawkeye brand that still means so much today.
The Iowa program was hurting when Ferentz replaced Fry, but just two years earlier in 1997 Iowa had been ranked in the top 10 nationally and featured stars Tim Dwight, Tavian Banks and Jared DeVries.
So Ferentz still had a tradition to embrace, whereas Fry had to overcome 19 consecutive non-winning seasons and the apathy that festered with it.
Iowa fans are loyal, but only to a point as the photos from the 1970s show with all the empty seats at Kinnick Stadium.
If I were to rank the greatest head coaches in the history of the Iowa program, I’d start by trimming the list to the four obvious candidates: Fry, Ferentz, Forest Evashevski and Howard Jones.
Eddie Anderson achieved greatness by leading Nile Kinnick and the legendary Ironmen in 1939, but Anderson didn’t have as much sustained success as the other four head coaches.
Jones and Evashevski led Iowa to arguably its two highest pinnacles of success in the early 1920s and mid-to-late 1950s respectively. But neither coached for more than nine seasons at Iowa, and they coached during different eras and under vastly different circumstances.
Jones left for warmer weather at the request of his wife and then would go on the build Southern California into an elite, program, while Evashevski quit coaching in his early 40s to become the Iowa Athletic Director.
To say that Evashevski’s time as the Iowa Athletic Director was tumultuous would be putting it mildly. The football program went from being a national power to a Big Ten bottom feeder during the decade in which Evashevski served as the athletic director.
Evashevski wanted to have both jobs as head coach and athletic director, but was denied that request and never coached again.
Fans have been left to wonder what Iowa could have achieved under Evashevski if he would’ve stayed in coaching and ushered the program into the era of two-platoon football.
There are some veteran Hawkeye fans who believe that Iowa would have become the long-standing national power from thre Midwest instead of Nebraska if Evashevski had stayed in coaching.
It makes for good a discussion, but we’ll never know because Evashevski chose to leave coaching.
Ferentz and Fry, on the other hand, both chose to stay put and made Iowa a destination job. They both could have left for more money and for better weather, but resisted those temptations.
Iowa is the only school in the country to have just two head football coaches since 1979. To help put that in perspective, Boston College has had eight head coaches during that time.
Iowa's continuity is easy to take for granted, or to dismiss when you live with it every day.
But it truly is mind-boggling when you consider the win-at-all-cost environment in which it has occurred, and how hard it is to stay competitive for a long period of time.
For those under the age of 30, Fry is more of a mystical figure who earned legendary status a long time ago, whereas Ferentz is somebody they grew up with and watched on television every Saturday in the fall, chewing his gum and writing thoughts on a note card during games.
Ferentz has been loyal to Iowa, but Iowa also has been loyal to him, extremely loyal to the point where Ferentz has a contract in which he is rewarded handsomely for winning eight games in a season. Some say that Iowa has bas been too loyal to Ferentz, and would suffer from that loyalty should Iowa struggle for an extended period under Ferentz.
That might be the case. But it’s impossible to know for sure because Iowa hasn’t struggled under Ferentz for an extended period since his initial rebuild nearly two decades ago.
There certainly have been lows and stretches of mediocrity, but Ferentz has won enough games for his seat to avoid getting warm, although, some will blame that on Iowa having too low of standards.
The fans who suffer from Ferentz Fatigue have a right to feel that way, and a right to want a coaching change. But that’s where it ends because Ferentz has earned the right to leave on his own terms.
For that to change, Iowa probably would have to lose at least six games in three consecutive seasons.
It’s impossible to know what it would take for the head football coach at Iowa to be fired because those lines haven’t been challenged since Fry resurrected the program nearly 40 years ago.
Fry also had his struggles, especially during the second half of his 20-year coaching reign at Iowa, which lasted from 1979 to 1998. But Iowa won at least seven games 12 times under Fry, and with exception to his first two seasons, didn’t have back-to-back losing seasons.
From a record standpoint, Ferentz and Fry are almost identical with each averaging about seven wins per season at Iowa.
Their personalities are different, with Fry more outspoken and unpredictable.
But they share a special bond as the face of the Iowa football program since 1979.
Fry’s legacy is rich and everlasting, as is the Ferentz legacy.
The big difference is that Ferentz isn’t finished yet.
Some believe that Ferentz is hanging around in hopes of creating a succession plan with his son Brian Ferentz, who is the Iowa offensive coordinator and a former Hawkeye offensive lineman.
That might be part of Kirk Ferentz's motivation, but it goes beyond just that.
And for a succession plan to be accepted, Iowa would have to be successful over an exended period of time, meaning winning double-digit games in multiple seasons. Kirk Ferentz has power and leverage, but not enough to have a succession plan without making Iowa elite again.
Assuming he stays healthy and stays put, Kirk Ferentz could realistically win another 30 to 40 games as the Iowa head coach and that would almost certainly put his record beyond the reach of others.
Not bad for somebody who lost 18 of his first 20 games as head coach.
Years, overall W-L, Big Ten W-L
1979-98, 143-89-6, 96-61-5
1999-present, 143-97, 86-68