By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Preparing for his 21st spring practice as the Iowa football coach, Kirk Ferentz is now entering uncharted territory.
The 63-year old Ferentz is going where no Iowa football coach has gone before, including the legendary Hayden Fry, who retired after 20 seasons as head coach in 1998.
Iowa is coming off a 9-4 season and the seniors who just used up their eligibility combined for 37 wins over the past four seasons.
There are key players that have to be replaced from last season’s team, including two potential NFL first-round picks at tight end, but key players also return, including starting quarterback Nate Stanley and junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
Ferentz shows no signs that he is slowing down, nor has he given any hints that he is even thinking about the next chapter in his life as he enters into his third decade as the Iowa head coach.
He still enjoys coming to work each day and cherishes the people around him.
Ferentz held a press conference on Tuesday to usher in the start of spring practice on Wednesday and he was reminded about being in uncharted territory and about going where no Iowa head football coach has gone before.
And not surprisingly, Ferentz tried to downplay his situation because that’s what he usually does with the spotlight on him.
“It’s kind of just a number right now,” Ferentz said of preparing for his 21st season. “Whenever I quit, maybe I will think about stuff like that. But you’re kind of one foot in front of the other, I guess, in a lot of ways and things change a lot, but things don’t change.
“Certainly, the world is changing. Our world is changing. But again, I think what’s really core and what’s important doesn’t change an awful lot. So once we get going, took a little break after the bowl game, and then once we got going it seems like we’re back on that tread mill a little bit.”
Ferentz has been riding the coaching tread mill for almost 30 years all together at Iowa if you combine his nine seasons as the offensive line coach under Fry from 1981-89.
Ferentz has lived nearly half of his life in Iowa and is also the longest tenured head coach in big-time college football.
The kids in high school now weren’t even born when Ferentz replaced Fry shortly after the 1998 season.
It is easy for the Iowa fans, and for the Iowa media, to take Ferentz’s longevity and staying power for granted because we live it with every day and are so used to having Ferentz as the head Hawk.
But it’s incredible to think that today’s college student knows Iowa football for only having one head coach.
Of course, college students have heard and read about Hayden Fry, but he retired more than 20 years ago, and that’s a lifetime for somebody in college.
There was no such thing as Twitter or Facebook and Zion Williamson hadn't even been born when Ferentz was named the Iowa head coach.
Ferentz hasn’t made Iowa elite in football, but he has sustained a level of success that is highly respected.
Iowa has played in 16 bowl games under Ferentz and he also has guided the Hawkeyes to eight wins or more in 11 seasons since 2002.
His players graduate at a high rate and he also represents the football program and the University of Iowa with class and dignity.
All of those factors have contributed to Ferentz’s staying power, along with a distinguished list of assistant coaches and support staff.
Ferentz just lost a key assistant with the recent retirement of Reese Morgan after 19 years on the Iowa staff.
Ferentz started his press conference on Tuesday by paying tribute to Morgan and by thanking him for his many contributions to the program.
Morgan was a master at building relationships, had a knack for identifying hidden talent and could coach any position because he knows the game of football inside and out.
“As I said when Reese chose to retire, it’s a big, big loss for our program, but I really don’t look at it that way,” Ferentz said. “I look more at the contributions that he’s made on so many different levels, just a tremendous coach, a tremendous teacher and mentor and just a great staff member, and really a mentor for all of us on this staff as well.”
Ferentz mentioned to the media on Tuesday that Morgan always made it a point to visit the sister of former Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson during Morgan’s many stops to see T.J. in high school.
“Those are just little things that resonate with people,” Ferentz said. “Nobody else had done that. Reese had done that and I think that is a pretty good illustration of how Reese is. He doesn’t miss much. He checks all the boxes and is just so thorough.”
The people are what really seems to inspire Ferentz to stay in coaching. The relationships and the daily interactions with players and assistant coaches and other staff members is what Ferentz really seems to cherish.
“It’s everything, especially in football because this is not a one-man show,” Ferentz said when asked how important the people around him have been to his longevity. “You have no chance. If you think it is, you’re not going be around very long.
“Everything in football is about teamwork, but it starts with our staff.”
Ferentz then pointed out that Iowa has only had three athletic directors since 1970. Fry and Ferentz are also so believed to be the only two head coaches to lead a Division I football program for 20 years, consecutively.
“That stability and the continuity and just the general understanding of what expectations are and how we do things I think is really valuable,” Ferentz said. “In football I’ve been around good situations and I’ve been around situations that weren’t as healthy, and it gets down to having the right people on the staff. That’s a commonality with any successful organization that I’ve been around or seen.”
Ferentz didn’t have much news to report on Tuesday other than confirming that Kelvin Bell will replace Morgan as the full-time defensive line coach. Bell had previously severed as the recruiting coordinator while helping coach the defensive line.
Ferentz said he is currently looking to hire a 10th assistant, but is in no rush to fill the spot.
Ferentz also confirmed that defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon is on the spring roster and it is full steam ahead for the sophomore from Wisconsin.
And it’s also full steam ahead for Ferentz on a journey that is like no other in the history of the Iowa football program.