By Pat Harty
SAN DIEGO – Brian Ferentz was walking off the field after Friday’s 49-24 beat-down against USC in the Holiday Bowl when I approached him.
I don’t normally do that because assistant coaches are usually unavailable for comment after games, and because they deserve their space in that kind of situation.
But I made this one exception due to the circumstances.
Brian Ferentz was walking off the field by himself and I just wanted to congratulate him for a job well done. I had no intention of interviewing him because I knew he wanted to get to the locker room and celebrate with the players.
We shook hands and I thanked Brian for having played a significant role in what proved to be one of the most enjoyable experiences in nearly 30 years of covering Hawkeye football.
Brian smiled and thanked me for the kind words.
There were lots of intriguing storylines surrounding Friday’s lopsided victory, including the emotional impact that was caused by the recent deaths of former Iowa coach Hayden Fry and former athletic director Bump Elliott.
Iowa junior receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette also seized the spotlight with his electrifying three-touchdown performance that included a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown after USC had evened the score at 14-14 in the second quarter.
And, of course, senior quarterback Nate Stanley deserved part of the spotlight after having joined Ricky Stanzi as the only Iowa quarterbacks to finish 3-0 in bowl games.
But in my opinion, Brian Ferentz had arguably the biggest impact in Friday’s record-setting victory because his play calling was impeccable, especially in the first half.
The USC defenders performed as if they had no clue what Brian Ferentz was about to call.
The Iowa coaches had noticed during preparation for the Holiday Bowl that USC’s defense was vulnerable on the edges and Brian Ferentz exploited that by calling two reverses that led to touchdowns by receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. on Iowa’s opening drive of the game and by Smith-Marsette on Iowa’s next offensive possession.
It was a thing of beauty to watch as Brian Ferentz dismantled the USC defense with his aggressive and creative play calling. It led to the second most points scored by Iowa in a bowl game, behind only the 55-17 victory over Texas in the 1984 Freedom Bowl.
“That's something that the coach does a great job of,” Stanley said. ‘We put in a lot of time and we see that they had some problems defending those. We were able to exploit those weaknesses as well.”
It was apparent that Kirk Ferentz’s oldest of five children was on a mission in Friday’s game.
Brian Ferentz knew how much this game meant to his father, whose career was launched by Fry’s decision to hire Kirk Ferentz as his offensive line coach in 1981.
Kirk Ferentz was asked during his post-game interview if this was Brian’s best performance as offensive coordinator.
“He's actually had a couple good ones. Ohio State comes to mind also,” Kirk Ferentz said of Iowa’s 55-24 victory over Ohio State in 2017, a game in which Stanley threw five touchdown passes. “It really gets down to, yeah, I think our coaching staff, our entire coaching staff, has really done a good job.
“I think that's been true all season long. They've done a great job of giving the players a good plan. Ultimately, good, sound execution on the field. It's all about the players.”
That was a typical Kirk Ferentz answer in how he shifted the praise from his son to the players.
It always is team first with Kirk Ferentz, but you know deep down that he was beaming with pride over what his son had accomplished.
Fry had a reputation as a brilliant play caller, and much of what Brian Ferentz did during Friday’s game as a play caller could be described as brilliant.
“I think the coaches on both sides of the ball gave these guys good plans, special teams on top of it,” Kirk Ferentz said. “The guys executed it.
“Really pleased with everything I saw tonight. We knew they were going to get some yards. We knew they were going to score. We wanted to limit that to field goals instead of touchdowns. A good night for us.”
It is easy to become a prisoner of the moment and to forget that this season wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for Brian Ferentz.
He was ripped after Iowa had allowed eight sacks and failed to score a touchdown during a 10-3 loss at Michigan, and after close losses to both Penn State and Wisconsin.
Kirk Ferentz knew the risks when he promoted Brian Ferentz to offensive coordinator before the 2017 season.
Brian Ferentz was only 34 years old at the time, so the critics and naysayers were quick to use the nepotism argument whenever the offense struggled.
The path to Friday’s victory has been filled with obstacles and with some sobering defeats in which much of the blame was directed at Brian Ferentz.
That goes with the territory for an offensive coordinator, but even more so when the offensive coordinator is the head coach’s son.
Brian Ferentz has been a work in progress, and at times, his own worst enemy due to his outspokenness.
Brian embarrassed himself, his father and the Iowa program when he berated a replay official in the press box at halftime of the Minnesota game in 2017 at Kinnick Stadium.
Kirk Ferentz called Brian’s behavior unacceptable and Brian issued a public apology as he should have because his behavior was unacceptable.
I wrote a column after the Minnesota game that Brian Ferentz’s behavior was unacceptable. It was obvious that Brian had to learn how to control his temper, and for the most part, he has improved in that regard.
Brian Ferentz will never be like his father from a personality standpoint because there just different. Kirk Ferentz almost always speaks with a filter, while Brian Ferentz rarely does.
Brian Ferentz says what’s on his mind, but sometimes that can lead to trouble.
And while the jury still is out on whether Brian Ferentz is a top-notch offensive coordinator, Iowa has combined to win 27 games over three seasons since he took over the offense. That’s an average of nine wins per season, which is not easy to do.
This season also marks just the ninth time in program history that Iowa has won at least 10 games.
It still is way premature to say that Brian Ferentz deserves to succeed his father as head coach, but his father also shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 64.
Kirk Ferentz really seems to be enjoying himself, and part of that, I’m sure, is being able to work with his son on a daily basis.
Brian Ferentz will face numerous challenges heading into the offseason, including grooming a quarterback to replace Stanley, who made 39 consecutive starts.
There is also a strong possibility that All-America junior right tackle Tristan Wirfs might declare for the NFL Draft.
But on the flipside, junior left tackle Alaric Jackson told reporters that he plans to return for his senior season.
Jackson missed three games due to a knee injury and he said Friday that he never was more than 70 percent healthy after the injury had occurred.
True freshman Sam LaPorta also has shown signs of being Iowa’s next great tight end, and his position coach is Brian Ferentz.
Iowa still is looking up to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West Division, but none of that mattered on Friday.
Brian Ferentz deserves praise for rising to the occasion at a time when his father really needed him to respond.
And that’s why I approached Brian after the game to say congratulations, and to shake his hand.