By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – In no way am I suggesting with this column that Kirk Ferentz has fixed everything that is wrong with the Iowa football program.
It takes more than just six months to change a culture that has been accused of racial disparities and bullying.
It takes more than just getting rid of one person who was supposedly to blame for much of the racial unrest, in this case, former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who reached a separation agreement with Iowa shortly after the accusations were made public in early June.
It takes more than restructuring your player leadership group to where for the first time under Ferentz there are more black players than white players in the group.
So again, this is not an attempt to dismiss or minimize the problems within the Iowa program because they’re real and they’re serious.
But sometimes you also have to recognize a job well done, and that’s what this column is about because Kirk Ferentz deserves praise for leading his team through rocky waters.
He deserves praise for holding together an Iowa team that easily could’ve splintered and unraveled after it started the season with back-to-back losses to Purdue and Northwestern by a combined five points.
The critics and naysayers were hovering like vultures when Iowa was 0-2, the thinking being that the program was in disarray in the wake of a tumultuous offseason.
But now six games later, Iowa is riding a six-game winning streak after having defeated Big Ten West Division nemesis Wisconsin 28-7 on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
It was Iowa’s first win over the Badgers since 2015, and its first win over Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium since 2008.
The victory led to a spirited celebration in the locker room in which the 65-year old Ferentz reportedly became emotional, which is hardly a surprise, especially under the unusual circumstances.
A team doesn’t win six games in a row during a global pandemic without being focused, motivated and unified.
Kirk Ferentz has reason to be proud of his players, his assistant coaches, his support staff, and of himself.
If you’re going to criticize Kirk Ferentz and hold him accountable for the problems with Iowa’s culture, which is fair, then he also deserves praise for how his team has persevered through a season like no other.
“The last however many months have all been about learning,” Ferentz said after Saturday’s victory over Wisconsin on Senior Day. “I don’t have a lot of regrets. I don’t have a lot of regrets in twenty plus years. You always have a couple. I’ll share those with you whenever I finish.
“The bottom line is trying to handle every day as well as you can. I’m not going to say this period is no different than any other. It’s like anything: you have a bad season, you go back and just try to talk to a lot of people, get some viewpoints, feedback, et cetera. That’s what we’ve tried to do very methodically. It’s about taking information and then trying to do the right things moving forward. The good thing is, and I shared this with our staff back on June 6, we have good people in the building, our staff, support staff, most importantly our players. We’ll work through it.”
Kirk Ferentz has been tested during this season like never before because of the pandemic, and because of the racial issues.
Iowa now has close to 30 players who have knelt during the National Anthem throughout the season, and while some fans might resent it, the players seem to have embraced the freedom of expression, even the ones who choose to stand for the National Anthem.
There is a mutual respect, and a level of awareness and sensitivity with the Iowa players that maybe wasn’t as strong before the racial issues surfaced.
“It just proves our team can overcome adversity; an 0-2 start and then we finish with six in a row, and our last one’s against Wisconsin, and we win like that,” said junior offensive lineman Mark Kallenberger. “Everyone on the team has been doing the right things. We haven’t had Covid issues. We haven’t had really big problems on our team. We’ve just kind of been going week in and week out, coming to practice and doing our online school stuff and stuff like that.
“And then to get this one is big because, obviously, we’re getting that trophy, and now we have four of those trophies in our building, which we haven’t done since 2015. And we know how good of a year that was.”
The Heartland Trophy goes to the winner of the Iowa-Wisconsin game. It is one of four traveling trophies that Iowa competes for each year, along with Floyd of Rosedale against Minnesota, the Cy-Hawk Trophy against Iowa State and the Heroes Trophy against Nebraska.
Kallenberger was right to bring up the fact that Iowa has avoided any serious setbacks due to COVID-19 issues because it’s a big deal.
Iowa made it through the eight-game regular season without having any games canceled, while Wisconsin has had three games canceled this season due to COVID-19 health concerns.
Credit goes to everybody associated with the Iowa program because it takes a group effort to withstand something as threatening as a global pandemic.
But the credit has to start with Kirk Ferentz, just like the blame started with him in response to the accusations of racial disparities.
I will be honest and say that I didn’t expect Iowa to win six games in a row after the 0-2 start. I didn’t think the season would unravel, but I figured there would be a couple more losses.
The players and coaches have stayed the course while dealing with sensitive issues off the field, and they’ve stayed focused on the task at hand.
Kirk Ferentz has won numerous awards as the Iowa head coach, including the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2015 after leading Iowa to an undefeated regular season. He was also named the Walter Camp National Coach of the Year in 2002 and the Big Ten Coach of the year in 2004 and 2009.
But I would argue that this has been Ferentz’s best coaching performance because of the surreal circumstances.
He has been challenged by a lot more than just trying to win football games, and his legacy has been damaged by the racial unrest.
Some head coaches might have wilted under the pressure, but Kirk Ferentz has stood tall in the face of adversity, and made no excuses.
He still has work to do in reshaping the Iowa culture, and there still are problems with attrition as five black players have left the team since the start of 2020 season.
And though you could argue that playing time was a factor in the five players leaving, it still doesn’t look good under the delicate circumstances.
Kirk Ferentz still faces a daunting task off the field, but the way in which his team has stayed unified and performed on the field is encouraging and deserves praise.