By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On Nov. 20, 2004, the Iowa football team pounded Wisconsin 30-7 at Kinnick Stadium to win a share of the Big Ten title with Michigan.
Two days prior to that milestone moment, Spencer Petras turned 5 years old.
Iowa hasn’t won a Big Ten title in football since then, while Petras is now 21 years old and Iowa’s starting quarterback as a fourth-year junior.
Every time Petras walks into Iowa’s indoor practice facility he is reminded how long it’s been since Iowa last won a Big Ten title from the banners that hang on the wall.
“It’s there every morning to remind us when we go in the indoor (facility),” Petras said Friday at Iowa’s annual media day event. “I think we’re all motivated by that. That’s why we do it.”
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who is the son of head coach Kirk Ferentz, recently saw another reminder about the 2004 championship season in a photograph that caught his attention.
Brian Ferentz was a junior offensive lineman on Iowa’s 2004 team, and he’s now 38 years old and entering his 10th season as member of his father’s coaching staff at Iowa.
“Of course, we want to a Big Ten championship,” Brian Ferentz said Friday at media day. “It motivates the heck out you; 2004 is a long time ago. It’s a long time ago.
“Trust me, I saw a picture of 2004 the other day that involved me that it dawned on me that it was a long time ago.”
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Brian Ferentz is correct in saying that 2004 is a long time ago from a sports standpoint. It’s rare that a head coach even stays in one place for that long.
His 66-year old father is currently the longest tenured head coach in college football, and Iowa’s all-time winningest head coach with a 168-106 record. The 168 wins in all games coached as a member of the Big Ten rank fourth all-time in league history.
Iowa has earned 18 bowl game invitations under Kirk Ferentz since 2001, and has won at least 10 games in a season six times under his watch.
Iowa also won 47 games from 2015-19, which is the best five-year win total in school history. Just eight programs in the nation won more games during that period.
So Kirk Ferentz has much to be proud about. He’s a Hawkeye legend who has withstood the test of time and accomplished some great things.
It’s to the point now where there is little left for Kirk Ferentz to accomplish besides winning a Big Ten title.
Iowa won the Big Ten West Division in 2015 and finished 12-0 during the regular season. But that team fell just short of winning the Big Ten title, losing 16-13 against Michigan State in the conference championship game in Indianapolis.
The Spartans marched almost the length of the field in a fourth-quarter drive that lasted more than seven minutes before scoring the game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds remaining.
“I think of 2015, we win the Big Ten West, we didn’t lose a game,” Brian Ferentz said. “We go to Indianapolis and seven of the hardest minutes, I would think of any our lives who were there. And let me be very clear; our competitive lives because your personal life is a much different thing.
“I think in sports we probably get a little bit crazy on some hyperbole from time to time. But the most difficult seven minutes of our professional lives probably happened on that field in Indianapolis. Gut wrenching, rip your heart out.”
Even though it’s been almost six years since the devastating loss to Michigan State, Brian Ferentz still vividly remembers how he felt upon entering the Iowa locker room in the moments after the game.
“I’ll never forget walking into that locker room and feeling proud of our football team, feeling proud of the team I was a part of, feeling fulfilled and successful,” Brian Ferentz said. “I know that doesn’t sound very successful to lose. But you were in a locker room full of guys who had given everything they had to a common goal, and we came up short.
“Did we play our best? No, we didn’t play our best that night. But did we play hard? Did we give it our best effort for 13 straight weeks? Absolutely. That to me is success. You hope that culminates in a championship.”
Kirk Ferentz has been a part of four Big Ten championship teams at Iowa, two as a head coach in 2002 and 2004 and two as the offensive line coach under Hayden Fry in 1981 and 1985.
Fry also led Iowa to a share of the 1990 Big Ten title, which came one year after Ferentz had left the program to become the head coach at Maine.
“If you’re in a conference, that’s the first step is trying to compete for it, and we have 14 teams in our conference all trying to do the same thing,” Kirk Ferentz said Friday. “If you’re playing, you’re playing to keep score and we all keep score and you want to do the best you can within the people that you compete with.
“That means getting to Indy and then, obviously, you want to win in in Indy, too. And that’s the next step.”
That’s really the only step left for Kirk Ferentz, outside of winning a national title, of course.
However, you can’t do one without the other.
Big Ten teams now have the opportunity to win a division title, and while that is a worthy accomplishment, it’s not the same as winning a Big Ten title, especially for teams in the West Division that don’t have to contend with mighty Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have won 39 Big Ten titles, including 11 since 2002, and are considered the heavy favorite to win another title this season.
Iowa’s problem has been reaching the title game, due mostly to its 2-7 record against Wisconsin since 2010 and its 1-4 record against Northwestern since 2016. The Badgers have won five division titles, while Northwestern has won two of the last three.
“You absolutely want to win,” Brian Ferentz said. “With all of your soul and all of your being, you want to win. Every time you step on the field, you want to win. You can’t win every time you step foot there. That’s the hard part.
“So of course, you want to win a Big Ten championship. That’s the goal. That’s the stated goal. It’s what we talk about. We don’t shy away from it. But that’s not all there is. That’s the hard part about competing.”
A conference title is not all there is, but again, there isn’t much left for Kirk Ferentz to accomplish at Iowa where he is entering his 23rd season as head coach.
A nine- or 10-win season should never been taken for granted or minimized. But if a head coach stays in one place for an extended period of time, more is expected from that head coach.
Kirk Ferentz has excelled in so many ways from a competitive standpoint, but to go almost 17 years without winning a Big Ten title is a long time. His son even said it.
The longest Hayden Fry went without winning a Big Ten title was his final eight seasons at Iowa from 1991 to 1998.
The current drought under Kirk Ferentz is more than twice as long.
A lot of programs, including the other Power Five program in this state, which hasn’t won a conference title since 1912, would love to be in Iowa’s position.
But with success comes expectations and loftier goals and it’s time for Iowa to meet the one goal that has been beyond reach since before Twitter was created.
It’s time for Kirk Ferentz to match his legendary predecessor at Iowa by winning a third Big Ten title.
Kirk Ferentz has dealt with plenty of distractions away from the playing field over the past year caused mostly by the global pandemic and by the racial unrest that rocked his program last summer.
And while winning a Big Ten title wouldn’t fix those things, it sure would be a nice way to switch the narrative, and show that the program still is thriving under Kirk Ferentz.
He said Friday that he expects his team to be at least 90 percent vaccinated by the start of the season, and that’s encouraging because it’ll take a full roster to clear this one last giant hurdle.
And probably some good luck.