By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Maybe other than his initial rebuilding success at Iowa, it could be argued that Kirk Ferentz is doing his best coaching right now.
Iowa is 5-0 and ranked third in the Associated Press heading into Saturday’s game against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa jumped two spots in the AP poll, while Penn State stayed at No. 4.
It isn’t often that two top five teams square off anywhere, let alone at Kinnick Stadium.
And it isn’t often that Iowa still is undefeated this far into a season. This marks just the third time in 23 seasons under the 66-year old Kirk Ferentz that Iowa has been 5-0, with it also having happened in 2009 and 2015.
Iowa has won 11 straight games dating back to last season and has outscored its opponents 383 to 141, averaging 34.8 points per game offensively and allowing just 12.8 points per game defensively.
Iowa’s offense still is a work in progress, and isn’t always fun to watch, which has sort of been a theme throughout Kirk Ferentz’s reign.
But there is no substitute for winning, and right now Iowa has the longest winning streak in the Big Ten, and its third longest winning streak under Ferentz.
Iowa combined to win 13 straight games in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and the 2015 team finished 12-0 in the regular season.
Ferentz did some of his best coaching during those two stretches.
Iowa was struggling at 3-3 in 2008, and had combined to finish 12-13 in the previous two seasons. So the pressure was building on Ferentz to start winning again.
He made Ricky Stanzi his full-time starter at quarterback over Jake Christensen after four games and then built the offense around running back Shonn Greene, who would go on to win the Doak Walker Award in 2008 as the nation’s top collegiate running back.
Iowa won six of its final seven games, including a 31-10 victory over South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, to finish 9-4.
That served as a springboard to the 2009 season in which Iowa finished 11-2 overall.
Ferentz also pushed the right button when he made C.J. Beathard his starting quarterback just days after the end of the 2014 season.
Jake Rudock had started the previous two seasons and had played well at times while leading Iowa to records of 8-5 and 7-6.
But the program was sputtering with Rudock behind center and that was never more evident than in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl when Tennessee crushed Iowa 45-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.
Rudock transferred to Michigan and played as a graduate student instead of being Beathard’s backup, and he and Beathard both played well in 2015.
Every time Ferentz has been under pressure to win at Iowa, he has risen to the occasion and silenced the naysayers, including right now.
But the current situation brought a different kind of pressure, caused mostly by the global pandemic and by the racial unrest from the summer of 2020.
It’s easy to forget that Iowa finished 10-3 in 2019 because of everything that has happened since then.
Ferentz faced a major crisis when multiple former Iowa black players accused the program of racial disparities in June of 2020. His image and reputation both took a hit and the accusations brought shame and embarrassment to the program.
It was easy to think that Ferentz might not recover from this controversy, and that the product on the field ultimately would suffer as part of the fallout. Ferentz was 64 years old when the accusations were made public, so it looked bleak.
But instead of unraveling, Iowa has an 11-2 record since the racial unrest, and despite playing during a pandemic.
Iowa played all eight of its 2020 regular-season games despite the pandemic, and the only reason Iowa didn’t play its two postseason games in 2020 is because Michigan and Missouri both cancelled due to Covid-19 health concerns.
And while luck probably helped Iowa make it through the 2020 season without any major setbacks caused by the pandemic, it also took steady leadership from the top.
Kirk Ferentz admitted to having a blind spot in response to the racial unrest that led to his long-time strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle losing his job barely two weeks after the accusations were made public. Ferentz vowed to fix whatever was broken from a cultural standpoint, and he has been willing to compromise and soften some of his rules and regulations.
His players now are allowed to kneel for the National Anthem, and to be on Twitter.
Junior receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr., said the culture now feels more like a home than a house, while senior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin said players no longer feel as if they’re walking on egg shells.
It’s hard to know for sure how much the culture has changed because most of the changes occur behind the scenes, and over time.
But in the wake of the racial unrest, words from an Iowa player, especially a black player, carry a lot of weight.
A team also doesn’t win five games in a row, including road games at Iowa State and Maryland, without being unified, focused and on the same page from a purpose standpoint.
There was concern that Ferentz might lose some of his influence and respect because of the racial unrest, and that his words wouldn’t mean as much.
But there are no signs of that whatsoever.
This isn’t to say that Iowa’s culture is fixed because there just hasn’t been enough time to accomplish such a daunting task.
A handful of former players have filed a discrimination lawsuit against against Iowa, with offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz part of the complaint.
And though it’s not a constant distraction for Kirk Ferentz to have his offensive coordinator, who is also his son, in that position, it’s still a distraction, and kind of embarrassing.
But as far as coaching football, and creating a winning environment, Kirk Ferentz is meeting that challenge perhaps better than he ever has as the head Hawk.
His initial rebuild was sensational, from 2-18 after 20 games in 1999 and 2000 to Big Ten champion in 2002.
Iowa finished 31-7 during a three-year stretch from 2002-04, and won two Big Ten titles.
That was Kirk Ferentz at his best.
Or was it?
The challenge of rebuilding a Power Five program is filled with risks and with the constant threat of failure on a big stage.
But Kirk Ferentz also had the Iowa tradition, and his connection to Hayden Fry, to help promote the rebuild.
Ferentz was also in his 40s at the time, so opponents couldn’t use his age as part of negative recruiting, which almost certainly happens now.
Ferentz ultimately succeeded in lifting Iowa back to respectability, and the program has remained strong for two decades.
There will be buzz in Iowa City in preparation for Saturday’s game.
Hawkeye football is in the midst of special run and where it might go from here is exciting to think about.
Kirk Ferentz has been able to shift the narrative from controversy to winning, and that probably was the only way it would shift.
Winning doesn’t necessarily fix and cure everything, but it sure beats the alternative, especially under Iowa’s unique and delicate circumstances.
Kirk Ferentz in barely a year has gone from being at the center of an embarrassing controversy to now arguably doing his best coaching.
Needless to say, that’s impressive.