By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Brian Ferentz could have skipped the Citrus Bowl press conference on Friday and it would have been easy to understand why given the awkward circumstances.
Because it isn’t often that an assistant coach that knows he’s on the verge of being fired meets with the media to promote a bowl game, and to also comment on being fired.
Throw in the fact that Brian Ferentz is the son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, and a former Iowa offensive lineman, and that he was fired two months ago by an interim athletic director and the awkwardness climbs to a whole new level.
But even with all of that going on, Brian Ferentz still faced the media, and good for him.
He didn’t say anything controversial, nor did he criticize those responsible for firing him.
He talked about what his job, what his father and what this Iowa team means to him, and he voiced displeasure about his situation taking attention away from the players, and from Iowa’s season, which will conclude against Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Florida.
“Quite frankly, probably what I resent the most about this situation is that the focus has come off of our football players, who have really accomplished some tremendous things this year. It has gone on to things that just quite simply do not matter,” Brian Ferentz said. “They are trivial and silly in my opinion. For whatever reason, the focus has gone there instead of on a bunch of players who have worked really hard, overcome a lot of adversity and dealt with a lot of nonsense to win 10 football games and put themselves in a position to win the 11th, which I think would be the fourth time in the history of the school that that’s happened.
“Quite frankly, I think that is where the focus should be. That is where I would like it to be. I cannot control what you guys do or what other people say, but I think we are really missing something that is pretty special that is going on.”
No disrespect to Brian Ferentz, but he’s wrong to say that focusing on his situation is silly and trivial.
For him to shift the focus to the players is certainly admirable, but it still doesn’t make his situation any less important.
The bowl game will hopefully become the top story as kickoff approaches. But imagine the over/under for how many times the Brian Ferentz story angle will be mentioned during the entire television broadcast.
There wasn’t anything that Brian Ferentz said Friday that was earth shattering, but one of his answers was baffling, even though it hardly came as a surprise.
He was asked if backup quarterback Marco Lainez might get a package of plays in Monday’s game.
Lainez, a true freshman from Princeton, New Jersey, apparently moved past sophomore Joe Labas on the depth chart during the regular season, and Labas has since entered the transfer portal.
“No look, we are going to make decisions every week we feel like are best for the football team,” Brian Ferentz said. “I felt like Marco had elevated above Joe at that time. We want to invest the reps in the guys that we think can help the football team win. That is why we made that decision.
“Deacon is the starting quarterback. Deacon has played really good football for us. Deacon has led this football team to a lot of wins, and we expect Deacon to go the distance on Monday.”
Brian Ferentz is correct in saying that Deacon Hill has led Iowa (10-3) to a lot of wins, and Hill has done so under tough circumstances as the latest quarterback to lead an offense that has been in a stunning decline since the start of the 2022 season.
But to say that he has played really good football is probably a stretch, and an example of just how convinced Brian Ferentz and his father are that Deacon Hill is the only reliable option at quarterback right now.
Most of Iowa’s games this season have been close, with four having been decided by three or fewer points, so there haven’t been many opportunities to play the backup quarterbacks.
Hill became the starter when Cade McNamara suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game against Michigan State.
McNamara also had previously suffered a soft tissue injury in the Kids Day practice in August and was never completely healthy this season.
So, now Hawkeye fans are hoping that his physical ailments are why he also struggled.
McNamara was only completing 51.1 percent of his passes when he was injured.
Lainez, of course, still will have to be ready because he is just one injury from being Iowa’s starting quarterback.
That could be asking a lot, though, since he hasn’t taken a single snap this season as a true freshman.
Kirk Ferentz is hardly a complicated head coach, or someone who is hard to read.
His approach to winning is pretty straight forward, and hasn’t changed much over the past quarter century, nor has he.
You might not agree with everything Kirk Ferentz does, but most of it makes sense if you know Kirk Ferentz and where he stands on most football-related issues.
However, topping the short list of what doesn’t make sense is his refusal to play backup quarterbacks.
And this has been going on for years.
It has been more than a decade since James Vandenberg took every snap for Iowa during a 4-8 season in 2012.
Vandenberg took every single snap for an offense that performed woefully under then first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
At times, it felt as if Vandenberg was being hung out to dry.
But Kirk Ferentz would say that Vandenberg took every snap because he gave his team the best chance to win.
As a head coach, Kirk Ferentz is cautious, conservative on offense and paranoid about turnovers.
So, perhaps all those traits have combined to make him strongly opposed to using a backup quarterback for fear that something bad will happen.
His persistence in this case is hard to wrap your arms around because it’s so common now to see backup quarterbacks rise to the occasion when the opportunity presents itself.
The uncomfortable part about questioning Kirk Ferentz’s handling of his quarterbacks is that not only is he the Big Ten’s third all-time winningest head coach behind Woody Hayes and Amos Alonzo Stagg, but he also watches practice every day, whereas the media gets to watch one or two practices a year.
So, this isn’t questioning whether Deacon Hill deserves to start, or suggesting that a true freshman with no game experience would be a better option heading into a bowl game.
It just seems weird to say publicly that you have no intention of giving the backup an opportunity during a season in which your offense has been borderline dysfunctional at times.
Kirk Ferentz has shown that he has a breaking point with his quarterbacks as he ultimately switched from Jake Christensen to Ricky Stanzi in 2008, and from Jake Rudock to C.J. Beathard shortly after the 2o14 season.
Maybe it has something to do with having Jake as a first name.
There is a big difference between saying that Deacon Hill should be benched and saying that it might not be a bad idea to give Lainez a series or two if the offense were to struggle.
Hill spent two seasons as a Wisconsin Badger, and is two years ahead of Lainez from a class standpoint.
Hill also joined the Iowa program for the 2023 spring semester, while Lainez didn’t come to Iowa City until this past summer.
So, Hill also has age and experience working to his advantage.
And again, Kirk Ferentz and Brian Ferentz watch practice every day and they both apparently believe that Deacon Hill deserves every snap based on what they’re seeing in practice.
Okay. Fair enough.
But that still doesn’t make it any easier to understand the refusal to even consider using another quarterback under the circumstances.
It makes you wonder how Lainez has performed in practice because we’ve seen how Hill has played in games, and it’s been a struggle for him at times.
In fairness to Hill, though, every Iowa quarterback has struggled since the start of last season; from Spencer Petras to Alex Padilla to McNamara and now Hill.
And even if Iowa has no plans to use Lainez, why say it publicly?
There are times when being transparent maybe isn’t the best option.