Although it’s foolhardy in the modern college football landscape to take a coach’s words as 100 percent truth, Kirk Ferentz is more reliable than most. The man whose contract at Iowa runs until 2020 told reporters last week he will stay at the helm of the Hawkeyes until they want him no longer, and based on his previous track record, it’s difficult to dispute such a statement.
After he led Iowa on its magical 31-7 run from 2002-04, Ferentz became the talk of the NFL town. He had the professional connections, coaching the Cleveland Browns’ offensive line under Bill Belichick in the mid-90s, and the proven success, turning a fading Iowa program around to win two Big Ten titles in three years. Even more, Ferentz has always been hailed as a high character guy, with the disciplined, consistent, and stoic demeanor often seen in NFL coaches along with the conservative, pro-style philosophies popular on professional football fields. Ferentz always denied every single opportunity, citing a comfortable happiness in Iowa City and the fact that he wanted his kids to grow up in the same place. He would even gain the chance to coach two of his sons (maybe three) in college, sending one into the NFL alongside Belichick as the New England Patriots’ tight ends coach.
The university ponied up the cash to keep Ferentz and stave off the NFL dogs, signing him to the now infamous and oft-cited 3.7 million dollar a year contract, making him the highest-paid state employee in Iowa. Texans, Browns, Jaguars, and Ravens all came knocking, and each time it appeared as if, after flirting interest or humoring an old NFL friend, Kirk quietly denied the job. Ferentz always laughed off the talk in press conferences yet never issued public denials of interest or possibility, only fueling the speculative fires. Talk seemingly hushed during the mediocre stretch of ’05-07, but quickly emerged again after the 2008 9-4 rebound season, when ESPN’s John Clayton essentially reported Ferentz gone and the announcers for the Outback Bowl that year strangely talked of Ferentz’s Iowa career in the past tense for portions of the broadcast. Needless to say, he never left for those greener pastures.
It’s plain to see that chatter of Kirk departing for the NFL has become a holiday tradition, re-hashed ad nauseum by talking head pundits and bloggers. Iowa fans are immune to it, their ears well-conditioned to the frantic rumors of “this could be the year he does it” that never come to fruition. So most of them are approaching the recent news that Ferentz is at the top of Kansas City Chiefs G.M. Scott Pioli’s wishlist for a new head coach with reserved, almost-mocking fear.
It sounds almost cliche to say, seeing as a bevy of reporters have written this same eulogy over the years, but if Ferentz were to leave now, the decision makes good sense. The program has leveled off a bit and appears headed for a stretch of mediocrity. Fans have grown tired of the same trite formula for success and the same problems each year, determining the head man’s results as unworthy of such a steep salary. Everybody knows Ferentz is best buds with Pioli, who allegedly has Kirk at the top of his wish list. The G.M. was allegedly a fixture around Iowa’s campus the past two years, popping into film sessions and drafting former Hawkeyes Tony Moeaki and Ricky Stanzi in the early rounds of the 2010 and 2011 drafts. An ideal relationship between coach and general manager is essential to a well-run, effective NFL team, and Ferentz won’t find such a smooth rapport at every locale. It wouldn’t be such a tough transition from managing every aspect of a college program to giving up that power in the NFL — he would still maintain a similar control. Ferentz’s youngest child is graduating high school, and another one is about to enter his senior year at Iowa as the starting center. And although Iowa is one of the best programs in the country at putting players into the NFL (top 10 overall, and every defensive starter from 2010 got a cup of tea in the league), this implies Ferentz is keeping his pro football connections fresh. Finally, this is likely Ferentz’s last shot to make a jump from the collegiate ranks and garner a top deal. He is 56 and will be nearing his 70s once his contract at Iowa runs out.
But if he hasn’t left in the past, he isn’t going to leave this time. Despite his friendship with Pioli and the opportunity to coach some of his former players, the Chiefs job is not a good one. It’s a young, rebuilding team without much of an identity and a solid rebuilding effort ahead. At his age, Ferentz would presumably want to take over a more well-established team that doesn’t require such a substantial effort. He’s had better opportunities arrive at his door in the past, and turned them down just the same. The job obviously wouldn’t be about the money, as Ferentz has made enough of that already. Ferentz still has one more year left to coach his son, James, in a Hawkeye uniform, and his 18-year-old son Tyler publicly expressed a desire to walk-on and play football for his dad, which implies that Ferentz is rooted in staying. He’s made no secret of his enjoyment in coaching his sons. And, of course, it would be silly to ignore Ferentz’s repeated public dismissals of interest in other jobs. He recently expressed an almost exasperated disbelief that reporters are still wondering if he is going to leave Iowa City, as if the collective paranoia festering since the Lute Olson-era in basketball will not depart. College football coaches have flip-flopped innumerable times throughout history, but so far, Kirk has stayed a relatively fresh exception in his truth-telling.
So, although many of the aforementioned reasons for staying are purely speculative, they are also based on Kirk’s past responses and actions. He cares about his kids. He cares about continuity and stability. And he is loyal to a fault, as he has shown through his at-times frustrating adherence to his assistant coaches. An examination of Kirk’s values and past responses in similar circumstances seems to yield an easy answer to the Chiefs question — no, despite what national media members are saying. But if Ferentz is going to jump the NFL, this may be his last, best bet, and because of his relationship with Pioli, it’s a rumor trail worth following.
I’m sure a lot of Hawkeye fans would be happy to see Ferentz leave and new philosophy emerge within the football program after two straight 7-5 regular seasons. He has accomplished a lot in his Iowa career, but recent seasons have been plagued with mediocrity and a stubborn refusal to change old habits. Still, the ghost of Tom Davis, who was forced out over similar concerns, still haunts the Iowa basketball program, and an implicit fear that the same result could happen for football is likely rooting in fans’ heads despite the differences between each sport. Davis began his Hawkeye career hot, going to an Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen in his first two years on campus, before leveling off at second-round exit after second-round exit throughout the 1990s. Hawkeye hoops was stellar at beating the teams in the middle-of-the-pack, and fruitless in their attempts to etch their names alongside the elite programs. Davis’ last season was 1999. The team reached the Sweet Sixteen. Iowa hoops has reached only three NCAA tournaments since. The message here is a classic “be careful what you wish for.”
Stay tuned, Hawkeye fans, but if the previous 10 years are any indication, Ferentz likely won’t be going anywhere. No matter how bright the NFL allure appears on the surface. When Ferentz says he isn’t going anywhere, he means it. He still needs to issue a public statement on the issue to satiate concerns from recruits, because if ESPN has picked up on the rumor, they will all be watching. As will the entire state of Iowa.