After another mediocre season in Iowa City (7-6 following 8-5), Kirk Ferentz is facing his fair share of heat from fans tired of losing in the same old fashion. Conservative play-calling, embarrassing clock management, and rampant offensive inconsistency have similarly frustrated Hawkeye fans, but it’s the seeming refusal to address or change past trends, that contentment with mediocrity, that has black and gold followers really irate. So, with a long offseason and 2012 uncertainty ahead, let’s take a moment to reflect on all the good seasons Ferentz has produced, which could provide some hope for a return to glory in coming years. Here are the top five Hawkeye football seasons under Ferentz:
1) 2002. It may be difficult for some to digest the painful reality that Ferentz’s best season involves an epic choke job loss to Iowa State, but the first 11-win team in school history was otherwise dominate, stacked with offensive talent, and remains the lone Iowa team ever to finish 8-0 in conference play. Look at the sheer amount of NFL players on this roster — All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark, offensive linemen Eric Steinbach, Robert Gallery, Bruce Nelson, Brian Ferentz, and Pete McMahon, wideout C.J. Jones, defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux, Colin Cole, Jared Clauss, and Matt Roth, linebackers Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Edmond Miles, defensive backs Derek Pagel, Bob Sanders, Sean Considine, and Marcus Paschal, and, finally, All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding. Whoa. And that’s not even including wide receiver Mo Brown, who finished with a then-team record 11 touchdown receptions, and the thunder/lightning running back duo of Fred Russell and Jermelle Lewis. The team finished 11-2 after a loss to an equally stacked USC team in the Orange Bowl, Iowa’s first major bowl since the 1991 Rose Bowl. This was the team that brought Iowa football back, and nobody expected it, which made the run even sweeter.
And then there was quarterback Brad Banks, a junior college transfer. 2002 was Banks’ only season as a starter, and he made the most of it. He won the Davey O’Brien award as the best quarterback in the country, was the most efficient passer in the nation, and was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year. He also finished runner-up to Carson Palmer, of USC, for the Heisman. Banks’ combo of athletic mobility and sharp, accurate passing was like nothing that fans had witnessed before in Hawkeye quarterback history, and haven’t witnessed since. He contributed one of the most phenomenal and memorable years of passing in Big Ten history, and he came out of absolutely nowhere to do it. Season highlights included the 34-9 thumping of a top-10 ranked Michigan team at the Big House, an overtime victory of Penn State in Happy Valley, and the infamous tearing down of the goalposts at the Metrodome after Iowa clinched the Big Ten title versus Minnesota. The stadium was filled with a majority of Iowa fans, prompting the nickname “Kinnick North,” and after the game the Hawkeye fans traipsed around the field with pieces of goal post in their hands, looking for a way out of the stadium. It was a fitting end to a brilliant season and a fitting tribute to the sheer joy Iowa fans are capable of expressing when their team is good.
2) 2004. This season gets a slight nod over 2009 because of what the Hawekeys overcame to win, and because they won a share of the conference title for the second time in three years. It capped off the most successful stretch in Hawkeye football history and, like 2002, it came out of absolutely nowhere. The Hawkeyes were led by Drew Tate, a true sophomore quarterback from south Texas, and the feisty Southerner showed a penchant all season long for a slippery, elusive nature in avoiding pocket pressure, a rocket arm, and a sheer lack of fear to make any variety of winning throws. Iowa played a number of close games, and seemed to find a way to win all of them. The Hawkeyes were down to their fifth-string walk-on running back Sam Brownlee after a comical string of injuries at the position, and dealt with the death of Kirk Ferentz’s father and Norm Parker’s grown son during the season. They also lost two games in a row early in the year, a 30-point drubbing in Tempe to the Arizona State Wildcats and a tough 10-point loss at Michigan, but recovered to win eight games in a row and finish 10-2 to share the conference crown with Michigan. Highlights included an emotional 6-4 win over Penn State the week Ferentz’s dad died, and clinching the Big Ten crown versus Wisconsin at Kinnick.
Of course, all fans of college football are familiar with how the season ended versus LSU in the Capital One Bowl. After Iowa lead the entire game, a young, pre-obese JaMarcus Russell entered the game and rallied the Tigers, coached by Nick Saban for the final time, and solidified a late 30-25 lead for the Bayou Bengals. Iowa had a minute left to make something happen, and after driving to the middle of the field with a pair of completions to Ed Hinkel, the Hawkeyes were called for a false start, and chaos emerged. Ferentz had a timeout left, but this fact apparently fell on deaf ears, and the clock continued to run. Iowa had one more play left when they could have had three, but fortunately that play is one enshrined on a million posters in the state of Iowa. Tate threw a Hail Mary touchdown pass to Warren Holloway, a senior who had never caught one in his entire career, and the Hawkeyes won the game in the most dramatic fashion possible. The play, and the season, were supposed to be springboards for future success for Iowa since Drew Tate, the magical man who made so many plays that season, had two years of eligibility, but sadly 2004 remained the lone shining star of Tate’s career. That’s not such a bad thing.
3) 2009. This could make a strong case for number one, even though the team lost the Big Ten title by mere inches. The 2009 season was a beautiful combination of luck, Ricky Stanzi, and a dominate defense. The two blocked field goals against UNI, Adrian Clayborn’s blocked punt versus Penn State, the game-winning touchdown catch by Marvin McNutt with a second remaining to beat Michigan State, defeating Michigan and Arizona after early “Stanzi-sixes,” and the 28-point fourth quarter in the comeback win over Indiana. Those are just a few of the ridiculous, convention-challenging moments in a season full of comebacks, big plays, and the first 9-0 start in school history. It was improbable. It went against everything that defined Ferentz’s reputation for years and his difficulty in winning tight contests. Iowa actually won close games, and at one point it seemed like they would win all of them. Fans are familiar with the way it ended — Stanzi, who never failed to provide fourth quarter magic despite how inconsistent he played for three quarters (five interceptions in the Indiana game before a perfect 120-yard, two-touchdown fourth), broke his ankle in the first quarter versus Northwestern. The Hawkeyes would lose that game in Stanzi’s absence, and the next week too, in overtime at Ohio State for the Big Ten title. After recovering to beat Minnesota, the Hawks were selected to play in their second Orange Bowl under Ferentz, one in which Stanzi would be healthy.
This squad finished 11-2 and notched a victory in that Orange Bowl over Georgia Tech, Iowa’s first win in a BCS-level bowl game since the 1950s. Fans were left to catch their breathe after a such a roller-coaster season, in which every nail-biting, come from behind game felt like a heart attack offered to Hawkeye faithful. It ended on a fitting note in the 24-14 victory over the Yellow Jackets, as Stanzi returned to throw two touchdowns and one of his infamous pick-sixes, and the defense stifled Tech’s triple-option running game as it had all season thanks to monster years from Adrian Clayborn, Pat Angerer, and Amari Spievey, all whom would go on to start in the NFL as rookies.
4) 2003. Following a familiar theme to 2002 and 2004, this team wasn’t supposed to be anything special, but they finished 10-3 with a dominate victory over a heavily favored Florida squad in the Outback Bowl. In fact, this team even did something the famed ’02 outfit couldn’t — they beat Iowa State. Led by behemoth junior college transfer Nathan Chandler, whose brother went on to star at tight end, and Fred Russell, the speedy and diminutive feature back, the offense put up just enough points to win most weeks, and left it up to a dominate defense to keep them in every game. This was Bob “The Hitman” Sanders’ senior year, and the future Super Bowl winner and NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Indianapolis Colts was a fearsome, skull-rattling force at safety. The ’03 squad bounced back consistently from three conference losses and notched impressive wins over Michigan (the eventual conference champs), Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Nate Kaeding also capped off another brilliant year, one in which he performed better than he did the previous season when he was named the Lou Groza award winner as the country’s best.
And of course the Hawkeyes beat the odds, as they often do, to stifle a stacked Gators team on January 1st coached by Ron Zook and captained at quarterback by eventual National Champion Chris Leak. Russell ran roughshod past Florida’s vaunted SEC speed with some explosiveness of his own, and Iowa blocked two punts with thanks to former special teams maestros Considine and Matt Melloy. This team wasn’t the most talented, at least offensively, in Iowa lore, but they found ways to win, as the old cliche goes, thanks to a quarterback who stepped up in the biggest games, a consistent defense, and stellar special teams, the hallmark of Ferentz’s best Iowa teams (and, dually, his worst).
5) 2008. This team didn’t win a Big Ten title or even reach double-digit wins, but I firmly believe it had the potential to be Iowa’s best team on this list thanks to Doak Walker award winner Shonn Greene, the country’s best running back in 2008. At the very least, this was the team that brought Iowa back to prominence after three years of mediocrity — 7-5, 6-7, 6-6. Ferentz was firmly on the hot seat, as Iowa didn’t make a bowl the previous year and started ’08 5-4. Then, the Hawkeyes upset third-ranked Penn State thanks to a masterful drive from Stanzi and a game-winning field goal from Daniel Murray. This win not only dashed the Nittany Lions’ title hopes, it served as one of the biggest wins in Ferentz’s career, signaling a turnaround in the fortunes of the program.
This team went on to finish 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory over South Carolina, but the way this squad peaked after the Penn State win, they easily could have played with any team in the nation. It just took them until mid-season to find their identity. After all, Iowa’s four losses that year came by a total of 12 points, they had the best running back in perhaps Hawkeye history, one of Ferentz’s best offensive lines, and a deadly defense led by tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul and bolstered by young playmaker Tyler Sash. If this team would have found their identity earlier in the year through Stanzi, who started the year as Jake Christensen’s back-up, and the punishing Greene, this team would have made a strong run for the conference crown. They’ll have to settle for a very good season that included highlights such as a 55-0 win over Minnesota in their last game playing at the Metrodome, Shonn Greene’s 200+ yard performances in wins over Purdue and Wisconsin, and, of course, the win over Penn State that changed everything.