Profiles In Heroism(?): Kirk Ferentz

Submitted by Brian on December 5th, 2007 at 8:09 PM
Oh, I... I had the time of my life
and I owe it all to roids corn

Head Coach, Iowa
Age 52
Exp. 9th year
Record 61-49
Previous Jobs
Assistant HC & OL Coach w/ Baltimore 1993-1999
HC @ Maine 1990-1992
OL Coach @ Iowa 1981-1989
Playing Career
"academic all-Yankee Conference linebacker" at then lower-division UConn.

Three years ago, Kirk Ferentz was a folk hero in Iowa, NFL teams were stabbing each other just to get an interview with the guy, and if you had told a Michigan fan he would be the man to take over from Lloyd Carr, he would laugh gleefully then punch you for getting his hopes up. Ferentz had just completed a remarkable turnaround, taking a moribund Iowa program that went 1-10 in his first year to the BCS and finishing #8 three consecutive years.

Iowa promptly made Ferentz one of the highest-paid coaches in the land; Ferentz returned the favor by going one game over .500 the next three years. Michigan fans still want to punch people at the idea of Ferentz as the new coach, but for entirely different reasons.

The de rigueur Stassen comparison is not as flattering to Ferentz -- the decade before his arrival saw Iowa win at a 57% clip, good for around 40th nationally -- because he had the misfortune to directly succeed Hayden Fry, a Hall of Fame coach who was Iowa's version of Bo. Most of the other guys this series has considered were preceded by literal losers; that's why they got the job.

Ferentz walked into an unusual situation at Iowa, directing a program with a history of success that had fallen on hard times as the previous coach held on too long. This may sound familiar. (Michigan's situation is far less of a disaster -- Fry went 3-8 his last season.) How should we judge his tenure? It's hard to assign blame for either of his first two years, in which Iowa bottomed out at 1-10 and 3-9, but going 7-5 in your third year is not a huge accomplishment at a place like Iowa, even if the previous two years were ugly. Iowa's a 7-5 kind of program, long term, and that's an average performance.

No one questions the next three years, when Brad Banks and Drew Tate built Iowa into a burgeoning Big Ten power as Penn State fell off the radar; everyone questions the most recent three. Ferentz does have some good excuses: the last two years Iowa was injury- and discipline-wracked on the same level Michigan safeties were during the Year of Infinite Pain. Check this midseason assessment out from Black Heart, Gold Pants:

Anyway, this weekend, Iowa is without the following elements of the team, all of whom were '07-eligible on campus the middle of the spring semester:


  • Starting WR Dominique Douglas
  • Starting WR Andy Brodell
  • Starting TE Tony Moeaki
  • Starting LT Dace Richardson
  • Second-string OL Alex Kanellis
  • Second-string OL Rob Bruggeman
  • Second-string WR Anthony Bowman
  • Third-string TB Shonn Greene
  • Third-string OL Clint Huntrods


  • Starting FS Devan Moylan
  • Starting MLB Mike Klinkenborg
  • Second-string FS Marcus Wilson
  • Second-string CB Justin Edwards
  • Second-string DT Ryan Bain
  • Third-string CB Amari Spievey

All but three (Moeaki, Moylan, Col. Klink) are gone for at least the rest of the season. Most will never play another snap for Iowa.

At this point three other as-of-yet unnamed players were being held out despite Iowa's severe need because of an ongoing sexual assault investigation, so that's a total of 18 kids Iowa did not have at its disposal. Throw in a new starting quarterback and it's pretty obvious why Iowa's offense was 117th in the country.

Digression: midway through the first quarter of the Oregon-Arizona game I thought to myself "Chip Kelly is a genius." Then Dennis Dixon, apparently already playing on a torn ACL, took the wrong step and exited from the season. Oregon since: negative seventy points, negative six trillion yards.* Sometimes it really is out of your hands as a coach. Sometimes you've just got Brady Leaf and... like... damn, dude, what do you do?

But to go 6-6 when you have 4 nonconference gimmes and no Michigan or Ohio State is beyond explanation. And in 2006 a senior Drew Tate finally had a healthy Albert Young and the Hawkeyes still went 2-6 in the Big Ten. Yes, the receivers were young and the offensive line spotty and the defense banged up, but can we submit that anyone in is 8th year at a decent program like Iowa who is a great coach should not go 2-6 in the Big Ten?

Frustration is building at Iowa; when Ferentz' name first came up I quoted some BHGP frustration that sounded eerily familiar:

I mean, seriously, change some names and this BHGP passage could have been lifted verbatim from the comments of this blog during the Ohio State game:
We wasted the best front seven since 2004 on an offensive line which flat out refused to block anyone. We wasted the best running back tandem since Russell/Lewis on a quarterback who couldn't hit an open receiver and receivers who didn't catch the ball when he did. We wasted a tough, classy, downright professional group of seniors on a team filled with convicts and thugs and a coaching staff that was too f---ing stubborn to even attempt to fix the all-too-obvious problems.

Oh, oh, and this one:

Defenders of this coaching staff have repeatedly said, "the coaches put players in position to win, and it's the players' fault for not performing." Assuming (I think incorrectly) that this system would actually lead to success, it's the job of the coaches to prepare these players both schematically and technically. If the players are unable to perform effectively in otherwise correct schemes, the players must be more technically sound, the players must be replaced by those who can perform, or the schemes must be adjusted to account for a lack of talent/knowledge.

Initial promise, disappointing recent results, an epic swath of disciplinary and injury problems, outdated strategy, and a prim propriety in public? Lloyd Carr clone, come on down.


Xs and Os Proficiency: Ferentz has never been a coordinator on any level, leaping from offensive line coach to head coach twice without any intermediate stops along the way. So this is mostly a "not applicable."

Anyone who's watched Iowa can see the philosophical similarities between the two programs: run the ball, play tough D, punt a lot, and for God's sake never take any risks whatsoever. The zone/waggle game had been a staple -- the staple -- of Iowa's offense for years when Michigan decided to implement it, though Iowa tends to go
with guys with actual mobility.

Recruiting: Iowa, aside from the secret government lab where they breed the next generation of Inexplicably Great White Wide Receivers, is decidedly unfertile recruiting territory, and Iowa does not have the sort of national pull a Michigan or Nebraska -- which did shockingly well with recruits from all over in the Callahan here -- does. And it shows in the recruiting rankings (all from Rivals):

  • 2002: 51st
  • 2003: 43rd
  • 2004: 38th
  • 2005: 11th(!)
  • 2006: 40th
  • 2007: 28th.

I wouldn't put much weight in these, as recruiting rankings begin to have very low fidelity as you get down into the three stars, of which there are a million of differing abilities. The general trend is mediocre save for that anomalous 2005 class, which was gathered at the height of Ferentz mania. Ty Willingham was abdicating Notre Dame's class, the Zooker was yet to land at Illinois, and there was a bumper crop of highly rated Chicagoland recruits. Most of them ended up at Iowa. It was a perfect storm of circumstance that the subsequent years have proven does not reveal any particular skill on Ferentz' part. He's done okay considering Iowa's circumstances, but is unlikely to improve on Carr's recruiting at Michigan. (Not that Carr was bad at recruiting; he was pretty good. But this is not a particular asset for Ferentz.)

Potential Catches: There are many. From the perspective of the fan: he's one damn game above .500 the last three years and has a severe case of Lloydballs. Not as severe as the man himself -- let's all remember the Brad Banks era -- but he has many of the same flaws Lloyd does: stubborn loyalty to failing coordinators who happen to be friends, a tendency towards extreme predictability, a team-harming aversion to risk.

From the perspective of an athletic department that evidently thinks very little of its fans and wants a "Lloyd Carr clone": 10% of Ferentz's team was arrested for Serious Business this year. Since 2003, Iowa has suffered a 42% attrition rate. Ferentz' son availed himself of taxpayer subsidized housing for the poor; Ferentz refused to speak about it publicly.

For every rumor out there about Les Miles' supposed lack of morals, there's a kid who's left Iowa's team for being a hooligan. But Miles is the guy with "character issues" because said something mean or wrong or impolite about Carr. Our athletic department's priorities are awesome.

Relative Compensation: This has been discussed ad nauseam: Ferentz makes somewhere between 2.6 and 3.4 million a year depending on how you figure the bonuses. He's insanely expensive.

Would He Take The Job? This was extremely doubtful earlier in the year but as the rumors persist it begins to seem more plausible. It's still doubtful, though. First Michigan would have to match his steep pay package, numbers which would make it possible to hire Les Miles and undoubtedly outrage fans, alumni, and the big-baller donors Michigan is banking on to fill the luxury suites currently under construction. Then Ferentz would have to leave Iowa, a place he likes very much, on the verge of his son's commitment there.

It still appears doubtful.

Overall Attractiveness: Ferentz would not be a disaster of a hire, but he would be a disappointing one. He's no more moral than dozens of coaches across the country. He's increasingly incapable of keeping the kids he recruits under control. He lost to Iowa State and Western Michigan this year. He represents the closest thing to an extension of the Carr era available out there, something which may be attractive to Sailboat Bill Martin but is an anathema to anyone who actually remembers the Appalachian State game earlier this year.

The opportunity represented by the Carr retirement is to take the program in a different direction. Michigan has stagnated, allowing Ohio State to pass it both off the field and on. Ohio State has better facilities, has won six of seven against Michigan, and has fewer disciplinary problems. The Horror was supposed to be a wakeup call inside the department and amongst the heavy movers; Ferentz represents the snooze button, especially if his hiring is contingent upon retaining certain key assistants who have done nothing to suggest they are capable of coaching out of a wet paper bag.

As an insanely expensive backup plan, Ferentz is fine. The program is unlikely to fall apart under his watch. At Michigan he'll have the talent and depth to beat Western; he won't put up with Michigan's stone age strength and conditioning program, and he's likely to have a level of success comparable to Carr over the long haul. And that's not bad.

As a primary option, Ferentz is indicative of a diseased thought process that hasn't watched the past three years. Lloyd Carr was a very good coach, but the emphasis is on was. It's over. "Eff you, try to stop us, oops you did let's punt" is over. Ohio State has raised. Picking Ferentz is, essentially, folding.