As Kirk Ferentz shows, what's best for 1 program isn't necessarily best for college football as a whole
About a month ago, as college football’s coaching carousel went absolutely bonkers with Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley, it hit me: Iowa fans have never experienced the joys and agony of any of this. Like the disappointment of getting your coach stolen out from under you, or unexpectedly swiping someone else’s guy. Or the excitement fans get from finally firing an underachieving head coach, and then the optimism that comes with the next hire.
They’ve never nervously refreshed social media to see if there was any news, or had to compile their 5 favorite candidates. No, Iowa fans just watch from afar as other programs go through coaches like masks during a pandemic. The Hawkeyes have had 2 head coaches since 1979. That doesn’t even seem real! Florida State has had more coaches in the last 5 years.
With Iowa’s announcement on Friday that it had extended Ferentz through 2029, the longest active tenure in college football got a little bit longer. If Ferentz makes it to the end of that deal, he’ll have been Iowa’s head coach for 31 seasons. That’s a rarity in a sport that demands success almost immediately. There is so much money at stake that patience is something from a bygone era.
Every program should be trying to find its Kirk Ferentz; he’s the guy who will rack up winning season after winning season (he’s had 2 losing seasons in the last 21 years) and yet won’t ever leave for a supposed step up. By the end of the 2024 season, Ferentz will probably be the B1G’s all-time winningest coach, as he is 24 victories behind Woody Hayes. Sure, Iowa has never really had that high-end success aside from winning the Orange Bowl in 2009, but there are at least 8-9 B1G programs that would switch places with Iowa, no questions asked.
That sounds great, right? Of course, for Iowa it is. But thank goodness all of college football isn’t like this.
Don’t get me wrong, I realize the impact a longtime coach can have on a fanbase, like Bear Bryant and Saban with Alabama, Tom Osborne with Nebraska, Joe Paterno with Penn State, Bobby Bowden with Florida State, Bo Schembechler with Michigan and Woody Hayes with Ohio State. Stability is a good thing for winning games, and I don’t think anyone can argue otherwise.
But in terms of entertainment value, Iowa won’t top that sort of list anytime soon, which is why I’m glad not every program is like it. Ferentz is great, but it’s great he’s the exception. Change can be good or bad, yes. But the same thing over and over gets boring. Nick Saban and Alabama in the national championship is a little boring, I’m sorry. Going 8-4 every year is a good season, but it’s also a little boring. In this 24-hour news cycle, the media and the fans are always looking for a good story. That’s why once November arrives, we start speculating about who is keeping their coach and who is going to be looking for a new one. It stinks for those programs, but it sure is compelling as an outsider.
This is just a different era than when Paterno, Osborne, Schembechler and Hayes roamed the sidelines. College football is a year-round sport, and a lot of times, it’s the stuff that happens away from the field that is most interesting. The interest generated from these coaching carousels drives news cycles for weeks and months, which is extremely valuable from a brand perspective. It keeps the spotlight on the sport when the games don’t live up to the hype. I’d venture to say the NBA has taken it a little too far with players changing teams every few years, but it has the right idea of trying to dominate the news cycle 365 days per year. College football does, too, with coaching changes, recruiting, spring practice and constant discussion of expanding the CFP.
Think if every program were like Iowa, and all the guys below were still with their programs. This sport would be incredibly stale. We need innovation, we need new blood.
College football coaching carousel, 1998-99, when Kirk Ferentz was hired pic.twitter.com/gOSjTkcJSG
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) January 14, 2022
Years ago, Iowa’s style of play was more in line with prevailing trends. Now, the Hawkeyes brand of football is vastly different than 90-95 percent of college football. That’s fun in its own way, as it is an interesting contrast. Like, how does Iowa win double-digit games with one of the worst offenses in the country? What if every other team was still running an offense from 20 years ago?
Iowa seems perfectly content with winning 8-9 games each season, as it shows no interest in evolving offensively and taking that next step. It’s boring, but it does win some games.
Good for Iowa. And good for any other program that finds its forever coach — let’s just hope there aren’t too many of them.