In chaotic era, the Kirk Ferentz-Iowa partnership is becoming the unicorn of college football
In all of the chaos of the past few weeks, it dawned on me: Iowa fans have never experienced the emotional highs or lows of a coaching search.
There’s no doubt that a December (or nowadays, November) spent looking for a new head coach can be exciting. But in the case of Oklahoma or Notre Dame fans, the coaching carousel can be agonizing. Coaching searches typically mean something has gone terribly wrong. Either the head coach is underperforming, or he is heading to so-called greener pastures.
Iowa has been immune from that roller coaster more than anyone with the longest-tenured FBS coach in Kirk Ferentz, who is the only current head coach who was giving his current program a pep talk on Y2K. That’s what people cared about back in 1999, right?
This doesn’t happen by accident. Iowa develops players and plays a very safe, old-school style of football. The Hawkeyes are a rare breed in today’s modern college football landscape. They are part of a small group of programs nationally that seem to value stability and also possess a high floor, though the ceiling is limited; Kentucky with Mark Stoops and Utah with Kyle Whittingham are the only others I’d put in this group. Even Stoops and Whittingham, though, were rumored to be candidates during this year’s cycle.
Ferentz, though, never comes up anymore. He was once a hot name back in the early 2000s when he helped Iowa to 3 straight seasons with double-digit wins, but those days are long gone. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns have courted him in the past, but in terms of other programs trying to poach him, it hasn’t really happened, at least that we know of.
And Iowa, even though there were some opportunities to move on, has stuck with Ferentz. Most recently, that was after allegations of racial bias rocked the program in 2020. Putting aside whether Iowa should have made a coaching change after that situation, it certainly looked like the wheels were falling off and that Ferentz had lost control of the program after an 0-2 start that included losses to Purdue and Northwestern.
But as always, Ferentz steadied the ship. Heading into Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game against No. 2 Michigan, No. 13 Iowa has won 16 of its last 18 games.
There have been several times when it looked like Ferentz was slipping. The running joke in 2010-14 was that Iowa would be saddled with Ferentz forever because of his massive buyout. Like in 2012 after going 4-8, maybe Iowa would’ve pursued Luke Fickell (then the Ohio State defensive coordinator), James Franklin (coming off a 9-4 season at Vandy), Mark Stoops (then the Florida State defensive coordinator) or Bret Bielema (coming off a third straight season of double-digit wins at Wisconsin but unhappy with the resources). But they stuck with Ferentz.
The SEC has only 4 coaches who have been with their programs longer than 2 years: Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Mark Stoops and Jimbo Fisher. Iowa feels out of place when you consider the frenzied nature of some programs — LSU making a change 2 years after winning a national title, for example, or Florida firing Dan Mullen not even one year after he won the SEC East.
The Big Ten is playing a different game. It had only 1 coaching change last year (Bielema) and it looks like it won’t have any this year. Scott Frost, who hasn’t won 6 games in any of his 4 seasons, is getting a 5th year. That would never happen in the SEC. Jim Harbaugh took a pay cut. Tom Allen is taking a pay cut. Mel Tucker and James Franklin just inked long-term extensions. It’s just such a different dynamic, and maybe Ferentz and Iowa have played a little role in that. (It’s worth mentioning Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern in this discussion, too.)
Iowa isn’t without flaws this season, but here they are. This program has been at its share of crossroads, and it stuck with its guy. This is an atypical model in today’s college football, but the results speak for themselves.
The reality is this: Iowa is going to finish the season in the Top 25 for a fifth straight year. While Iowa fans may not get the fun of all the drama with a coaching search, they have had plenty to enjoy on the field. Ideally, every program would be as steady as Iowa, but that’s just not a reality with so much money on the line and so little time to waste.