Ask any college football fan in the 1980s and 1990s about Iowa football, and the first person to come to mind was likely Hayden Fry. The longtime Hawkeyes head coach was the face of the program for 20 seasons, arriving after the 1978 campaign — the 17th straight non-winning season in Iowa City.
Fry completely changed the culture at Iowa, brought in a more wide-open offense — innovative at the time — and put Iowa on the map quicker than anyone had expected in 1981 when it enjoyed its first winning season in 19 years and its first bowl appearance (Rose Bowl) in 23 seasons.
Along with leading Iowa to a No. 1 ranking for five weeks in 1985, Fry also helped develop some of the biggest names in the coaching business, including Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, Bob Stoops, Bret Bielema and Jim Leavitt. He also brought Kirk Ferentz into the fold.
As we approach the 2019 season, Ferentz will enter his 21st campaign in Iowa City, which will eclipse Fry in longevity. That’s quite an accomplishment considering Fry was an institution at the school. It’s also stunning at a time when head coaches can get canned in three years or less.
The 2019 Hawkeyes will field perhaps the most talented team in the Big Ten West division this fall, but as usual there doesn’t seem to be a ton of buzz about the Hawkeyes. Frankly, that’s been an annual tradition in the Ferentz era. Doubt the Hawks, and they usually surprise.
Ferentz, who became the program’s all-time winningest football coach in 2018 and is only the fifth Big Ten program-builder to win at least 150 games, will lean on senior quarterback Nate Stanley, whose 52 touchdown passes over the last two seasons are more than any signal-caller in program history. The 6-foot-4, 243-pound Wisconsin native is experienced and has the ability to fill up a stat sheet, but he is also just a .500 quarterback in league play and just 1-6 against ranked teams.
Iowa is going to be a solid team and tough out if it gets typical Stanley play. But there is potential for a trip to Indianapolis and even a berth into a New Year’s Six bowl game if Stanley can deliver elevated play against the league’s best.
Stanley certainly lost two very important pieces from last year’s offense in tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who were high selections in the 2019 NFL Draft. Senior Nate Wieting is the lone player at the position with any valuable experience, and that comes in the form of three career receptions. But that leaves plenty of opportunity for junior receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, who combined for 51 catches last fall. And redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy Jr. is also expected to break out.
The Hawkeyes may not have an electric backfield, but it is experienced and deep. And their tailbacks will be running behind a strong offensive line led by tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, who will also protect Stanley.
And then there is the defense.
Junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa is the top pass rusher in the Big Ten and one of the best nationally, and his job is made easier because he plays opposite of junior Chauncey Golston, who broke through and became an important piece of last year’s unit. The junior Epenesa led the conference with 10.5 sacks and wasn’t even on the field for half of the team’s defensive snaps. Imagine what the numbers could be in 2019.
There may not be a stud standout at linebacker, but senior middle ‘backer Kristian Welch leads an experienced unit in the team’s 4-2-5 base defense. And the secondary also returns an experienced mix. The biggest question, though, is whether young D.J. Johnson can fill in even adequately for Amani Hooker, who was the league’s Defensive Back of the Year in 2018. Hooker’s versatility as a hybrid safety/linebacker was immeasurable. Johnson worked under Hooker last year, but it’s asking a lot to step into Hooker’s shoes.
Like Fry, Ferentz had the program turned around after three seasons at the helm. The team went through its share of struggles in his first two seasons, combining for a 4-19 mark in that stretch. But Ferentz led the Hawkeyes to a bowl bid after a 7-5 mark in 2001, and they claimed a win over Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl. That set the stage for the memorable season to follow.
Led by senior quarterback Brad Banks, the team went 11-1 during the regular season, sharing the league crown with Ohio State after both teams finished 8-0 in conference play. Banks finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting to USC’s Carson Palmer and Ferentz was named Coach of the Year by the Associated Press after Iowa received its first-ever BCS invitation.
Consider that if Iowa had not lost to Iowa State early in the season, the Hawkeyes could have played in the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS championship. An accomplishment that would have seemed unheard of, though Ferentz learned from Fry that nothing is impossible in Iowa City.
Former NFL safety and current ESPN writer and television analyst Matt Bowen had the luxury of playing for both coaches. His first three collegiate seasons occurred under Fry, and he finished his tenure in Iowa City during Ferentz’s initial campaign.
While noting that each coach had his own style, they both promoted physical play, toughness and developing high-character athletes both on and off the field.
“Coach Ferentz brought an NFL approach to Iowa City when he arrived during my senior year in 1999,” Bowen said. “I bought-in immediately. Very emotional coach, too. That sticks with me — how much this game and the Hawks mean to him. Like Coach Fry, he loves his players. The type of man you want your kids to play for.”
Despite the success and longevity that Ferentz has enjoyed in Iowa City, there remain critics. It is common for national media members to crack jokes on social media about Ferentz’s salary or the team’s style of play. Those criticisms aren’t warranted in Bowen’s opinion.
“We’ve had two coaches at Iowa in the last 40-something years,” he said. “Two. Think about that. I love it. And while I get that college football has always been about the ‘business of winning,’ the outside noise on Coach Ferentz bothers me. It really does.
“This man has been coaching at Iowa for over 20 years. He develops not only high-level players, but people as well. And he has won a bunch of games. Let’s not forget about that. Big Ten titles, too. He can coach, he can develop and his track record supports that. One of the best I’ve ever played for.”
The season in which the Hawks arguably could have played in the BCS title game began a stretch in which Ferentz would go 31-7 over a three-year period, and he would lead teams to another appearance in the Orange Bowl as well as a date in Pasadena. Both times experienced quarterbacks (Ricky Stanzi and C. J. Beathard, respectively) were catalysts.
And that brings us to this season’s Hawkeyes outfit. Ferentz, who has logged 37 wins over the last four seasons, has a senior quarterback who he believes is capable of playing his best football yet.
“Just play the best he can play, and he doesn’t have to be the guy that’s going to save our team or be the face of Iowa football,” Ferentz told reporters at Iowa’s Media Day when asked about his expectations for Stanley. “He’s just got to play really well at quarterback. Like all of our seniors, but you hope your quarterback is a leader, and he’s been that.
“I guess my hopes are that we see his best football this year and his best leadership, and that’s what we’re hoping for from all of our guys. And I guess if there’s a cautionary note again, just don’t try to do too much, just be the best player you can be. That’s all you can do, and by doing that he’ll really help our football team.”
The Hawkeyes will have to play their best football against a daunting schedule. They do not get Ohio State this season, but the team will have to travel to Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska. They also have to go to Ames for their annual tilt against Iowa State. Stanley is just .500 on the road.
“I think all of us are confident we’ll see him just continue to play better,” Ferentz declared.
If Iowa gets the prolific play it has seen from Stanley the last two years combined with the refinement that comes from better decision-making, do not be surprised if the Hawkeyes enter the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to get to Indy and have a shot at a Big Ten crown.
Doubt Iowa football at your own risk.
Ferentz is the longest-tenured head coach because he was able to sustain the culture change that Fry implemented when he arrived. His ability to develop players that were not high-star recruits allows for a sustained system that occasionally results in a special season. The ingredients are there for 2019 to be one of them.