Hickey: People are ignoring a vital detail about Brian Ferentz's Iowa contract
When Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s new contract was revealed on Monday afternoon, everyone’s first instinct was to get their jokes off.
And if there’s anyone who understands the value of getting jokes off before delving into the serious world of vital information, it’s me. There’s a reason you’re reading this here and not The New Yorker. Saturday Tradition provides me the proper platform. (Though I am interested to see how The New Yorker would cover the Big Ten.)
And let’s be real. The jokes were good. And deserved. Ferentz’s reworked deal reads like parody.
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After consecutive seasons directing the nation’s 123rd- and 130th-ranked total offenses, Ferentz didn’t lose his job. Instead, he sees his pay docked from $900,000 per year to $850,000. His pay could have been cut in half and he’d still be Iowa City Rich.
His means for getting that pay back, and then some, is what drew most of the internet’s collective ire. The Hawkeyes need to average just 25 points per game and win 7 games — with the bowl game included — in order for Ferentz to receive a bonus of $112,500.
That bonus alone qualifies as Iowa City Really Well Off. And all it takes to get it is directing what would have been the nation’s 85th-best scoring offense in 2022. Arkansas State offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf, who led the Red Wolves to exactly 25 points per game last season, is no doubt jealous of the bar set for Ferentz.
But hidden in plain sight is the most important detail of Ferentz’s contract.
If he doesn’t reach those goals, Brian Ferentz doesn’t just miss out on the performance bonus. He gets fired. His contract expires effective June 30, 2024.
And getting that baked into the contract is a win for Iowa athletic director Gary Barta.
Turning lemons into lemonade
Barta is locked in a situation where he can’t win, and part of that is his own doing.
Kirk Ferentz’s recently revised contract runs through the 2029 season, at which point he’ll have been at Iowa for exactly 30 years.
Ferentz the elder is an immovable object in Iowa. You’d have better luck trying to turn the Field of Dreams into a parking lot. Ferentz is the longest tenured coach in the FBS. He’s also the winningest coach in Iowa history.
Kirk knows he isn’t getting fired, so he has complete control of the program. The Hawkeyes are stuck with what he thinks is best for the program — whether or not it actually is.
In most cases, Kirk has proven he does know best. Iowa hasn’t had a losing season since 2012. The Hawkeyes have missed 2 bowl games since 2001.
The issue for Iowa fans is that success in recent years has been in spite of the offense rather than because of it. And that all of it is a waste of an extraordinary defense.
With this little piece of palace intrigue, Barta has taken back a bit of the control that he didn’t actually possess even though his job title would indicate otherwise.
Barta doesn’t have the political backing to tell Kirk, “Brian has to go, or else…”
Or else what?
In a battle of Gary Barta vs. Kirk Ferentz, Barta is the one who ends up unemployed 100 times out of 100.
This is the only way it could be done.
Yes, it is an incredibly simple benchmark to reach. Especially with points per game being the agreed-upon category, because Ferentz’s offense doesn’t have to be the unit providing the points.
Phil Parker’s defense and LeVar Woods’ special teams often do the heavy lifting of putting the ball in the end zone for Iowa.
Last season, defense directly accounted for 46 of Iowa’s 230 points. Without them, Iowa’s scoring average would have dipped from 17.7 to 14.2 points per game — truly wretched. Only Northwestern, Colorado State, New Mexico and UMass fared worse than that.
But for the same reason, finding a more appropriate metric to measure Brian Ferentz’s performance would be difficult. Yards per game wouldn’t be fair, because Iowa’s defense and special teams often give the offense a short field to work with.
You also wouldn’t want to tie it in to something as specific as red-zone touchdown percentage, where the Hawkeyes ranked 124th last season.
Say Iowa has the ball at the 22-yard line. Do you want a shot at the end zone, or a conservative series of calls that might get the ball into the red zone so Brian can improve his numbers?
Even though it comes with obvious flaws, points per game is the most sensible metric for measuring Brian Ferentz’s performance. It creates a powerful incentive for more aggressive play calling. If Brian is content to settle for 3 instead of trying for 7, it could cost him his job.
The Hawkeyes may get more dynamic near the goal line and more willing to take chances on fourth down. And with Cade McNamara at quarterback, those fourth-down chances will be less risky than in the past couple years.
Iowa fans wanted wholesale changes to the offensive staff this offseason, but that wish ignored reality. It was never going to happen. No one should have wasted time and energy entertaining the possibility it would.
Kirk Ferentz is just that powerful a figure in Iowa.
Barta found a shrewd way to usurp that power. Now, at least, there’s an avenue to make a change. Clearly he is hoping to avoid that change, or more stringent standards would be applied.
But having even a modest bar for Brian Ferentz to reach is a step in the right direction. Otherwise, he could have continued digging lower and lower with no end in sight.