Iowa’s Ferentz on steady ground despite turmoil
Two straight years of disappointing results, star running backs leaving amid controversy and the loss of two top coordinators would land many coaches on the hot seat.
Not Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. He’s not going anywhere.
Ferentz, who at 13 years and counting is the Big Ten’s longest-tenured coach, has the unwavering support of athletic director Gary Barta despite the turmoil that has engulfed the program over the past 18 months.
The Hawkeyes followed an underwhelming 8-5 season with a 7-6 finish in 2011. And the losses of assistants Norm Parker and Ken O’Keefe were piled on the abrupt departure of standout running back Marcus Coker.
But for Ferentz, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year with a 96-66 career record, the seat may not even be warm.
”What Kirk has done for the University of Iowa, for the state of Iowa, is he’s run a program that not only has been extremely successful on the field, beyond that we have one of the highest graduation rates in the country. We have in Kirk a value system that’s shared by the people of Iowa,” Barta told The Associated Press.
Of course, Ferentz’s job is so safe at least in part because firing him would be prohibitively expensive.
The 10-year contract worth nearly $40 million that Ferentz signed on the eve of the 2010 season includes a buyout that would cost Iowa roughly $2.6 million a year through 2020 if they fired him without cause.
Not much has gone right since Ferentz signed that deal.
The Hawkeyes, who won the Orange Bowl after the 2009 season and finished ranked seventh, were picked at No. 9 before 2010 and were even considered by some a dark horse contender for the national title. Iowa instead stumbled through a string of agonizingly close losses, and starting running back Adam Robinson was booted off the team for disciplinary reasons.
Last year, an offseason workout sent 13 players to the hospital and brought negative publicity to Ferentz and the program. Once play began, the inexperienced bunch barely cracked .500, and Coker was investigated for sexual assault. He was never charged, but he was frustrated enough about the incident to depart for FCS school Stony Brook.
”Clearly, our goal is not to win seven games. Our goal is to compete for championships. But that said, if seven games is our low point, I feel very confident that we can come from there and get back to that level of competing for championships,” Barta said.
The loss of Coker, the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher with 1,348 yards and 15 TDs, along with Parker and O’Keefe in less than two months leads many to believe it will get worse for the Hawkeyes before it gets better.
Ferentz does have a track record of righting the ship. He brought Iowa from 1-10 in his first season, 1999, to 7-5 in 2001 and the Orange Bowl the following year. He bounced back from a 12-13 stretch in 2006-07 with nine- and 11-win seasons.
”We’ve got a young football team right now. I kind of liken it to where we were in 2000 and 2001, and those were some of the most enjoyable years I’ve had coaching,” Ferentz said. ”To me, the low point of our program overall was that midpoint of `06 to midpoint of `07. To me that was the valley. I hope it was. I don’t see us anywhere near there.”
Recent changes in the coaching staff have been unusual because of how loyal Ferentz’s assistants have been to him.
Defensive coordinator Norm Parker retired at the age of 70 after struggling with diabetes for nearly a decade. He was replaced this week by longtime defensive backs coach Phil Parker (no relation).
O’Keefe, the offensive coordinator, left to become the wide receivers coach with the Miami Dolphins. Ferentz said O’Keefe’s relationship with new Miami coach Joe Philbin, a fellow assistant under Ferentz at Iowa from 1999-2002, played a major role in that move.
Parker and O’Keefe had been with Ferentz for every one of his 13 years as head coach.
Iowa also needs new assistants at offensive line and linebacker after a reshuffling of the staff, but who Ferentz hires to replace O’Keefe will factor into how Iowa fans view the long-term prospects of the program. Iowa’s offense was rarely as productive as its defense under O’Keefe, and fans are clamoring for a scheme that will put more points on the board.
Still, Barta noted that fans have requested 10,000 more season tickets than were available last season. Season tickets haven’t been made available to the public just yet, but the school believes fans will remain supportive of Ferentz despite recent bumps in the road.
”I think the educated fan is realizing, `Who would we get to replace Kirk that would have his credentials?’ Big Ten coach of the year, AP national coach of the year and we’ve had the best decade, really, of Iowa football we’ve ever had,” said Joseph Chmelka, the president of the Polk County (Iowa) chapter of the I-Club, the school’s main athletic fundraising organization. ”I think people recognize that Kirk’s done a great job and he’s an excellent football coach but, we’ve got to do something about this attrition of players.”
The season begins Sept. 1 against Northern Illinois in Chicago.