Kirk Ferentz Celebrates Twenty Years as Iowa Head Coach
By Joey Johnston
Twenty years in one place? For the modern-day college-football coach, that's borderline impossible. Coaches get restless. Inevitably, they get fired. But even if it's their heart's desire, they rarely have an opportunity to put down a couple decades worth of roots.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who began his tenure in the 1999 season, said he knows his situation is unusual, particularly in this microwave, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately era. But he considers himself fortunate.
Long ago, Ferentz found a home with the Hawkeyes (8-4), who face the Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
It's the sixth appearance for a Ferentz-coached Iowa team at the Outback Bowl, but his success has been seen at many venues throughout the country.
Overall, it's Ferentz's 16th bowl appearance in his 20 seasons. Five times, his Hawkeyes have posted double-digit victories, including 2015, when they were 12-0 before falling in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game.
Ferentz's teams have twice played in the Orange Bowl, while also reaching the 2016 Rose Bowl. Twice, the Hawkeyes have gone 8-0 in the Big Ten.
Iowa has never been a springboard job for Ferentz. "I never had a compelling reason to leave,'' he said. And that, even in the seasons when expectations aren't met, has endeared Ferentz to the Iowa faithful.
"Loyalty can be a term that's hard to come by these days,'' Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said. "Loyalty means a lot to Coach Ferentz. He's not a quick-fix guy. His desire always has been to build something that lasts.''
Iowa - a state of loyalty, stubborn faith, tradition and homespun values - has appreciated that quality.
"Some people are smart enough to figure out you have a good job - and smart enough to hang onto it,'' Ferentz said. "We raised a family (in Iowa). We've been part of the community. It's nice to be part of that.''
Ferentz, not the reflective type, got to Iowa by accident. First, on a recommendation when he was just starting, he worked on Hayden Fry's Iowa staff for nine seasons. He became a head coach at Maine, then an NFL assistant, as he followed a predictable career path.
But in late 1998, when Iowa needed a head coach, Ferentz was pulled back to the Hawkeyes.
He's still there. Sometimes, he struggles to explain the serendipity of it all, but now he's the longest-tenured head coach in one spot in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Of course, Ferentz has not been immune to criticism or tough times. His first season at Iowa (1999) was 1-10, followed by 3-9. These days, that would put you on the hot seat, if not out the door.
"Iowans are great, great people,'' Ferentz said. "They aren't as reactionary as the rest of the country. They allow you to do your job.
"Now my first couple of seasons, everyone's patience was tested. You have ups and downs in life. But the people who really counted, they saw progress. The leadership on campus, the people making the decisions, they were fantastic.''
Ferentz likened it to what he witnessed in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where the NFL's Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969 (Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin).
"The Rooney family (Steelers ownership) figured out how to address problems by fixing them and repairing them,'' Ferentz said. "Making people walk the plank, that's the world we live in. Everybody wants somebody's head on a platter. That doesn't always fix the problem.''
Ferentz was allowed to grow into his job, while learning how to make a personal imprint. Along the way, he realized that Iowa was great for his family. He enjoyed the people within the program and throughout the university. It always felt like home. It was hard work - blue-chip prospects didn't necessarily flock to Iowa - but success was possible and sustainable.
Some principles never changed. When there's a bad game, it's quickly flushed. When things look grim, there's the belief that they will get better, simply by continuing to work and sticking to the core values. "The great thing about sports is it teaches you life experiences,'' Ferentz said. "As bad as it may look, it's not over unless you say it's over. Go back to work. Maybe something (good) will happen. "Twenty years from now, when those guys might be in a tough situation, they can draw upon that.''
Ferentz has learned those lessons well at a place that was never part of his early coaching dreams.
He got pulled in.
It became home.
Now he's the all-time winningest coach (151-101) at Iowa after surpassing Fry's record earlier this season. In turn, he has become only the fifth football coach to win at least 150 games as a member of the Big Ten, joining Woody Hayes (202), Amos Alonzo Stagg (199), Bo Schembechler (194) and Joe Paterno (162).
"The first time I came to Iowa, I had to look on the map to see where the state was,'' Ferentz said. "Little did I know what I was walking into.''
He walked into a career that has been more satisfying than he could have dreamed.
And a life he only could have imagined.