"It's hard to win at Iowa[.]" Hayden Fry, A High Porch Picnic (2001).
There are two faces you could put on the Kirk Ferentz era at the University of Iowa. One face, Angel Ferentz, is that of a godsend; a gifted coach capable of squeezing an incredible amount of production, victory, and acclaim from an inherently disadvantaged program. The other story is a mediocre, bumbling Goblin Ferentz who rode the coattails of one talented team for a few years only to stumble, and was saved from an inevitably firing by a fluke year full of unearned freak wins.
Today on Halloween, this posts asks the question, "Which Ferentz do you believe in?" What is the true face of this program? Goblin Ferentz or Angel Ferentz?
First, let's consider Ferentz as The Goblin, an impish creature who has skated by on chicanery, good luck, and by pulling the wool over our eyes. Let's examine the body of evidence in support of The Goblin.
Before Iowa, Coach Ferentz had gone 12-21 with the Maine Black Bears as head coach, a winning percentage of 0.364. Beyond that, no notable head coaching experience. Ferentz arrived in 1999 and went 1-10, and 0-8 in Conference play. In his first three years, Ferentz was 7-17, a winning percentage of .291, alarmingly close to his winning percentage at Maine.
Then the 2002 season. Without question, the Hawkeyes were a wrecking ball of a team that year, but Ferentz dropped the ISU game, without which it should have been us playing in the MNC game, and then Ferentz failed to prepare the team for the Orange Bowl, resulting in a thumping by USC. Ferentz then rode the coattails of this talented bunch with 11-2, 10-3, and 10-2 seasons, but even then we pissed away the lead in the Capital One bowl and only came back to win it on a freak bomb at the end of regulation. It's exciting, sure, but you don't win a lot of games that way. We shouldn't have been in that position in the first place. After that game, the high-water mark of the Ferentz era, the Hawkeyes hit a slide, going 7-5, 6-7, and 6-6, three straight years without a single bowl win and with a win percentage of just .513.
Then "The Kick" against Penn State, a decent finish to the 2008 season again riding the coattails of one really talented guy (Shonn Green), and then the 2009 season. Now, we're talking Goblin Ferentz here, people. The Penn State win in 2008? A fluke. The Orange Bowl year? Chicanery and shenanigans all the way. Two blocked field goals against UNI? The Clayborn blocked punt against Penn State? Barely beating Arkansas State at home? The pass interference call to negate an MSU interception, and McNutt's lucky catch on the slant? The freakish comeback against Indiana which required some home cooking from the referees, two freak field-long touchdowns, and the ping-ping play with Sash? And let's not forget the BCS gods sending us Georgia Tech, a one-dimensional team uniquely positioned to be dominated by Iowa, and indeed the only BCS team that year that Iowa could have defeated, on a freakishly cold night that suited the Hawkeyes and further disadvantaged GT. Let's not forget that we only got into the BCS because the Big 12 officials handed the B12 championship game to Texas, when Nebraska clearly won it. If Nebraska gets the AQ spot instead, Texas gets the at-large that went to Iowa, and Iowa doesn't play a BCS game at all. 2009 was a freak season, and if that's the only way goblin Ferentz can put together a good season, we're in for some long years.
And then the Hawkeyes showed their true colors, melting down in 2010. And now? This year, back to form a la 2007, somewhere in the bottom third of the Big 10, scraping by with a freakish comeback against Pitt and managing to beat only two of the three teams that are arguably as bad as we are.
The story here is that Coach Ferentz is not effective, and his career at Iowa amounts to mediocre slogging through the thick midsection of the Big 10, with one flash of brilliance in 2002, following by riding out the inertia of that talented team -- which any coach could have done -- to an impressive record and a huge paycheck, and then phoning in three mediocre seasons full of off-field misconduct and scandal, only to have his Iowa career salvaged at the last minute by one freak season that has stalled the inevitable firing. We'd have been better off in the long run if we hadn't done so well in 2009.
That's your first face to consider: Goblin Ferentz, making millions by taking a mediocre team in a mediocre market, and producing mediocre results, and spending a lot of money to do it.
The other costume is Angel Ferentz. This version of Ferentz is a selfless, classy man with an affinity for the city and the program who has had countless opportunities to make much more money elsewhere, with more talent and better recruiting, but he turned it down because he loves this Iowa program.
Angel Ferentz inherited a bottom-feeding recruiting class in 1999, a program neglected by the Fry Administration in its twilight as Hayden struggled with health issues. Through gristle and grit, Ferentz took a program that went winless in conference play in 1999 and within 3 years, went unbeaten in Big 10 play. Sure, the program took a bloody nose in the Orange Bowl, but that was against USC -- a semi-pro team full of future NFL stars. Nobody could have beaten USC that year.
And Ferentz didn't coast, but squeezed another Big 10 championship out of that team after as player after player left early for the NFL. He defeated several SEC darlings, including a mashing of Florida and "The Catch" against Nick Saban's LSU Tigers. Distracted by off-field problems during the 2005 through 2007 campaigns, and having lost most of his talent, Ferentz nevertheless kept the Hawkeyes above water, remaining bowl eligible every year, and going to two bowl games. And those games? Let us not forget that Ferentz barely lost a close game to Florida at the end of the 2005 season, due entirely to the incompetence of the officials. And let's not forget -- that's the same Florida squad that would go on to win the National Championship the following year. Then Iowa lost, by just two points, to Texas, the defending national champion. Since that Orange Bowl loss to USC, Coach Ferentz is 5-2 in Bowl games, with both coming at the hands of championship-caliber teams, by one score or less, and in both cases, requiring a little officiating magic.
Then in 2008 Ferentz returned to form, playing IOWA FOOTBALL, dethroning would-be MNC contender Penn State with The Kick. It was all guts and glory after that. Ferentz won on to dismantle another SEC darling, Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, followed by a BCS bowl win the next year, something Coach Fry never accomplished. In fact, if not for an untimely ankle injury against jNWU, there was a shot that the Hawkeyes could have played for the championship in 2009. As of the Northwestern game, Iowa held the 3rd longest winning streak in all of college football, behind only Florida and Texas. Even with his starting QB out, Ferentz & Co. coached up JVB and took Ohio State to overtime on the road. The 2009 Iowa squad was the definition of never say die, and reflected the unwavering confidence of the team and the coaching staff. Iowa went up, time and time again, against better competition, in a grueling road schedule, and won games. Before the season started, the Big 10 network analysts looked at Iowa's schedule and said, "If Iowa runs the table, they'll have earned it." We didn't quite run the table, folks, but we earned that BCS game.
The 2010 season may have been a disappointment in some ways, but Iowa still went to play a ranked team in Missouri, featuring future NFL star Blaine Gabbert, and produce a win in Arizona. That makes three straight bowl wins for Ferentz, something else Coach Fry never accomplished. And this year? Look, we all knew this was a rebuilding year for Iowa and let's be honest -- that's what 2005-2007 were. You have some down years. Even the vaunted elite programs in the SEC have rebuilding years. Florida and Texas has been nearly irrelevant afterthoughts in the BCS for two years. If those programs are allowed their off years, so are we. And that's where we're at now. And let's understand - we'll be rebuilding next year, too. That's no reason to throw the panic flag, so all these juvenile "WIN WIN WIN WIN NOW NOW NOW NOW" programs do. We're Iowa football, and we are patient, and we know that the wins will come if we just stick to our winning formula. You won't see a revolving door of coaches here like at Michigan. Ferentz is one of the longest-tenured NCAA football coaches for a reason: we know he'll win again, and win big.
At the end of the day, Ferentz has some amazing accolades to hang from his belt.
6-3 in bowl games, including 1-1 in BCS games, 2-1 in the Outback bowl.
3-1 against the mighty speed of the SEC, including wins over LSU and Florida.
Wins against Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, legendary SEC coaches.
Coach Ferentz has produced an NFL player at every single position.
Two Big 10 championships.
More NFL draftees than any team other than Florida and USC.
Ferentz has won away games at every venue in the Big 10 except the 'Shoe (and, I guess, The Bank, though we all know that's a fluke, and Iowa will soon be back to disassembling the Gophers).
When you look at the Big 10 over the last 10 years, there is only one team that you'd clearly trade places with - Ohio State. Would we rather have been Michigan over the last years? Wisconsin? Penn State?
No. We are Iowa, and we are Kirk Ferentz's Iowa. Yeah, he drives us nuts sometimes with the conservative playcalling. But go back to the first line of this post. "It's hard to win at Iowa." But he wins games and we have to allow for down seasons. Despite all of this success, and opportunities to coach in places where it's easy to win, or to move back to the NFL, Ferentz has never shown the slightest inclination to budge. He loves Iowa, and he loves our Hawkeyes as much as we do, and he wants to win here, because winning here means something, goddamit.
That's Angel Ferentz.
So vote. Which Ferentz do you think most closely describes the real Kirk Ferentz?