Ferentzian Statistics II: Ferentz v. Fry

Earlier this week, I posted a statistical comparison of Coach Ferentz versus the rest of the Big 10. In that post, I compared Iowa's overall program performance with that of the rest of the Big 10, and Coach Ferentz's performance at Iowa with that of the rest of the Big 10. We learned some interesting things. Iowa is historically a Big 10 bottom feeder, ranked 7th or 8th overall, depending on how you account for tie games. But, Fry and Ferentz dug Iowa out of that hole. Since 1975, when the Big 10 began to allow its teams to go to bowls not held in Pasadena, Iowa has leapfrogged to 4th place.

This post offers a similar analysis comparing and contrasting Fry and Ferentz. Fry was bombastic and led with emotion, taking care of business against key rivals, though he struggled with elite teams and bowl games. Ferentz is quiet and cerebral, meticulously managing field position to give Iowa a chance to beat more talented opposition, but also failing to control Iowa's major rivals. We generally sense that Fry's seasons were more satisfying, with fewer inexplicable and infuriating losses. We'll find these instincts are justified by the numbers.

Another History Lesson

It is difficult to overstate just how bad Iowa football was prior to Hayden Fry. Iowa football got off to a roaring start in with a succession of highly successful teams playing a brand of football we wouldn't recognize today. Iowa began football in 1889 and by 1905, the Hawkeyes had a cumulative record of 80-43-7 and an overall winning percentage of 0.615.

It's been almost downhill from there.

Iowa fell below 0.600 in 1930 and has never come anywhere near it since. The graph below shows Iowa's annual win percentage for every year of football since 1889 as a blue line, with the program's cumulative win percentage shown in red. The glowing black line is the interpolated trend line. Obviously, we see the trend moving solidly downward from a peak in the 1920's until 1980, with a brief bump during the late 1950's when Evashevski worked his magic.


Folks, that is awful. From 1930 to 1980, Iowa posted 1- and 2-win seasons sixteen times, or in roughly one out of every three seasons. Other than part of the Evashevski era, from 1930 through 1980 - 50 years of Hawkeye football - Iowa's performance was universally deplorable. The Hawkeyes posted only 12 winning seasons in that 50 year span. Half of those 12 winning seasons (along with Iowa's only two bowl game appearances prior to Hayden Fry) came during the Evashevski's era. Only four of those winning records are remarkable. Iowa went 6-1-1 in 1939, and Evashevski put up three one-loss seasons. The rest of Iowa's winning seasons in that period were 5-4-type affairs that only an Iowa State fan could be proud of.


By 1970, Iowa's overall winning percentage dipped below 0.500 for the first time since the 1800s. By 1980, Iowa football bottomed out with an overall winning percentage of just 0.468. As bad as that sounds, it's still better than Iowa State's overall win-loss record to this day (0.459). For fifty years, Iowa football dug itself deeper into a losing hole, and was well on its way to joining Northwestern and Indiana as perennial cellar dwellers. Then Hayden Fry arrived, and changed Iowa football history forever.

I won't bore you with what you already know: Fry turned this program around and took an 8-4 Hawkeye team to the Rose Bowl after the 1981 campaign, and Fry returned to the mountain top twice more after. After a precipitous drop during the baton exchange to Ferentz, this winning tradition continued, and Ferentz won Iowa's third ever BCS-level game, and the first one in 50 years. Consider the chart below, showing Iowa's yearly winning percentage graphed against the cumulative percentage since 1975.


Hawkeye history has to be thought of as beginning anew with Fry's arrival in 1979. Nothing has been the same since. The overall trend is sharply reversed, moving strongly upward, with only brief dips below the midline. Despite Fry and Ferentz's success, Iowa had been so bad for so long that it was not until 1995 that Hayden Fry climbed Iowa's overall record back to 0.500 overall, and Hayden would retire from Iowa having achieved the impossible, leaving Iowa with a 0.502 overall win percentage. Although Ferentz stumbled out of the gate, posting Iowa's worst record since the winless campaign of 1973, Kirk quickly righted the ship and, as of close of the 2011 season, Ferentz has lead Iowa to a 0.514 overall win percentage.

And so, from 1980 to 2010, Fry and Ferentz reversed Iowa's fortunes, taking this team from a 0.468 overall win percentage to a 0.514 overall win percentage, a swing of +0.046. In those 30 years, only once did the Hawkeyes win less than three games. In those 30 years, Iowa posted a winning record 22 times, compared to only twelve in the previous 50. The positive impact of Fry and Ferentz on this program simply cannot be overstated.

Now, the interesting question: how do they stack up to each other? We will examine a wide variety of categories, and determine which coach was better in each.

Winning Percentage

Hayden has Kirk beat on winning percentage by a margin of literally just one game. Fry's overall win percentage is 0.60084, or 0.601, vs. Kirk's overall of 0.5952. That's statistically even. If Iowa had beaten CMU, Kirk would be at 0.60119, just slightly ahead of Fry. However, this is an artifact of where we are in the season. The Hawks would have to finish at least 9-3 this year for Kirk to maintain that margin, which is extremely unlikely. Note that Ferentz has to go at least 8-4 to gain ground on Fry. In 14 years, Ferentz has posted 8 or more wins in only six seasons, well less than half, whereas Fry won 8 or more in 11 out of 20 seasons, more than half. It's a close call, but the numbers don't lie. Fry has and deserves the better record, and he gets the nod on overall winning percentage.


Although Hayden has to be given the nod on the numbers, this is a statistical tie. However, we can play with the numbers to dislodge this logjam. First, let's consider that both coaches inherited somebody else's mess, and both coaches required about two years to sort it out. Fry had more early success than Kirk, but both coaches posted their first winning records with Iowa in their third years. At that point, most fans would agree that the statute of limitations for blaming the last guy has run, and the coach fully owns his record. What happens if we remove those first two years from the calculation? Fry's percentage shoots up to 0.620, but Ferentz's shoots up to a whopping 0.662! But for those first two building years, Ferentz's Iowa of the last ten years has been highly competitive, on a level near that of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State.

However, we must consider the entire body of work for both men, and the checkmark goes to Fry.

Advantage: FRY

Big 10 Record

This one isn't even close. Fry's Big 10 record is 98-61-6, for a win percentage of 0.598, whereas Ferentz is just 59-47, for a win percentage of 0.557. There's no deep analysis necessary for why this is. Fry took care of business against bad teams, and Ferentz has not. This will be discussed in more detail below. The one nod we must give to Kirk is an undefeated Big 10 season, something Fry never accomplished. Regardless:

Advantage: FRY

Winning Seasons

Although Fry has the edge on percentage, Ferentz actually has the edge on winning seasons. Fry and Ferentz both had 2 non-winning seasons to start off their careers at Iowa, but once they established their programs, Fry went on to have 5 non-winning seasons over 18 years, for a non-winning percentage of 0.278, whereas Ferentz has had only 2 non-winning seasons in the last 12 years for a non-winning percentage of 0.167. This is a theme we will see repeated with these coaches -- Kirk's peaks are higher and his troughs are shallower. The advantage goes to Kirk on staying above 0.500.

What about big years and double-digit wins? The advantage is clearly Kirk's here as well. In 20 years, Hayden posted three seasons of 10 wins or more. In 13 years, Kirk has posted four such years. What's more, two of Kirk's 10+ winners seasons were actually 11-win seasons, whereas Fry never won eleven games, probably due to his struggles in bowl games.

Advantage: FERENTZ


This one also isn't close. Fry couldn't close the deal in bowl games, losing all three of his Rose Bowls and putting up a 6-7-1 bowl record for a win percentage of 0.429. However, Ferentz has shined in bowl games since getting humiliated by USC in the 2002 Orange Bowl, and is now 6-4 for a win percentage of 0.600. Recall that one of those four losses was the phantom offsides call against Florida, and another was a 2-point loss to defending national champion Texas, a game in which Iowa was a 10-point dog. A loss is a loss, but Ferentz's ability to rise to the occasion and play competitively in bowl games is clear, with several notable upsets, including 2010's upset of #14 Mizzou (10-2).

But no bowl win between these two is as big as the 2010 Orange Bowl, where Ferentz upset ACC champion Georgia Tech in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score, giving Iowa its first and only BCS win, and its first BCS-level bowl win in 60 years, another height Fry never reached. The only matter that gives me pause here on checking the box for Kirk is that Fry went to three Rose Bowls, and Kirk hasn't been to any. However, this is as much a quirk of the ever-changing BCS rules as anything, and Kirk can't really be held accountable for that.

Advantage: FERENTZ

Conference Championships

Another easy one, although both men have two shared Big 10 titles, that's where Ferentz's record ends. However, Fry won the Big 10 outright, giving Fry one more championship than Ferentz, and an outright championship, which Ferentz has yet to accomplish. It's worth noting that if Ferentz wins another B1G championship, it necessarily will be outright.

Advantage: FRY


This is where I think much of the fan ire with Ferentz comes from. Hayden Fry not only beat our rivals, he demolished them. Hayden went 55-22-1 against Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa State, and Nebraska, for a winning percentage of 0.709. In particular, Fry was 13-7 against Minnesota, and 16-4 against Iowa State. Although Fry went 15-2-1 against Wisconsin, that deserves an asterisk, as Wisconsin football was historically awful during most of Fry's tenure. Ferentz, by contrast, is 0.500 against these teams, with an overall losing record to Iowa State. This one's a no-brainer.

Advantage: FRY

Beating the Best

Another easy one, while Fry won some big games against the Big 10's elite, Michigan and Ohio State were a thorn in his side. Fry got that big win over #2 Michigan, and a few other dethronings, but overall, Fry went 8-27 against Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, for a win percentage of just 0.216, and losing records to all three schools. Fry beat Michigan just four times in twenty years, and Ohio State and Penn State just twice each.

Ferentz has continued Fry's futility against Ohio State (1-6, 0.143), but whereas Michigan largely got the best of Hayden, Ferentz is 5-4 against the Wolverines, besting Fry's win total in only 13 seasons. To be fair, these weren't the same Wolverines that Fry faced, but Fry didn't face the same Wisconsin, either. The numbers are what they are. Also, Ferentz dealt a very excellent Michigan team a crushing loss in the Big House in 2001 and a painful upset in 2011. Ferentz is also the only Iowa coach in history to win three straight against the Wolverines. But, what really puts Kirk over the top here is his weird proficiency against Penn State. Ferentz is 8-3 against the Nittany Lions, including two upset wins over the Lions when they were ranked #3 in the nation. Overall, Ferentz has a winning record against the combination of Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, and he has to get the nod here.

Advantage: FERENTZ

Non-Conference Games

Looking at major BCS conferences, Ferentz also has the advantage here. Although Fry did better against the Big 8/Big 12 (excluding ISU), Ferentz has outperformed Fry against every other conference. Notably, Ferentz is 3-1 (0.750) against the vaunted SEC. Because most of Ferentz's non-conference games against teams in good conferences have come in bowl games, this statistic primarily reflects Ferentz's superior bowl performance. Ferentz's Big 12 performance is also dragged down by 2 losses to Nebraska in his first two years.

Advantage: FERENTZ

Ranked teams

Neither Fry nor Ferentz has been particularly strong against ranked opposition, though I suspect there are very, very few coaches with an overall winning record against ranked teams. However, Ferentz has been a step better. This is probably related to Ferentz's bowl success, which typically comes against ranked teams. Fry is 27-71-1 (0.272) against ranked competition but Ferentz is a step better at 26-47 (0.356). Where Ferentz really pulls ahead, though, is against Top 5 teams, where Fry is 3-14 (0.176) and Ferentz is 3-6 (0.333). But, Fry notched that #1 vs. #2 win over Michigan that is hard to forget. This one is closer, I think, than the numbers show, but we're dealing with numbers, and I give the nod to Kirk.

Advantage: FERENTZ


Both Fry and Ferentz won national coach of the year awards, and both also won Big 10 coach of the year three times. Kirk has done this in fewer seasons and while we may reasonably anticipate that he'll win more, we must evaluate the body of work before us, and it's even by the numbers. This is a push.

Advantage: PUSH

National Ranking

This one is perhaps the hardest to call, and reveals the greatest difference between Fry and Ferentz. In 20 years, Fry had Iowa finishing ranked in national polling 10 times and ranked for a total of 101 weeks for an average of just over 5 weeks per season Fry coached. However, Hayden's teams tended not to be highly ranked in final polling. Although Fry had the Hawkeyes cruising at #1 in the nation for several weeks, his best finish was a #9 ranking in the Coach's Poll, and his average final ranking was 15th.

Ferentz has finished ranked only 5 times in 14 years and has had the Hawkeyes ranked for only 61 weeks, for an average of 4.7 weeks ranked per year coaching, but Ferentz's average year-end ranking is much higher, finishing in the top 10 on four separate occasions, and beating Fry's #9 ranking with finishes at #8, #8, #8, and #7. Ferentz's average final ranking is an impressive 10th.

What accounts for this? As discussed above, Ferentz's troughs are less shallow than Fry's, so why fewer national rankings? The answer is multifaceted. First, as we know, Ferentz tends to drop games to really lousy teams. It's one thing to go 8-4 with losses to three top 25 teams. That's what Fry did, as we saw with his poorer performance against ranked competition. But, it's quite another to go 8-4 with losses to Iowa State and Minnesota. Had the 2010 Iowa squad lost to #5 Michigan State instead of a Minnesota Gopher team that was arguably one of the worse teams in the history of the Big 10, Iowa would have finished the 2010 season ranked. Thus, Ferentz has two types of seasons: 6/7-win seasons, and 10/11-win seasons. The difference between the 6/7 seasons and Fry's plethora of 8/9-win seasons is Ferentz's weird inability to handle inferior teams.

That is probably the single most significant foible holding Ferentz back from being, hands-down, a statistically superior coach to Fry. Fry had a good number of 8- and 9- win seasons losing to the right people and beating the right people, which, if you lose to the right people, will get you a Top 25 ranking.

Just for sake of comparison, if Ferentz performed as well as Fry against Iowa's rivals (e.g., a 0.709 winning percentage in Ferentz's 50 games against those teams), Ferentz would be 110-58, for a winning percentage of 0.655.

Advantage: FRY

The following chart sums up all of these statistics.


So, Who Wins?

Honestly, the jury has to still be out. While Ferentz is ahead in more categories, this is primarily a reflection of Ferentz's bowl performance, which is a really small sample size. I think we still have to wait for Kirk to finish, and see what Kirk 3.0 brings us, if anything. As discussed below, that could put Kirk over the edge. However, Kirk's entire career will have the following asterisk: he inherited a winning tradition, albeit a team hitting bottom. Fry had to overcome twenty years of a losing tradition to build this program up. That alone may always put Fry a nose ahead in the reckoning of our fathers, who remembered Iowa in the 1960's and 1970's. I grew up with Iowa in the 1980's, and it was simply a different program then.

The Shape of Things To Come?

The final thing to point out is the similarity in the trends in both coaches' tenures. If you look at the first graph showing year-over-year winning percentage, you'll notice something. Ferentz has a M-shaped peak three years in. Fry also has one. Ferentz then has a trough followed by a single peak. So does Fry.


If we shift Ferentz's chart so that the two M-shaped bumps overlap you get the following:


A little spooky, isn't it? If you're not a believer in the 5-year cycle, now is a great time to start. Both coaches had an M-shaped hump early with a trip to the Rose/Orange bowl, followed by a trough, then a second rise and another trip to the Rose/Orange bowl, followed by a trough. That trough is where Iowa football is right now. However, Fry then has a third rise, though no Rose bowl to go with it. This suggests that Ferentz 3.0 may also be on the horizon in 2013 or 2014. What's more, Ferentz's peaks are higher than Fry's. If the pattern continues and we get a third rise in 2013 or 2014, the pattern suggests at least a trip to a BCS game, and possibly another victory.

Also, Fry retired before he could muster a fourth rise, but Ferentz will have 6 more years left on his contract after that. Do we have a Ferentz 4.0 to look forward to? And, if there is a Ferentz 3.0 or 4.0, it almost certainly means contract extensions, assuming Kirk wants them. If so, Ferentz may become not just the Grandfather of the Big 10, but of NCAA Division I football, perhaps taking the seat once occupied by Joe Paterno before his fall from grace as the grandfatherly curmudgeon who played the game and won the right way. Certainly, Ferentz would be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame.

Well, that's a long way to go to tell you what you already know: the jury is still out, but these guys are neck and neck. However, there is reason to be optimistic that Ferentz 3.0 and perhaps 4.0 awaits us over the next 8 years, and a Rose Bowl victory may lurk in there somewhere.

Hope you enjoyed it!

Unless otherwise expressly indicated by BHGP editors, this FanPost is strictly the viewpoint of the author and is not endorsed by BHGP in any way.

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