Dear Coach Ferentz,
Ah, spring! The season of rebirth and awakening, renewal and regrowth.
Nothing is so beautiful or hopeful as the morning dew on the leaves of a budding tree in spring, or the freshly laid chalk lines for a spring football game. As the flowers bloom and you prepare your Hawkeyes for the new season that lies ahead I write in hopes you'll read this, but also with the glacially bitter realization that the chances of you actually reading this are somewhere between an N Sync summer stadium tour and J. Lo driving anything, let alone a Fiat. So, knowing the odds of you ever seeing this letter are longer than a Terrance Malick film, I say "Hey Kirk Ferentz's secretary's intern, please hear me out!"
Few college coaches at a major program get the chance to redefine himself late in life. The ones who do most often have to pack-up and move to another school to do it. And this year, mostly as a result of the expected and unexpected loss of your coordinators, you have backed into a most providential opportunity to makeover your football persona and add to your legacy, all without having to change your shirt colors. Lloyd Carr - who was a much more successful coach than you've been thus far - would be a good example of a guy who could have benefited from the kind of opportunity you have, I'm sure he wishes he rebooted himself late in his tenure but alas. In any event, you have an opportunity to completely update the décor of your resume and I want to encourage you to proceed with audacity. A lesser man would simply slap on new paint, and trade out carpet for hardwood floors and call himself new and improved. But we both know that's veneer. A bold man tears down the walls of his past, reconsiders and then reconceptualizes his whole configuration and proves he's envisioning the future and is unafraid to make an unashamed break from his past.
See, that's the challenge here. Do you rest on the formula that has secured you arguably the most protected job in the Big Ten, a job that pays you the second highest salary, has provided you with supreme power, and the longest tenure? Or, do you act like a man who has proven all he can within an old paradigm and now wants to prove all he can within a new one? Opportunity is a rare and wonderful thing. You've got it. Now, what are you going to do with it?
Knowing you must make changes to adapt to the evolutionary progress of the game, and being sincere in the process, is only half the battle. It is, at your age, the difficult part though. And don't expect a lot of credit for making any changes either. We both know what changes you make will be the part the press, your critics and the fans focus on. There won't be a lot of backslapping for simply making changes if they just lead to failure. So, you've done the hard part already. You've brought in new people, and new people (if you allow them to share) have new ideas, and as the king you'll get credit for these new ideas, all of them. I'm guessing though that these new people, and even your old people, are unlikely to tell it to you straight about what needs to go.
So, let's start by identifying a few things from your first act that have been, how can I say this...problematic. You know Churchill once said, "Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." Kirk, we don't have a lot of time here, so I'm afraid I have to punch you in the face with words, because your program has some health issues. Please listen though, not with a defensive posture but with an open heart and mind, and if you do, trust me the pain will eventually subside.
Here we go, in no particular order:
First criticism: I'm tired of the Hawkeyes being out-tricked by teams. You should be too. I don't know why you have been so easily bamboozled but I know that when someone falls prey to a notorious prank, one of two things helps explain why: Either they're stunningly naïve or they're unconscious. It's time to wake up and small the coffee Kirk, then drink it, take a dump, and get to work on this. Quit thinking everyone is like you and start thinking that everyone is like Bernie Madoff.
Second: We're tired of watching an offense that employs a stunningly mediocre, virtually non-existent two-minute drill. I understand it's chancy to throw the ball from inside your own territory at the end of the half, but you act as if you're being asked to walk a tightrope between skyscrapers. Calm down. Maximizing possessions is the name of the game. If you lack confidence in these situations then you have to rehabilitate your offensive mindset. Besides, a reluctance to try to score in these situations ensures that when you absolutely do need to score in these situations you'll be woefully unprepared for the real world conditions of true desperation. Look, every possession is an opportunity and you don't get an endless supply of them. Kneeling down before halftime is not acceptable because it's admitting you only know how to perform when conditions are favorable. You're not only reducing your touches, over the course of a season you're leaving points on the turf my man -- and, most importantly, these are young men your leading; by taking a knee you're basically leaving your offense's self-esteem on the turf as well.
Third: I'll be the first to admit that "bend don't break" is an occasionally compelling defensive strategy, but it's an awful offensive strategy. Please let your new coordinator loose. Losing by fewer than 10 points has more or less become a battle cry of the program in recent years. I know the press highlights your record in this regard and it would not surprise me if you take it as a compliment. But do not be seduced by respectable failure Kirk. The truth is, losing by fewer than 10 points is only acceptable when you only occasionally lose at all. When your losing conference games at a 50% clip, and all your losses just happen to be by fewer than 10 points the perception of this little statistic shifts. You're no longer the coach that keeps his team in games; you're the coach that loses games. What makes a loser, is losing and it matters not by how little he loses, but how often. I can assure you that as a fan, this 10 points obsession is more infuriating than prideful. We fans would much rather lose in the occasional unrestrained blowout, but win more often. See, it comes down to this, to achieve anything of value you must always be prepared to hang out near the fringes of disaster.
Fourth: Your special teams are too special. As in especially sucky. I can't remember the last time my fists weren't clenched during a kick-off. I can't remember the last time I thought a field goal was automatic. I can't remember the last time I thought we might turn a game around with a punt return for a touchdown. However, I can recall all too well how often I've feared our opponent was about to cut our hearts out with a special teams play. I know you like to get guys on the field early in their careers via special teams. Well, stop it. Now! That approach is a clusterfuck, wrapped in a circle jerk, inside a Marilyn Manson celebrity ghost story. Instead, identify your manliest of men, your most heroic, fearless warriors and put them on skates with machetes and tell them every-single-special-teams-play is a life or death struggle for their scholarship - and if they're not on scholarship, tell them one of your favorite DJK stories. Make special teams a battle for the soul, not some coming-of-age function. Turn the boys to men on the practice field and leave game time for the grownups. Then, and only then, will you get back to basics on this.
Fifth: Quit treating your running backs like disposable diapers. My God man, running backs are the jewels in the crown of an effective running game. Store them in a clean, dry, fabric-lined place, and polish them regularly. Do not subject them to sudden temperature change or let them show on the subway. Yes, I know you have been able to replace them pretty resourcefully of late, but you just let a near flawless one fall out of your box and now you're going into the season with a bunch of turquoise and cubic zirconium. At the annual Big Ten Ball, no one is ever impressed by costume jewelry. Diamonds may be the hardest substance on earth, but they are not indestructible. There's a reason why people take off their diamonds when they're doing rough work. Pay attention to your running backs and handle with care!
Sixth: Smile. Have more fun. I know you spent formative years working in the pay-for-play league, and those guys love you to pieces. And while I take great pride in how well you've made your program a gateway to the NFL for players who might have otherwise graduated and become failed pharmaceutical salesmen had they played in any other college program. But Kirk, please tell me you know the aim here is winning football games, not filling out NFL rosters. My concern is that Iowa, under you, has become a de facto NFL franchise where football is ALL BUSINESS, all the time. I think that's great for your most elite players, as it's really prepared them well for the next level, but I am not sure that works for everyone else. The come to Jesus moment for me was last year's Minnesota game. That was a wake-up call. We're playing for a trophy, coming off a loss the previous year, against a team led by a head coach who was a near stranger to them. The Gophers, who had every reason to feel like they were attending the screening of a root canal, looked instead like they were playing their cross-town rival for the state championship. Meanwhile your team looked like they were on a business trip.The emotional expression I mostly noticed this past season when something good happened, was one of relief. I'd love to see a penalty for unsportsmanlike celebration this year, ideally against the whole team (and maybe even you) just charging down to the end zone and creating a 15 foot high scrum (no injuries though!), just to remind me that we're not an NFL team playing a preseason game. Get back to fun.
Okay...that was cathartic. Now, in closing I want to say some nice things.
I may be in a bit of a minority here, but I admire your newest hires. I think you showed more daring than you're getting credit for here. Greg Davis, for reasons I still do not fully understand, had somehow become a mindless leper in the college football world. You seemed to not be swayed by that, and evaluated the man anyway. I admire that. But you didn't stop there! It's one thing to see the guy as capable, but your willingness to go outside your comfort zone and hire him, having never worked with him or with anyone who's ever worked with him, gives me hope. Not only for the offense, because I think he's a capable dude, but because of what it represents for you as a football coach. The first step toward change is leaving the creature comforts of your former self behind. I feel as if this calculated risk-taking, with which Greg Davis represents for you, is a step in the right direction at this stage of your career.
Again, I might be in the minority on this, but I also liked that you brought your son on board. The truth of the matter is you're more stubborn than love handles on a 30 year old. But, if anyone can get inside your head and rattle your cage, I'm guessing it might be someone from your innermost circle, which I'm guessing includes your wife, your kids and your God. My hunch too is Brian is more than just a family member who could use a job. He had a job, and a good one. I think you might have hired very, very well with him. But, his most immediate and perhaps greatest contribution here may end up being that he's the one coach who will get you to occasionally move off your throne of intractability.
I'm looking at you and the Hawkeyes with fresh eyes this year. I'm may not have a big crowd behind me, there are always going to be skeptics, but I'm hopeful because it's spring. Enjoy this early spring Kirk; it's natures reminder that winter never last forever.