Judging a career in progress is never easy. Few college coaches step away while the going is good. At Iowa the going is not good, so let the judging begin.
It's already happened at Kentucky. It's absolutely gonna happen at Arkansas, Tennessee, and Boston College. It's probably gonna to be the case at Purdue and Auburn and at least half a dozen other schools. But should it happen at Iowa? Two years ago that question would have been received as ludicrously as whether or not Texas should secede from the union. Of course I am talking about this question: Should Iowa seek out a new head coach?
The Iowa Hawkeyes football team, with the longest tenured and second highest paid coach in the Big Ten, is on the verge of its worst record since the 2000 season. There is trouble in paradise, if you consider a small college town dissected by a muddy river in a lightly populated farming state paradise (I do, by the way). The natives are restless, you can see it, and the natives pride themselves on almost never being restless, and if they are, never showing it.
After leading the Hawkeyes to a surprising 11-2 season capped by a stunning, dominant performance for all the world to see in a BCS bowl game to cap the 2009 season, many are concerned that Kirk Ferentz seems to have exhausted his magic. His last three seasons have been plagued by controversy large (as in the case of 13 football players being hospitalized for exertional rhabdomyolysis) and small (as in the case of a handful of popular players being dismissed for violating team rules or having transferred under uncertain circumstances), and unmet expectations on the football field. As recently as a month ago the football trophy case sat empty in the middle of the locker room floor as a reminder of program futility, and now it has but one lonely piece of hardware. So, yeah, times are tough.
If Iowa holds form to close out this season, they will have won only 10 of their last 24 Big Ten games. Other than in his first three years on campus, there is no other three-year period of comparable mediocrity in the Kirk Ferentz head coaching era. Fans are unhappy, the media is trying to find out what or who is to blame, and as you can expect Kirk Ferentz has become chippy.
Kirk Ferentz is winding down his 14th season at Iowa. In his 14th season as Iowa coach, Hayden Fry's Iowa Hawkeyes finished with a 5-7 season, fifth in the Big Ten, and failed to qualify for a bowl game. Under Hayden the Hawkeyes would not do better than a tie for third in the conference in his remaining six seasons as coach, finishing in that span with a record of 38 wins, 38 losses, and 1 tie. Hayden would later admit he might have stayed on as head coach too long.
How long though is too long when your coach is a living legend? How long is too long when your coach is responsible for your unforeseen football reincarnation? Hayden Fry did more at Iowa than win football games; he literally redesigned the football program image from logo to uniform to national brand-so perfect was his plan that his former assistant lifted it lock, stock and barrel and took it to the ultimate football wasteland of Manhattan, Kansas to test it out. And guess what? It worked there too. Kansas State just might play for the National Championship this year and to call that a miracle would not be too great. But it's not a miracle, it's a plan that was copyrighted at Iowa 33 years ago by a legend named Fry. Thus, the Iowa football program has a history whose timeline can be understood in much the same vein in which Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century invented an understanding of all human existence: At Iowa, there is before Hayden and after Hayden.
After Hayden was initially rocky. The fan base wanted the wildly popular assistant coach and former Iowa Hawkeyes All-American Bobby Stoops to take over for the legend, but Hayden himself endorsed a fairly obscure-even to Iowa fans-former Iowa offensive line coach who had since gained some head coaching experience, had time served in the pay for play league, and, of course, had more time served under Hayden. That might have been the difference. Kirk Ferentz was hired out of the blue and had the enviable task of succeeding a legend whose time had come. Fans were thankful and even wistful when Fry stepped down, but they were ready for a change and despite feeling left at the alter by Stoops, they were, by and large, ready to invest in their unknown quantity of a new head coach.
Kirk Ferentz's history is well documented here and elsewhere and his accomplishments are considerable. His success has been so great that the unimaginable has happened, something almost no fan could have expected upon his hiring in even their wildest dreams: It has become a kind of Iowa parlor game to attempt to figure out whose tenure is better, Fry or Ferentz. That, in and of itself, is nothing short of amazing. Although Ferentz unquestionably built upon the foundation laid by Fry, what he indeed did build is a thing to behold. What makes it even more impressive is that he built it his way. Few would confuse the Iowa Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz with the Iowa Hawkeyes under Hayden Fry. And the two men could not be more different personally. In many ways this just adds to the legend that is Ferentz. Yeah, I just used the term "legend" because in his own way, on his own terms, Kirk Ferentz has achieved Iowa immortality. He's won 100 games at Iowa and for that he will one day receive his own bust, and he deserves it. But, is Ferentz, like Fry before him, entering the "stayed too long" period of his tenure?
I have personally said it here many times; the coaching job by Ferentz in the 2010 season is perhaps the worst of his career. The 2010 Iowa team was destined for greatness. It was a team that was loaded with talent the likes of which Iowa had never seen, and the Hawkeyes came into the season ranked a gaudy 9th in the nation - easily Ferentz's highest preseason ranking of his career. But somehow it would not go well, as the Hawkeyes finished well outside of the Top 25 thanks to a string of absolutely brutal close losses at home and away, to ranked and unranked teams alike. Ferentz did his usual stellar coaching job for the final bowl game, made all the more impressive by the way he focused his team in the face of the distractions of the DJK arrest during that time. He somehow was able to pick his team up off the mat and coach the Hawkeyes to an upset of #14 ranked Missouri, but even that win was not enough to secure a Top 25 ranking, and in the end it might have temporarily disguised the darkness that would come. Two "rebuilding" years later and Iowa is staring at a losing season and trending downward. It is a program that's likely to enter the 2013 season without a quarterback whose ever taken a single snap at Iowa and maybe ever outside of a high school football game, and whose best player on the roster might be a walk-on fullback converted to a cursed position. Most troubling though is this; Iowa does not obviously appear to have an offensive plan going forward.
Every coach has to ask himself the same question: 'What do you want to be?' That is the great thing about football. You can be anything you want. You can be a spread team, I-formation team, power team, wing-T team, option team, or wishbone team. You can be anything you want, but you have to define it."
Chip Kelly, Oregon
When Kirk Ferentz overhauled his coaching staff in the off-season most people marked it as the beginning of long overdue change for a man who clings to constancy and reliability (which are qualifications for an even greater Ferentzian value, trustworthiness) in all he does --- and especially in his staff. But now with the season almost complete there is little evidence much of anything has changed from last year despite all the new voices on the coaching staff. Norm Parker gave way to a younger and, for the time being, less capable Parker who relies on almost the exact same defensive principles and scheme. In the ramp up to the season, new defensive coordinator Phil Parker hinted at more blitzing and other situational exotics, only to trot out an almost identical scheme to that of his predecessor. But even more revealing was the predestined lack of change on the offensive side of the ball.
Let's get one thing straight; Kirk Ferentz probably never thought Ken O'Keefe was going to leave, and to the to the pros no less. That's what I said to myself as I watched Ferentz explain to reporters at a press conference in early spring - one arranged to introduce Phil Parker and several other new coaching hires - that O'Keefe had accepted a job with the Miami Dolphins. After spending most of his professional life working for or with Ken O'Keefe, Kirk Ferentz officially announced his longtime offensive coordinator's departure from the program with all the specialness of a practice scheduling change. Ferentz, in fact, still looked surprised in the presser to me, that his longtime confidant and one-time mentor had flown the coup, even though the actual resignation had occurred some time earlier, and that surprise surfaced - I now believe - as uncertainty, bordering on disorder, in how this offense has been organized since O'Keefe's departure. Kirk Ferentz, in other words, does not do surprises very well.
Greg Davis has a body of work. It's a distinguished body of work as well as a distinct one. You can choose not like it, you can dismiss it as a body of work that achieved beneath the potential of its resources but you cannot describe it as a body of work less distinguished than Ken O'Keefe's or any number of qualified offensive coordinators Kirk Ferentz might have considered. On paper going from Ken O'Keefe's offense to Greg Davis's is like going from Bob Cummings to Hayden Fry, but that's not how things translate in the real world. Coordinators don't win football games, teams do and the offense and defense and special teams are interdependent parts of that team. Each need the other to secure victories and both Greg Davis and Ken O'Keefe have been fortunate to lead offenses that have co-existed with very good defenses under very good head coaches. However, Ken O'Keefe was the supposed architect of the Iowa Way offensively, an approach that in the beginning was dynamic and productive but had become increasingly bland and predictable as it's fundamental design gave way as life support to a first rate, dominating defense and efficient special teams, and not vice versa. Scoring offense under Kirk Ferentz since the 2007 season has thus been unimposing if not utterly mediocre (and ranked as follows):
2007 - 110th
2008 - 33rd
2009 - 86th
2010 - 50th
2011 - 58th
Not including this season, that's an average national ranking of 67th. This season things have bottomed out, as the Hawkeyes are currently ranked 104th in scoring.
Ferentz has never coveted thy neighbor's offense because he's not building teams that way. His blueprint from the juggernaut teams of the early aughts slowly gave way to a formula of Iowa as a run first, defensive preoccupation that avoids turning the ball over or committing many penalties. A team that relies not on trickery or gimmick, but on execution. One might even try to argue that this approach was concretized in the Ferentz mind when Shonn Greene finally quit moving furniture and starting moving the pile on his way to being the best running back in all of college football. Ferentz was always obsessed with hidden yardage but in the newest version of the Iowa Way offense this focus on hidden yardage is what allowed Iowa to stay close and become more consistently competitive, and thus play a LOT of close ball games. This formula is still very much intact, this year Iowa has played in six games decided by 3 or less points, it leads the FBS in fact. All in all, Iowa has been in 21 such games since the start of the 2008 "Greene" season and has won 9 of those 21 games, with 4 of those victories coming from 2009 alone. It makes for exciting but often heartbreaking football.
But back to Greg Davis, he was supposed to change all this. Which is to say, he was supposed to change Kirk Ferentz. Looking back on it, it seems an asinine notion on the face of it really. An unemployed offensive coordinator with absolutely no previous affiliation whatsoever with Kirk Ferentz, or Iowa football, would be given the kind of power and autonomy to overhaul the ways of a National Coach of the Year Award recipient, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, a top ten highest paid coach in all of college football going on seven years, and the highest paid public employee of his state. I bought into it though. I thought Kirk Ferentz had done the cold hard stare into the mirror of his ways and saw the lines on his face. I thought 2010 was the wake-up call. When he hired his son, and began to youthanize his staff it further fanned my flames.
I was wrong.
What Iowa has done this year is thrash around like a trophy fish pulled onto the deck of a fishing boat. And now Iowa is completely a fish out of water. It is a program lacking in a convincing direction; or, at the very least, a modern one. Mistakes that have been the hallmark of the Ferentz era since 2007, such as poor to awful use of timeouts, inability to manage special teams plays that decide games, ineffective two-minute drill offense, late fourth quarter defensive bending that too often breaks down, and so forth, continue. Of course I could be completely wrong; I could be panicking. It's entirely possible that Ferentz is leading the program through the most treacherous part of the storm right now, and soon we will see the eye and experience some calm that will allow us all to see the other side - the end of the tempest.
The end of the tempest is what I thought had arrived in 1997 when Iowa was picked by many to challenge for the Big Ten title. I remember vividly thinking, "this is Hayden's best team!" But when Iowa finished sixth in a very competitive Big Ten (the year Michigan won the MNC), went to a modest bowl and lost, then he followed that season up with a stinker, and for the first time in 15 years Hayden lost to Iowa State. Hayden's time had come to a seemingly swift end, and when he left the cupboard was bare. But Hayden was much older at the time than Kirk is now, and he had secretly been going through a health crisis -- radiation treatment for prostate cancer -- that likely further dulled any ideas he had for any sort of regeneration to his Iowa tenure. It all added up to this reality: His magic had run its course.
I'm not going to tell you who I would like to be the coach at Iowa because we have one and he's not going anywhere, right now. But make no mistake; in every season there is an available coach who can do the job at Iowa. Sifting through the candidates and picking the right one to do it here would be a challenge for any AD (particularly one like Gary Barta, but that's another post) but the notion that it couldn't be done is silly. The whole "devil you have" argument is silly. Iowa is a very, very good football program to lead, and is as attractive a college head-coaching job as exists. Sure, I've seen ESPN's Adam Rittenberg as recently as this summer rank the Iowa job just below Michigan State and just above Illinois, as the 7th best job in the conference. Which is a misleading ranking because it assumes one thing and one thing only, the ability to win right this minute. In any event, it may or may not be the case that if 100 coaches were asked about the Iowa job in relation to every other Big Ten job they might just rank it the same as Rittenberg; I don't know and really don't care. Capably filling any head-coaching job is a function of understanding many, many factors that must be aligned to ensure success. There are very few coaches that can succeed in any environment. Fit is crucial. Rich Rodriguez is the lasted proof of this.
Kirk Ferentz has for a very long time been a good fit for Iowa. He's succeeded well in that department. But that fit is a bit baggier with each underperforming season. Ferentz's attitude at his postgame press conferences has become, in recent years, stale at best and occasionally belittling to the fan base he claims to respect (Kirk doesn't use the term love...that would be a Fry term). His public persona in his more challenging moments increasingly looks similar to that of Tiger Woods: defensive, tight-lipped, and put out. Like Woods, who sees the press as a threat to his version of things (especially as they relate to him) for himself as well as the world outside his head, Ferentz is perpetually stunned that the reality he lives is not the reality everyone else sees. It is incredibly revealing when Kirk become apoplectic at the notion that another narrative about Iowa football might exist. Which leads me to one final thought.
Hayden Fry almost coached again. He flirted with the Baylor job in 2002. From everything I've read, it never got serious. I have no idea why not. However, it told me what I'd suspected all along: Hayden Fry probably wanted to keep coaching at Iowa. But, Hayden deferred to logic to dictate his dénouement. Hayden was always a great in-game coach, and so it seemed he just applied those thinking skills to his own career end. He knew not to go for it and that was that. What was most satisfying about his ending was that Iowa fans, by and large, and his boss at the time (Bob Bowlsby), gave him the space he needed, the air necessary so he could breath in his impending reality. In the end Hayden had become a realist, which is a mindset that would have done him in right away if he arrived at Iowa thinking that way. It was 20 years in the making but Hayden read the end like he used to read defenses, and he did what was best for him and the program he so amazingly built. Ironically, the opposite may prove to be true for Kirk Ferentz. He arrived at Iowa reciting somber predictions of inch-by-inch improvements and highlighting the program's competitive frailty and disadvantages. Kirk the truth sayer. Eventually it became one of his most admired traits: straight, honest talk. No hubris, no bravado. But as things have soured in recent years the truth has become increasingly elusive, as Kirk is more likely to deflect analysis than lay it bare and unvarnished on the table. The reality that was such a hallmark of his beginning has given way to an uneasy irreality. It might be a temporary shell-shocked state or it might not be. Time will tell, because when it comes to his coaching arc and tenure here at Iowa, Kirk has time.