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At the Bottom Of Everything

September 22, 2012; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz tries to figure out why that Central Michigan kicker keeps trying to kick it along the ground. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE
September 22, 2012; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz tries to figure out why that Central Michigan kicker keeps trying to kick it along the ground. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

It's sometimes difficult to remember, but there was a time when Kirk Ferentz was considered a great game coach. From 2002 to 2004, his Iowa teams were quite literally unbeatable in close games, going 9-0 in one-possession contests. There had been cracks in the facade, to be sure -- the comical clock management at the 2005 Capital One Bowl that made Tate to Holloway possible was the most obvious example -- but Iowa eventually won all those games nonetheless, with a mix of timely defense and special teams prowess.

The bloom began coming off the rose in 2005, when Ferentz blew a late two-possession lead for the first time in a loss to Northwestern. In that game, Iowa took a 27-14 lead with 10:58 left to play, only to give up a touchdown with 2:10 to go. This was a common occurrence at that time: Iowa would build a double-digit lead, make the opponent bleed clock trying to get the first score, then get the ball back and run the clock out. Only this time, Iowa didn't get the ball. Northwestern successfully recovered an onside kick despite the ball being easily recoverable by a number of Hawkeyes, then opened up the Iowa secondary. Brett Basanez hit Ross Lane for a touchdown with 45 seconds to go, and that was it. Ferentz had been solved.

Seven years and 20 one-possession losses later, the Iowa Hawkeyes hit rock bottom Saturday when Central Michigan did almost the exact same thing that Northwestern had done in 2005. Up eight with two minutes to play, Iowa allowed Central Michigan to score a touchdown with 45 seconds left on the clock, then failed to recover an onside kick despite the ball bouncing past two able-bodied Hawkeyes. One penalty, one completion, and one scramble later, Chippewa kicker David Harman hammered a 47-yard field goal through the uprights for the win. The loss was the 20th one-possession defeat by Ferentz since that Northwestern game (compared with just 14 one-possession wins) and the ninth one-possession defeat since the 2009 season ended at the Orange Bowl.

It was also the third time in three years that Iowa failed to recover an onside kick and lost as a result of that ineptitude (Minnesota successfully recovered onside kicks against Iowa in 2010 and 2011), which made this response from Ferentz at his postgame press conference such a head-scratcher:

Q. Were you surprised that you guys were confused on the on‑side kick coverage when you got a look at what they were doing in that delay?

FERENTZ: Yeah, we typically ‑‑ we have not been in that situation an awful lot but we have coached it and usually execute it very well. I don't know how many we've been involved in, but we just looked like we were frozen out there, and they got the ball ‑‑ or at least it must have looked like that, if that's what you're asking.

That is the head coach of a team that has wholly and completely failed to recover an onside kick in three seasons and lost three games to inferior opponents as a result of that failure, telling you that (1) his team isn't involved in too many onside kicks and (2) his team is usually really good at onside kick recovery, facts be damned. This wasn't just a fixable problem. This was a problem that should have been fixed years ago, when hapless Minnesota used it to beat us the first time. Not only was it not fixed in time to prevent Minnesota using it again to win in 2011, but it still has clearly not been fixed in 2012. It was the sixth time in three years that Iowa has fallen victim to a piece of special teams trickery, with four of those directly leading to losses, and Kirk Ferentz's response has been to do nothing at all. A shrug, a grunt. Good job. Good effort.

Calling for Kirk Ferentz's termination is shortsighted and futile, because Gary Barta has made that completely impossible. After the 2009 season -- the only season in which Iowa lost fewer than 4 games since 2004 -- Barta inexplicably signed Ferentz to a 10-year, $40 million contract so huge that Kirk could never be fired. In total compensation, it was the biggest contract in the history of the sport, and is larger than extensions given to Nick Saban and Les Miles in 2011 (only Mack Brown has received more). Ferentz is scheduled to receive $3.875 million in compensation this season. The University of Iowa will cut him a check for $370,000 on October 1 for a "recurring supplemental payment" regardless of whether his team beats Minnesota the day before. If Barta fired Ferentz tomorrow, we would still be obligated to pay him $250,000 a month until January 2020, a total buyout in excess of $21 million. This contract was offered despite the fact that Ferentz was already making $2.8 million per year through 2012 on his previous contract and had long since stopped receiving calls from the NFL. In his six years as Iowa's athletics director, Gary Barta already almost killed Iowa basketball, and he knew a botched football hire would cost him his job. So Barta did the best thing for self-preservation: Lock in everyone's favorite coach for life.

That decision is going to get far more scrutiny now that Iowa has once again bottomed out with a loss to a middling MAC squad for the second time in Barta's tenure (and third in Ferentz's). The numbers simply don't lie. Since Barta took over as AD, Iowa has now lost a staggering ten games as a double-digit favorite. In the last seven seasons, the Hawkeyes have entered November with a legitimate chance of a conference championship just once. Since signing that contract extension, Ferentz has coached his team to a 17-13 record, gone winless against Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, and lost twice to Iowa State. Most damning of all: He returned practically everyone from his lone post-2004 top ten squad and stumbled to another 7-5 record, losing two games on special teams trickery.

The great ones know when it's time, and it usually takes a loss like this to crystallize the problem. Lloyd Carr sent out a preseason top five team that lost to Appalachian State. Three months later, he was gone. Hayden Fry lost to Iowa State for the first time in 15 seasons and walked away in November. Bear Bryant walked into a press conference and told reporters, "I love [Alabama] and I love my players. But in my opinion, they deserved better coaching than they have been getting from me this year." Those that did not know when to go, that stayed past their time for pride or fear or legacy, lost all of those things.

So no, I'm not going to say we should fire Kirk Ferentz for this embarrassment, the biggest on-field embarrassment in a string of small ones. I'm not going to say he should resign; this is a process, and I still believe in the five-year cycle, and the man has earned the right to redeem himself. But I no longer trust him to know how to fix this, because there is no recent discernible evidence that he can, and the benefit of the doubt no longer lies with him. Saturday was the end of "In Ferentz We Trust" for many fans. The clock is now ticking.

And it's high time we take a good long look at Gary Barta, who brought you Todd Lickliter, whose department grossly mishandled the two public crises it has faced, and who called a coach that had one ten-win season in his last five "arguably the best football coach in the country" while handing him the most lucrative contract in the sport. He made it impossible to get rid of Kirk Ferentz so that he too would become indispensable, and in the process put the target on his own back. It's time this department had acumen and leadership that goes beyond draining every cent from its fans' pockets. It's now his seat, and not his coach's, that is getting warm.