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The Iowa offense: Fish and Family.

Can a media scholar, a Russian novelist, and a blog hack possibly help us understand all this?

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah, that one really stunk.

Kirk Ferentz has been at Iowa a long, long time. So long there are freshmen on campus who were born after he was hired to coach this team. With that longevity comes deep familiarity. The conference, for example, knows Kirk all too well no matter how long they have been coaching within the conference themselves. The analysts, they know Kirk and have long since stopped carving on his perception statue. Fans too, they know Kirk, but they might know him the least.

How could it be possible that fans know Kirk the least?

Many years ago Marshall McLuhan, one of the most important media theorists ever, said the following:

“Someone said once, “We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish!” We are all in this position, being surrounded by some environment or element that blinds us totally; the message of the fish theme is a very important one, and just how to get through to people that way is quite a problem. We have from the moment of birth a fear of the new environment. We always prefer the old one.”

McLuhan's quote morphed into the famously hyper-used saying, “A fish out of water." Most people use it to analogize what it is like for someone to be out of their comfort zone, like a tourist in a foreign country. But, as McLuhan originally used it is more nuanced and enlightening, I think. He was making the point that people cannot see the very things that are most ubiquitous in their lives, and for a fish, that is water until it is taken from them. For a tourist, that is their home country until they leave it for another.

For a certain offensive coordinator, the environment that blinds him totally is The Iowa Way.

The Iowa offense is embedded within The Iowa Way, and The Iowa Way is just a fancy moniker for The Kirk Ferentz Way. This “way” of playing football has been in place for so long that some fans, and maybe a lot of fans, can no longer view it objectively. In fact, for most fans it is an identity for them as much as it is for Ferentz and his program. No longer can some fans see it as, for example, an opposing defensive coordinator sees it, or as a network college football analyst sees it. A fan sees it as an accepted truth, first and foremost, and at that point any objectivity has been obscured if not totally eclipsed.

Brian Ferentz was literally born into The Iowa Way, and has existed within it on more levels than anyone else could possibly imagine. I mean, think about it - Brian is not only the oldest son of Iowa’s long-serving head coach, but he played at Iowa and became a man within The Iowa Way. He is as close as you can come to the full embodiment of The Iowa Way.

When Brian was hired to the super critical position of offensive coordinator there was not a hiring process, as Greg Davis had gone through, as clunky as that might have been because of the timing of it all (thanks to Ken O’Keefe’s very late resignation). Brian was simply elevated to the position of Offensive Coordinator, like a Prince to a King. And, despite the concerns of nepotism there were far more positive feelings about his elevation to the job than one might have expected, especially at a program housed in the proud “earn your own way” values often espoused in a state like Iowa.


In part, this is because there was universal disdain for his predecessor, a man with an impressive resume but who for reasons that are so wide and so varied as to not be worth rehashing in full at this moment in this post, did not excite. Let’s just say the man was not compelling: he was not presentationally compelling (he looked like Hollywood’s version of the amiable bank clerk at a small town bank waiting out the final years of a mostly uneventful career, who enjoyed dinner with his wife at the local diner about as much as anything on this earth, right before the big bank robbery, during which he would certainly be killed); he was not communicationally compelling (he was a slow talker, with a drawl that tamped down even the most fascinating observations or explanations he would share about the Iowa offense); and his offensive ingenuity was not be compelling (the plays that he brought with him to meld with the ones that Kirk demanded be used were neither cutting edge nor a natural fit with the history of the Iowa program under Kirk Ferentz).

If Brian would have been hired under almost any other circumstances, it is not unreasonable to assume there might have been considerable backlash by the fans. After all, the head coach hired his son, who had never been an offensive coordinator, had never called a single game at any level of football, to oversee the offense of a program that coming into the season was the proud owner of the 27th most wins in Division I college football since 1979, the Day of Our Lord, aka, the hiring of Hayden Fry as head football coach at Iowa.

Is that unusual? Well, yeah.

Iowa is a Top 10 revenue producing athletic department. Iowa has the funds to endow this head coach with whatever he thinks is necessary to make this football team hum. Kirk could have hired just about anyone he wanted, and chose not to probe the college and NFL landscape for the most cutting edge, up and coming, OR established talent he could find. He wanted….his son. In reality nepotism is actually more a way of life in college football than many people realize, but it’s a sticky subject for most Iowans nevertheless, and yet, that too was mostly overlooked because of the disdain for Greg Davis. Then there were the fanciful notions that Brian, in part because of blood, in part because of his reputation as a fiery Belichickian disciple, and in part because of the plays of William Shakespeare, would stand up to the man that no one stands up to — his father. We dreamed a collective dream that Brian had unique standing to poo poo the silly Kirk Ferentz offensive crutch plays that had dragged down the program of late, and replace them with forward looking ones.

So Iowa fans quietly, mostly, went along. And along we are. Is it so bad?

It’s a tough question and not just because we are a mere seven games into this thing. What makes the question so tough is that when we evaluate the offensive coordinator at Iowa we are evaluating considerably more than just him. We are evaluating Kirk Ferentz and The Iowa Way — which is the only way some young people can ever remember this program, and thus we are evaluating ourselves. This is not Iowa State, or Nebraska, or Wisconsin even. Those places have turnover and when they turnover, they have history of reaching out beyond their familial walls (Matt Campbell, Mike Riley and Gary Andersen, all total outsiders hired within the last five years). Iowa, in stark contrast, is a family business, and has been since Hayden arrived. When you criticize Iowa, as an Iowa fan, it can feel like criticizing the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. It is strangely self-incriminating.

Iowa was never going to win the Big Ten Championship this year. The talent differential between Iowa and too many teams within the conference was well established by nearly every analyst in the country and even the state. The best hope was to win the West, and that seemed semi-reasonable, primarily because the West is a one horse town right now and Iowa has tamed that horse quite a few times over the years, even in seasons we had no business in doing so. The early part of this season then played out like a Rorschach Test, the famous test devised by the Swiss psychiatrist of the same name intended to reveal the biases of his patients. If you were an optimist, and most football fans of a program brimming with change and youth just might be so, then the ink blots of the first four games, especially following the Penn State game, looked like HOPE and POSSIBILITY. But, if you were a pessimist, you saw those same ink blots as a devious boogey man hiding in the attic, patiently waiting to strangle you in your sleep. And now the pessimists are struggling to breathe while the optimists feel duped.

This post is not a prediction piece on the floor or ceiling of Brian Ferentz. I wish I could write that (truthfully, I will try to write that but not now). I do wish I had those tea leaves to share today. This post is a gut check, a reality check of who Brian is and always was, and who we as fans are and have always been, and perhaps this post will serve as a salve for our raw feelings as we recover from this Northwestern headache. First, let’s admit that this was never a fully comfortable hire. You knew, deep down, that the recurring theme of Iowa football as a predictable, unimaginative offensive enterprise that allows lesser teams to regain their pride and dignity, if only for just one game, was not displaced with the hiring of Brian Ferentz. You knew this because you are not stupid nor a history denier.

This is just Iowa football being Iowa football, Kirk being Kirk and we have to like for better or for worse. Ah yes, “for better or for worse,” which to this day is a phrase that finds its way into more than a few marriage vows. And that’s what’s going on here. Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz is now literally a family affair, and we are her in-laws. Because this is such a tight knit family affair, one in which even we the fans are implicated, the effect can be likened to the Anna Karenina principle. If you are unfamiliar with that principle, then I will explain:

Leo Tolstoy wrote perhaps the greatest first line to any novel ever written in Anna Karenina (1878), when he wrote:

The Anna Karenina principle suggests that in order to be happy, a family must be successful on all levels (the levels of connectedness that consist in any and every family) and must be happy with each and everyone of these levels, as well as the family as a whole, as a unit. Failure to be satisfied on any level leads to unhappiness. Thus there are more ways for a family to be unhappy than happy. It’s Russian, and that means it’s unvarnished and depressingly true.

And that explains today, a day we all want to come down on Brian like a ton of bricks but can’t find it within our heart to enjoy doing it, as we did with Greg Davis. Kirk Ferentz upped the ante on this whole Iowa family business thing, and by doing so he complicated the shit out of our emotional relationship to this team. The offense is struggling and because it is no longer run by some weird looking, slow talking interloper, and is now run by the son, we are...ARGGHHHHHH…Anna Karenina Principle in full effect. Brian is not some hired gun, as Greg Davis was, and if he were this would all be so much cleaner. Instead, he grew up before our very eyes, and he’s one of us - he’s a Hawkeye, he’s family. Self-incrimination awaits.

It just might be that the familiarity that comes with family ties is ultimately the confusing and infuriating element in all this, and why your headache today feels too big for any aspirin you might have in your medicine cabinet. Whether it was intended or not, Kirk has successfully shrouded our ability to see things clearly through the simple act of hiring Brian Ferentz. As we try to unpack and critique why everything seems alarmingly the same, we are left as if a fish trying to explain the water all around him.