Old-school Ferentz right fit for the Hawkeyes

Kirk Ferentz has made all the right decisions in elevating the Iowa program, including opting to remain in Iowa City.

Updated: August 23, 2005, 6:41 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- The rumor is true. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz visited Penn State in April on the weekend of the Nittany Lions' spring game. Talk about chum to feed the chat-room sharks: It all made sense. Ferentz, a western Pee-Ay guy, would return to his home state to replace Joe Paterno.

In an age of contract-skipping coaches, in an age when coaches are given three years to produce or be dumped, in an age when a coach sneezes and 300 people on the Internet type "Gesundheit," you don't have to be an Olympian to leap to a conclusion about why Ferentz was in State College.

Kirk Ferentz
Kirk Ferentz has built the Hawkeyes into a consistent winner.

Unless you know Ferentz. He went to Penn State to escort the third of his five children, Joanne, on a college tour. Some coaches might not want to take such a trip because of the rumors that would spawn.

A couple of guys in a restaurant recognized him (big clue: Joanne wore an Iowa sweatshirt). Ferentz took delight in the old guy sitting in the hotel tavern when Ferentz ducked in to grab lunch and watch the NFL draft.

"I know you," the gentleman said. "Aren't you Kerry Collins?"

The important lesson is that Ferentz took the trip, chat rooms or not, because that's what dads do. He didn't call a news conference to announce it. He just did what he believed he is supposed to do. It's pretty simple -- old-school, really -- and Ferentz is nothing if not a sucker for doing things the way they should be done.

That's why he is starting his seventh season at Iowa despite the allure of other schools and the NFL, all of whom have "discovered" him since Iowa has shared in two of the last three Big Ten Conference championships. He and his high-school-sweetheart wife, Mary, like raising their children in Iowa City.

"There's been a phone call or two that I took home," said Ferentz, who went so far as to meet in New Orleans two years ago with Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver. "And I asked Mary, 'Are we doing the right thing?' The answer has always been pretty consistent. It helped me keep in mind what it was that we're looking for."

What he is not looking for are the klieg lights that have come with being a major college head coach for the last 20 years. Ferentz accepts being well-known in Iowa, but he revels in the idea that he can be misidentified in State College, or go to dinner in a Chicago steakhouse and be interrupted only by the waiter.

About that Chicago dinner with this reporter; Ferentz called to apologize when he realized he would be 20 minutes late. He asked about the dress code for the steakhouse. And he conversed through the entire meal without once mentioning that it was his 50th birthday.

There are Cracker Jack prizes bigger than his ego.

We don't have the margin of error in Iowa. We're not the better-known school. We just can't afford to take things for granted. It never has been that kind of place, and it never will be. It's not supposed to be easy there."
Kirk Ferentz
Even as Iowa attains a level of success not even Hayden Fry built in the 1980s -- when Ferentz the offensive line coach turned out one outstanding blocker after another -- Ferentz remains focused on meeting his own high standards.

For instance, he still beats himself up because, three years ago, he canceled practice so he could attend the Heisman Trophy dinner with his quarterback, Brad Banks, the runner-up to USC winner Carson Palmer.

"That will never happen again," Ferentz said.

In his mind, there's a link between that decision and the 38-17 loss to the Trojans in the Orange Bowl.

"We don't have the margin of error in Iowa," Ferentz said. "We're not the better-known school. We just can't afford to take things for granted. It never has been that kind of place, and it never will be. It's not supposed to be easy there."

Ferentz's record over six seasons at Iowa is 42-31. His record over the last three is 31-7. He has taken players who barely got recruited by anyone else and taught them how to win a Big Ten championship. Hawkeyes preseason All-American linebacker Chad Greenway is from South Dakota. He grew up on a 1,500-acre farm. Blue chip, meet cow chip.

"It was pretty easy to select Iowa," Greenway said. "That was my only offer."

Former walk-on center Bruce Nelson was picked in the second round by Carolina in 2001. Walk-on tight end Dallas Clark went in the first round to Indianapolis in 2003. In April, walk-on tackle Pete McMahon went in the sixth round to Oakland.

"They are a lot better players than they are athletes," said Tom Bresnahan, a longtime college and NFL assistant and a Ferentz mentor. "When Kirk was [the offensive line coach] at Iowa, the longer he was there, the more high draft choices he produced. The pros looked at Iowa draft choices because they did everything well. They are doing it still, even though he is the head coach."

Before Ferentz returned to Iowa City, he coached the offensive line for six seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.

"The analogy I would make," Ferentz said, "[is that] my sister could have figured out that [Ravens Pro Bowl tackle] Jonathan Ogden was a pretty good player. He would mesmerize you. He was a freak of nature, plus he had the mental makeup. We don't get a lot of Ogdens. Other schools have a better opportunity at guys like that."

As Iowa has blossomed into a perennial Big Ten contender, Ferentz has begun recruiting -- and signing -- bluer chips. There is a danger in that transition. After Tennessee won the national championship in 1998, coach Phillip Fulmer expanded his recruiting across the country. The Volunteers didn't prosper from it.

If Ferentz ever believed that would be an issue, he won't admit it.

"We've never been afraid to walk away from someone who wouldn't fit," he said. "That's one great thing about recruiting at the University of Iowa. … It attracts a certain guy. They're not coming there for the mountains. They're not coming there for the beach. It's a great state, and hopefully a great place to play football.

"From 1 to 85, we're not going to be talented as the schools we're going to compete with, schools that are better known. We've got to move the bottom-half guys along. Guys play their best at the end of their careers. We don't have a lot of freshman phenoms. We have to play better as the year goes on. We're realistic about our lot in life."

There might come a time when Ferentz is ready to leave Iowa. Until then, the only time you'll see him on another campus is on the visiting sideline. Or in a tour group.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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