IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz has never been the flashiest of coaches. He’s always taken a no-frills, all-business approach to the game, and he’s always asked his players to do the same. He’s blue collar, down to earth and unfailingly even-keeled.
In other words, he’s a perfect fit for the University of Iowa.
And this season, he’s leveraging all of his best coaching assets—and leveraging his talent, too—to put together perhaps the single most impressive coaching performance of his career.
In case you hadn’t noticed—and I’m assuming many of you haven’t, because after all, who pays attention to the poor old Big Ten West?—the Iowa Hawkeyes are currently 7-0 on the season; and after thumping Northwestern last week in a key Big Ten matchup, they find themselves ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25. It’s a position that few, if any, experts would have predicted the Hawkeyes to be in this far into the 2015 season, but looking back over the topsy-turvy past couple of years in Iowa City—and looking back, just as importantly, on an offseason that saw Ferentz make one huge (and risky) decision at the quarterback position—this team’s success actually makes sense.
It would be far too easy now to say that we should have seen this coming. But hey, it’s true: We really should have seen this coming.
The narrative coming into this season, of course, was that time was running out on Ferentz in Iowa City. After back-to-back disappointing seasons—an 8-5 mark in 2013, and an even more distressing 7-6 record last year—fans in Hawkeye nation were getting restless, and there was a growing sense that Ferentz simply didn’t have the same fire and desire that he back in the 2000s—back when he had the Hawkeyes consistently ranked among the best teams in the nation.
Over the course of those two bummer seasons, it wasn’t just that the Hawkeyes were losing that had fans distressed, but the fact that they were so consistently boring in doing so, too. There was no identity to the program. No excitement. And a lingering sense that things weren’t going to get better anytime soon.
Hence, all the talk about Ferentz having to move on.
But whenever the coach talked about 2013 and 2014, he was always very careful to point out that, while the records weren’t what he or anyone else associated with the program were hoping for, his teams really weren’t all that far off from being pretty darn good. The 2014 team, many forget, actually started the season 6-2 before stumbling down the stretch, getting blown out by Minnesota and later suffering tight, heartbreaking losses to Wisconsin (26-24) and Nebraska (37-34, in overtime). Yes, it’s true that they finished the regular season 7-5. But they were within just a play or two of 9-3.
Ferentz knew this. He also knew that, in order to turn 7-5 into 9-3 going forward, he was going to have to make some changes—or at least, one big change. Specifically, he needed more dynamism on offense.
And that’s how it came to pass that he made one of the biggest decisions of his Iowa career. After a year-long quarterback controversy that (inevitably) distracted everyone with the program, Ferentz told two-year starting quarterback Jake Rudock that he wanted to go in another direction. Going forward, it would be run-pass threat C.J. Beathard running the show—and there would be no two-quarterback rotation, either. Beathard was the guy.
The news sent Rudock packing for Michigan, and left Ferentz with just one reliable (well, actually, we didn’t actually know whether Beathard would prove himself to be reliable) quarterback on his roster.
Make no mistake: This was a risk.
To say it’s paid off would be an understatement, though.
Beathard hasn’t exactly been the second coming of Brad Banks, but he’s provided just enough dynamism to make the otherwise basic Iowa offense just threatening enough to keep defenses on their heels. He’s thrown for 1,415 yards and nine touchdowns on the year, and has added another 194 yards—plus three touchdowns—on the ground. His effectiveness has opened up opportunities for tailback Jordan Canzeri, who has picked up just under 700 yards and scored nine touchdowns on the season, and has helped the Hawkeyes score a relatively decent 32 points per game.
No, the Hawkeyes don’t light things up the way Baylor does, but they do play vintage Ferentz Iowa football: Mostly steady, occasionally dangerous, always disciplined.
You can say what you want about Ferentz’ tenure at Iowa, especially in recent years. You can say that he has at times settled for mediocrity. And there is certainly some truth to that.
But it’s also true to say that Ferentz knows Iowa football—knows it perhaps better than anyone else—and he knows the formula that will allow Iowa football to win.
He doesn’t always have, and hasn’t always had, the pieces to make that formula work.
But this year he does—and he’s making the most of it.
For that, he deserves credit. And he deserve consideration for Big Ten coach of the year honors.