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Harty: Loyalty has paid Ferentz dividends

[ 0 ] July 25, 2013 |

CHICAGO — Kirk Ferentz has had chances to make his job as a college football coach much easier.

He could’ve cashed in on his unprecedented success as the Iowa football coach, which included two Big Ten titles and three consecutive double-digit win seasons from 2002-04, and bolted to the NFL or to a more prestigious college.

He could’ve marketed himself when he was a hot commodity a decade ago and maybe landed a job at a glamor school where recruiting is more a case of you picking the prospects than the prospects picking your school.

Ferentz even admitted Thursday at Big Ten football media day meetings that he has thought about what it would be like to coach at a storied program such as Ohio State or Michigan.

“Briefly, yeah, briefly,” he said. “But I never spent a lot of time on it.”

That he hasn’t spent a lot of time day-dreaming about greener pastures speaks volumes about Ferentz as a person. He craves the thrill of victory as much as any other coach, but not enough to make winning a priority over keeping his family in a comfort zone.

Ferentz also takes pride in being loyal to the school that has done so many good things for him both professionally and personally.

In addition to the 14 seasons he has spent as the Iowa coach, Ferentz also spent nine seasons coaching the Iowa offensive line under Hayden Fry from 1981-89. Ferentz and his wife, Mary, both grew up in the Pittsburgh area but have lived in Iowa City for almost a quarter century if you combine Kirk’s two coaching stints.

His five children all went to the same schools for the most part and were able to plant roots and grow among familiar faces, which isn’t always the case for children of head coaches.

“Coaching is an interesting profession, and the thing I probably appreciate more than anything is Iowa has given us an opportunity to have a great coaching life,” Ferentz said. “For me, personally, I’ve had a great coaching experience.

“But we’ve also had a great personal experience. We’ve been allowed to be a part of the community. And that’s something really hard to do in the NFL, and I think it’s hard to do if you’re changing jobs every five or seven years.”

Ferentz considered leaving Iowa to become the coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars after the historic 11-2 season in 2002. But for lots of reasons, he stayed.

Money, of course, was one of the main reasons because it’s no secret that Ferentz has been well compensated at Iowa. His current contract pays him about $3.6 million annually and is guaranteed through the 2019 season.

But Ferentz could’ve earned that money elsewhere, especially in the NFL, where he spent six seasons as an assistant coach from 1993-98 and still is highly respected. His leash would’ve been shorter in the NFL or at an elite college program, but his ceiling would’ve been higher.

“To football-minded people I think coach is still really an attractive job candidate,” said Iowa senior linebacker James Morris, who also attended the media day event in Chicago. “I think people that understand football understand that.

“And I think people who aren’t from Iowa don’t understand how hard it could be to win at Iowa if you didn’t have the right guy.”

Ferentz in many ways is similar to Fry in how they both resisted the temptation to use the Iowa program as a stepping-stone job. Fry drew interest from some of the nation’s top programs such as Texas and USC after he rebuilt the Iowa program in the early 1980s.

But Fry stayed put despite knowing that the Iowa job had some built-in disadvantages that made winning more of a challenge, most notably the low in-state population.

“I can’t speak for coach Fry, but I doubt he had any idea how good it would be, that’s just my guess,” Ferentz said of being the football coach at Iowa. “I don’t want to speak for coach Fry, but I think he probably found out what a great place it is to live and work and all those things.

“My wife and I have gone through that twice. It was a no-brainer to come back because of what we learned. But it was nine years later, too, so you never know quite what it’s going to be like. I didn’t know anybody in our administration when I came back.”

The Iowa administration deserves its share of the credit for making this Ferentz’s destination job. He will turn 58 on Aug. 1, so it’s fair to say that Ferentz probably is in the fourth quarter of his coaching career, albeit early in the fourth quarter.

“I think it’s a reflection of two things,” Ferentz said when asked Thursday about why he has stayed at Iowa. “I work with great people day in and day out. And then I work at a place where it’s a little bit like the Pittsburgh Steelers, I think.

“Traditionally, our administration gets it and there are going to be highs and lows. Fortunately, our administration has not panicked when things aren’t going as well as we would all like them to go. They’ve been steady, and it’s a little bit like the Pittsburgh Steelers ownership. They operate the same way. So growing up in Pittsburgh I have an appreciation for that. I really feel fortunate to be at Iowa.”

Some Iowa fans don’t feel the same way about this long-term relationship between Ferentz and the Hawkeyes because they’re frustrated with losing. It’s only natural for some fans to feel that way after suffering through last season’s 4-8 collapse. In some ways, Ferentz is being victimized by the monster he created at Iowa.

But those fans have to understand that loyalty works both ways. They would’ve been devastated and felt betrayed if Ferentz had left Iowa when the program was thriving.

So it’s only fair for them to be patient and wait to see if Ferentz can rebuild the program again.

“I think he almost relishes the challenge,” said Morris, who grew up around the Iowa program as the son of head equipment manager Greg Morris. “It’s more worth it for him to be able to say that he won at Iowa and he did it the hard way than it would be to go to like a Michigan or an Ohio State or Penn State.”

It’s also more worth it for Ferentz to say that he did it his way in that he stayed true to his values.

Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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