LINCOLN, Neb. – Before the 2013 season started, Iowa’s football program was an easy target. The Hawkeyes were coming off a 4-8 season, and coach Kirk Ferentz was feeling some heat that carried beyond Iowa’s borders.
Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated put Ferentz on his list of the five worst coaches in the country. Iowa fans rallied behind their coach, leading Ferentz to crack that it was the most love he’d felt from back-and-gold faithful in awhile.
A coach was still on the hot seat Friday. His name was Bo Pelini. The Hawkeyes’ 38-17 victory at Memorial Stadium completed a feel-good journey: 4-8 to 8-4. And Ferentz has to be in the discussion for Big Ten coach of the year.
Mandel actually picked Iowa to beat the Cornhuskers Friday. Presented a chance to give Mandel the old “who’s the bad coach now,” Ferentz took the high road one the transformation was complete. No shocker there.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Ferentz said. “That’s the great thing about our country. I don’t think he went to jail for saying that. That’s just part of coaching. Fortunately, I don’t think I believed it. Bottom 10, maybe, but I wouldn’t say five. But that’s just talk and noise. And no one on our team was too worried about it.”
As he has done numerous times since the 2012 season ended, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta spoke highly of his football coach after Iowa won a fourth road game and a third trophy game in 2013.
“I’ve been pretty consistent in saying he’s one of the best coaches in the country,” Barta said outside Iowa’s locker room. “He’s proven that. He’s also the best coach for Iowa. He’s proven that. I’m so happy for him and his assistant coaches and his players.”
Some of Ferentz’s players did take joy in Mandel’s humble pie moment.
“I chuckled at it back then, and I chuckle at it now,” running back Mark Weisman said. “There’s no one I’d rather play for. He’s the best.”
Leave it to cerebral Hawkeye quarterback Jake Rudock to put things in perspective.
“I love coach,” Rudock said. “People are going to say what they say. And it’s unfortunate. He did a great job this year. It’s always funny when you judge coaching, because it only goes so far. The players on the field have to go out and compete.”
This was the third meeting in the Heroes Game, which came about shortly after Nebraska joined the Big Ten. It became Iowa’s fourth trophy game. In the Iowa locker room afterwards, an emotional Ferentz hoisted the Heroes Trophy in front of his team as a badge of honor.
“Whenever you get a win, it’s always emotional,” Rudock said.
And a one-sided series, which included 20-7 and 13-7 Nebraska victories in the first two Heroes games, suddenly feels like a rivalry.
“Maybe it’s a start,” Ferentz said.
From 4-8 to 8-4. How did it happen?
“There’s no magic formula,” Ferentz said. “Everyone is looking for that easy path, but it’s not there. That’s what we told our players.”
A year ago, after a sixth straight loss to end the season, spirits were crushed following a 13-7 loss to Nebraska.
“Everyone was down,” defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat said. “We hated that feeling. We knew we were going to be home, to reflect. Watching all those teams in bowl games really fired us up. We came back ready to go. We dug our heads in the dirt and kept grinding.”
On Friday, Ferentz had shed his “worst five coaches” label. And Iowa’s players were enjoying the rewards for their hard work.
“We finished last year 4-8, and with a loss,” receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “This year we were 8-4, and finished with a win. A complete 360.”