Kirk Ferentz might be old-school, but it’s hard to find fault with 5-0

Ivan Maisel10/07/21
Kirk Ferentz is in his 23rd season at Iowa and is the longest-tenured FBS coach in the nation. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Cue the trumpets. Get Mike Tirico into the studio. It’s time for the Games of the Ferentz Olympiad, in which every four years or so, the Iowa Hawkeyes school the Big Ten by playing efficient (read boring), vanilla (not for everyone), winning (tell me more) football.

The Hawkeyes aren’t sneaking up on anyone. Iowa is 5-0 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten and ranked No. 3 in the nation. No. 4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0) is coming to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. It’s the first top-five matchup at Kinnick since the immortal 12-10 victory over Michigan in 1985.

You can just feel the excitement shimmering off coach Kirk Ferentz in waves.

“It’s not a five-week season or six-week season,” Ferentz said at a news conference this week. “You don’t get any prizes. Nobody is going to announce a bowl matchup next week. They do the prognostications every week, I get that. They don’t really count those. They are Monopoly money. Nothing really counts until you get to the finish line.”

Ferentz has been killing buzzes in Iowa City since he replaced Hayden Fry after the 1998 season. And his brand of football is so last century. If Ferentz were any more old-school, he’d be covered in ivy. He coached that way when he took over the Hawkeyes as an unknown 43-year-old, and he’s still coaching that way today, at age 66.

And the funny thing is, Ferentz, who has the longest tenure of any FBS coach, is having the most success he has had in nearly two decades. The Hawkeyes have won 11 consecutive games since starting last season 0-2. That’s the nation’s third-longest winning streak, behind No. 1 Alabama (19 games) and No. 6 Oklahoma (13 games). Iowa’s defense has gone 27 consecutive games without allowing more than 24 points, the longest such streak in the nation.

The defense is an excellent example of what makes Ferentz’s teams tick. The Hawkeyes’ defense is the modern answer to Woody Hayes’ Ohio State teams, the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Buckeyes. You knew what they were going to run, they knew you knew and it didn’t matter. That pretty much describes Phil Parker’s 4-3 defense.

“What we used to do offensively is script the first 15 plays,” former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said, “use different formations, use different motions to see how the (defense) is going to play you. You don’t have to do that with Iowa.”

It’s all about the fundamentals for Ferentz

The 2021 Iowa defense has been the best defense north of Athens, Ga. The Hawkeyes have forced 16 turnovers in five games and lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-12. Six Hawkeyes picked off a Maryland pass last Friday night, a 51-14 victory at Maryland in which Iowa made Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa wish he had taken up another sport.

“They emphasize fundamentals. They are going to do it better than you,” said Alvarez, a College Football Hall of Fame member who coached with Ferentz for Fry in Iowa City in the 1980s. “You’re going to have to beat them. They are not going to beat themselves. They are not going to make mistakes. They execute so well, you have to execute better on offense. Most teams stop themselves.”

That’s an important attribute when the other team is more talented. Ferentz isn’t luring five-star prospects to Iowa City. Bear Bryant once said he’d rather have an 85 player playing at 100 percent of his ability than a 100 player playing at 80 percent of his ability. Iowa players are known among NFL scouts for coming into the league ready to play.

“It falls a little bit into the same category as Alabama,” said Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl. “You’re curious if there is upside (left) because they have been taught so well. There’s an overachiever quality to (Iowa) players. You know they’ve been developed. You know they’ve been taught.

“We see it down here at the Senior Bowl. Their guys show up. They know how to work. They know how to progress. You know what you’re going to get, and you trust what you come out of the (Iowa football) building with.”

Ferentz is a former offensive line coach. Of the 10 first-round draft choices he has produced at Iowa, five are offensive linemen and three are tight ends. Fourth-year junior center Tyler Linderbaum will be No. 11.

Iowa players enter Ferentz Football College. They generally don’t leave early. As Nagy said, they develop. If it were up to Ferentz, he would turn the clock all the way back to freshmen ineligibility, a rule last in place in 1971.

“If I was the commissioner of (football), which I will never be, no freshman would ever play, period,” Ferentz said. “It’s the best thing for them. Let them go to school, get de-recruited, all the nonsense everybody talks about. Uncle Jim is not calling him and asking why you’re not playing 48 snaps instead of 21.”

Ferentz went on a little longer, then stopped himself.

“This is going to kill our recruiting for the next 15 years, right?” he asked.

Ferentz’s self-deprecating sense of humor reveals his humility, an attribute found among FBS coaches about as often as grocery coupons. The biggest game at Kinnick Stadium in 36 years will kick off Saturday afternoon. If Iowa wins, Ferentz’s humility will be put to the test.