How loyalty paid off for Iowa, Ferentz

You see Kirk Ferentz, the 60-year-old Iowa coach, with the same, stoic look he wore as the Hawkeyes lost 30 games over the five seasons before this fall.

You hear Ferentz, many years ago a fish out of water at Iowa, and he sounds unaffected emotionally by the wild success of his 17th team at the school.

“I’m not sure what to say,” Ferentz said, “because I’ve never been around a team that’s 12-0.”

Understand this about him, though: Ferentz is enjoying the heck out of this season with the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes, who sit one victory -- the opportunity arrives Saturday night in the Big Ten title game against No. 5 Michigan State -- from an improbable berth in the College Football Playoff.

Ferentz has, in fact, stopped to smell the roses this year. Last week, after a 28-20 win at Nebraska to secure Iowa’s first unbeaten regular season since it won the Western Conference in 1922, Ferentz grew emotional in the locker room with his team.

“Look at our players, what they’ve accomplished,” he said. “That’s a pretty good feeling.”

Iowa players say they were driven this year, in part, by the desire to get better for their coach, whose popularity waned after a 7-6 finish capped by three straight losses to end the 2014 season.

Through it all, Ferentz said he has kept his eyes straight ahead. After all, he said, that’s how he has handled every unexpected turn since he took over at Iowa in 1999.

“You’d never know it on game day, especially if you could read my mind. But by nature, I’m an optimist,” Ferentz said. “There are a lot of quality people in our program. There have been for a long time. Every season is unique. Every week is unique.

“To think that you’d know how this was going to turn out, you never do. That’s what makes this exciting.”

Iowa’s loyalty to Ferentz is on display in these initial days after the regular season. As programs around it endure change -- six schools in the Big Ten are in the midst of staff turnover -- Iowa remains secure under its second head coach since 1979.

For the Hawkeyes, change after last season meant a new title for Ferentz’s son, Brian, the run-game coordinator and offensive line coach, and a shift in assignment for assistants Seth Wallace and LeVar Woods.

Loyalty, according to Ferentz, works in multiple ways. While the school stood behind its coach, Ferentz resisted NFL overtures and never wavered in supporting his players.

“We ask a lot from our players,” he said. “We have to give it back to them, too.”

Ferentz said he has “never had a compelling reason to go anywhere else.”

And so, here he stands, with a chance Saturday to win Iowa’s first outright league title since 1985.

Ferentz worked under Hayden Fry in that Rose Bowl season 30 years ago as Iowa’s offensive line coach -- not long after he showed up in Iowa City like “Willie off the pickle boat,” a moniker used to describe Ferentz by Fran Moore, the wife of Ferentz’s mentor and renowned offensive line coach, the late Joe Moore.

“Just knowing how he coaches and what he stands for, it isn't all about winning to him,” Iowa center Austin Blythe said. “He wants us to be better men when we are off the field and done.”

Blythe described the feeling as “really satisfying” to win big for Ferentz this season.

“He works so hard,” said Blythe, an Iowa co-captain, “and to be able to go out and do that for him is really special.”

Ferentz’s coaching foe this week in Indianapolis, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, who is in his ninth season, ranks third in Big Ten coaching longevity behind Ferentz and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald.

Dantonio said he used Iowa as a model to build his program.

“A little bit of offense, little bit of defense,” Dantonio said, “but maybe a little bit more in terms of the attitude and the work ethic and the continuity.”

Of Ferentz, Dantonio said, “I can’t say enough about him as a person.”

He admires Ferentz’s resolve to stay with his system through good and bad times. The Hawkeyes won 10 games or more in four seasons from 2002 to 2009, earning Ferentz a 10-year contract in 2010 that looked like a burden for Iowa as it finished 4-8 in 2012 and slipped again last season.

The contract, which runs through January 2020, appears solid today.

“You have an administration that has stood behind him,” Dantonio said. “I think that’s rare, as you see, and that allows for success to continue.”