Iowa's Ferentz is right on the money

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Any discussion about Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz always traces back to his salary.

Let's be clear: college football coaches' salaries are out of control, swelling from the excessive to the absurd, but the fact that Iowa shells out more than $3 million a year for Ferentz really seems to strike a chord.

Critics argue that Ferentz doesn't regularly challenge for national titles. They note that he has won only two Big Ten championships in 10 seasons as Hawkeyes head coach (2002 and 2004). They bring up the program's struggles both on and off the field between 2005-07, culminating with a wave of player arrests in 2007 and the early part of 2008. They say Ferentz's name looks out of place among the list of the 10 highest-paid college coaches.

And in some ways, they're right.

But they're also missing the bigger point.

By paying big bucks for Ferentz, Iowa distinguishes itself from comparable programs that lose good coaches to powerhouses and prevent long-term continuity and stability. Ferentz is the second-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten behind Penn State's Joe Paterno, and he's one of two men to lead Iowa's program in the last 30 years. He knows Iowa inside and out after serving as an assistant from 1981-89, and he has helped to shape the culture of an overachieving program.

Iowa faces several inherent obstacles outside of its control, namely a small in-state recruiting base. Well-compensated coaches like Pete Carroll, Mack Brown, Urban Meyer and even Jim Tressel make comparable salaries to Ferentz, but they recruit locally in California, Texas, Florida and Ohio, four of the more fertile states for top-level talent. The challenge for Ferentz in Iowa is much, much more daunting.

Under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have been bowl eligible in each of the past eight seasons. They have appeared in five January bowl games since 2001 and have finished in the top half of the Big Ten in seven of the past eight seasons. They've had their hiccups, like in 2007, but it hasn't been the all-out disasters recently witnessed at Notre Dame, Michigan and the like.

At 5-0, Iowa is off to its best start under Ferentz, earning a No. 12 national ranking heading into Saturday night's showdown against Michigan (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

For the most part, Ferentz doesn't just get the most out of his players, he gets more.

Look around the country as talent-stocked teams like Cal and Florida State implode at the first sign of trouble. Then look at the way Iowa rallied from 10-0 deficit on the road against Penn State at night to win the game based on defense, special teams and a ton of mental toughness.

To many, Ferentz's credentials don't translate into a $3 million salary, but consider the alternative. If Iowa doesn't pay, it could turn into Louisville or North Carolina or Michigan State or Washington State, programs that went downhill after losing successful coaches (Bobby Petrino, Brown, Nick Saban, Mike Price). Coaching change really stings, and some programs never recover.

Iowa has avoided the same fate.

Ferentz is in a great situation at Iowa. His name always comes up in talks for NFL coaching vacancies, and while he always leaves the door slightly ajar, he maintains his loyalty to the Hawkeyes. He uses his leverage, and he consistently gets rewarded.

What's so wrong with that?

Iowa might never be able to consistently compete for national titles, but by being a big-time payer, the school at least acts like a big-time player. So far, the approach has paid off.