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Miller Time: The Rise of Kirk Ferentz

Miller Time: The Rise of Kirk Ferentz

9/30/2002 by Jon Miller of Hawkeye Nation


To quote a slogan that was in vogue several years: "You’ve come a long way, baby."

No, I am not writing a column about Virginia Slims. I am talking about Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa football program.

Ferentz and his staff took over an Iowa program in 1999 that was coming off its worst season since Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner were not yet ready for prime time on NBC’s new show, ‘Saturday Night Live’.

In his final season in 1998, legendary Iowa coach Hayden Fry saw his charges drop eight games and win just three of them. The year before that, a team that had started the season 5-0 and had climbed into the top 10 ended up finishing 7-5 and leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of the Hawkeye Nation.

In Ferentz’s first year, Iowa won just one football game and lost 10 of them. The last time Iowa had a record that bad, well, America was in turmoil and was close to ending its involvement in Vietnam

Hard times had befallen the Hawkeye program, and Ferentz was vilified by a portion of the fan base for a couple of things. One of them being that he was the man behind the wheel and two; HE was the man behind the wheel.

For the Iowa fans that were bitter over Iowa’s ‘non-hire’ of now Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, the 1-10 record was cannon fodder for their anger. Not to mention that Stoops took the Sooners to a bowl game in his first year.

It didn’t matter that in 1999, Fifteen Hawkeye players started for the first time in their career. That list included DL Jerry Montgomery, LB Derrick Davison, LB Fred Barr, DT Corey Brown, DB Shane Hall, LB LeVar Woods and DT Scott Pospisil on defense and OL Eric Steinbach, OL Bruce Nelson, OL Jay Bickford, OL A.J. Blazek, OL Andy Lightfoot, OL B.J. Van Briesen, WR Kevin Kasper and WR Chris Oliver on offense.

Four of those players were freshman, including three offensive linemen and two of them were sophomores.

Iowa also faced the fourth most challenging schedule in America that year.

The Hawkeyes netted 1,028 yards rushing in 1999 for an average of 3.0 yards per carry. For those scoring at home, that is not good. That is not even poor. It was bad. But, it was the hand that Ferentz and his staff were dealt, and the stoic head coach never complained about the aces and eight’s that he had drawn.

What Iowa did have was possibly the best strength and conditioning coach in the nation in Chris Doyle. They had a two-time national defensive coordinator of the year in Norm Parker and they had the ability to keep the hearts and minds of their young players during a very difficult season.

Then came the 2000 season and a record of 3-9. Iowa snapped a 14-game conference-losing skid that year, defeating a ranked Michigan State team in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes also beat Penn State in Happy Valley in overtime in addition to beating #10 Northwestern in Iowa City.

The week before, the Wildcats had put up more than 50-points on Michigan.

Iowa closed the 2000 season with a heartbreaking three-point loss to Minnesota, but they won two of their last three games.

There were still plenty of Ferentz critics on the Internet, on radio talks shows and in the print media. Many of them were louder and prouder when Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners won the National title in just his second year at the school.

‘If Stoops would have come to Iowa, we could have won a lot more games than we have won with Ferentz’ was a common complaint amongst a faction of the Iowa faithful. Some people were just not sold on Ferentz yet. He was a combined 4-19 during his first two years at Iowa, so it’s hard to blame some of the fans for being a bit edgy at that time. But there were a lot of fans who were starting to come around on Ferentz, or at the least, give him more time to show them what he and his coaches could do.

The offensive line was still in a state of disarray. The Hawkeyes gave up 57 sacks in 2000 and netted just 1,090 yards on the ground over the course of a 12 game schedule. Their average yards per rush had dipped to 2.7 and they were losing the time of possession battle.

As Iowa began the 2001 season, there was a lot of optimism amongst the sycophants who think every year is ‘Iowa’s year’. For some reason, I was caught up in the tide of emotion and picked Iowa to win seven regular season games.

They did not disappoint, starting out the season 3-0 before losing four of their next five ball games. Yet, the Hawkeyes managed to finish in a tie for fourth place at 4-4 in the league. They also had one of the highest scoring offenses in school history in addition to one of the top 10 best defenses against the run ever to play at Iowa; all of that in just three years under Ferentz & Co.

But, the 2001 team just couldn’t find a way to win the big games. Iowa lost five games in 2001 by an average of 5.4 points per game and they never lost by more than six points except for their nine-point loss in the Big Ten opener to Purdue.

It was a team that came close to achieving greatness, but still fell just a bit short.

There was also an interesting aside during the winter as rumors swirled in Iowa City about Ferentz possibly being a candidate for a few NFL head coaching positions. It went as far as Ferentz having to make public statements to the contrary, so that the rumors would not damage Iowa’s recruiting efforts.

But clearly, the former NFL assistant coach was on a few short lists of potential candidates, and seemingly every NFL talking head lauded Ferentz as an excellent coach. NFL executives spoke glowingly about the quality of coach that Iowa had in Ferentz; yet, some Iowa fans were still harboring questions about his ability to lead Iowa back to the promised land of annual bowl games and the occasional Big Ten title.

Those NFL rumors turned out to be just that as Ferentz was later inked to a long term contract extension.

When Iowa defeated Texas Tech 19-16 in a thrilling Alamo Bowl game, Ferentz, in an un-Ferentz like public moment, announced to the Iowa fans in attendance that ‘The Hawks are back! Here we go!’

Those words were certainly nourishment for the Iowa faithful to make it through another off-season with hope and optimism in the future of the program, as were some other statistics from the 2001 season.

Iowa nearly doubled its net rushing yards in just one season with the same running back and most of the same linemen. The Hawkeyes gained 2,104 net yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. The Iowa line that was in disarray when Ferentz arrived was now flexing its muscles. Ferentz was expected to rebuild that line, but in such short order? Not even the most optimistic Iowa fan could have expected this exponential turnaround. The 2001 Hawkeyes also allowed just 20 sacks, a reduction of 24 from one year earlier.

Now, Iowa has started the 2002 season by winning four games and losing one game. The lone loss was to in-state rival Iowa State (now ranked #12 in the nation) in a game which Iowa led 24-7 at the half and was dominant in every facet of the contest for two quarters.

However, Iowa could not handle its own good fortune in that game and lost 36-31.

It was at this point that some of the old Ferentz doubters began to prick their ears and once again turned on the radar, looking for chinks in the armor of Ferentz and his staff.

Iowa rebounded the next week by waxing Utah State, but the real test would be at #12 Penn State the following week.

Iowa quarterback Brad Banks blinked in the face of adversity against Iowa State. How would he respond in front of 108,000 fans at Happy Valley in his toughest test of the season?

Would the Hawkeyes give a good account for the success of the program, or did the Iowa State loss reveal serious character flaws in the make up of this Hawkeye team?

Iowa led Penn State by 22 points late into the fourth quarter. They had physically dominated the Nittany Lions for the third straight year. But two turnovers late in the game at the PSU one-yard line allowed Penn State to get back in the game with some aerial heroics.

Penn State tied the game and sent it into overtime, but Iowa took the ball first and scored a touchdown, a Banks to CJ Jones passing play. Iowa’s defense did just enough in forcing Penn State to fourth down, but Nittany Lion quarterback Zack Mills did not have an answer this time.

Iowa let another lead slip away, but the team also won a close ball game. They scored 42-points at Penn State, a tally that would have been unthinkable in the last five years.

Through its first five games, Iowa has gained 1,295 net yards rushing. That bears repeating. In Iowa’s first five games, they have gained more yards rushing than the 1999 or 2000 Iowa teams gained in an entire season.

They are among the nation's elite running teams and Fred Russell is 3rd in the nation in rushing. Iowa’s rush defense is #2 in the nation and Banks is in the top 10 in passing efficiency.

They have dangerous weapons at receiver and possibly the hottest place kicker in all of college football as they head in to this weekend’s Homecoming date against the Purdue Boilermakers.

Chuck Hartlieb was a former 1st team all-Big Ten quarterback at Iowa in 1987 and 1988. His single season and two-year passing totals are the more prolific in Iowa history and he was also a witness to possibly the best football team in Iowa history as a backup in 1985 when Iowa was ranked #1 in the nation for a time that year.

I asked him today where he would rank the 2002 offensive line from what he has been a witness to personally and as a fan, as he might have as good a perspective on this question as any person who is not a member of the Iowa coaching staff.

“We definitely had some great offensive lines in the 1980’s, but being hands on during that period, I think we typically had great team units but only had one or two NFL players on the line at one time.” Hartlieb said

“I think this offensive line squad (2002) might be more like three or four NFL players and I think could easily be the best offensive line in Iowa football history and I just don’t throw that out there. You have to earn that and they have to do it for 12 games, but I think Gallery, Steinbach, Nelson and Porter are all in NFL camps next year and I don’t know if we ever really had that before.”

“I think the neat thing is that typically, and offensive line is very dominant on EITHER the running game or the passing game. It’s extremely difficult to be great in both facets and Brad Banks has all day to throw in the pocket and those guys are knocking people off the ball throughout the game.”

“The only reason the running game is being stopped at all is that teams are putting eight men in the box and blitzing linebackers, but Iowa still is able to run at times against that through their zone blocking schemes. I can’t say enough about them.”

“This is why Kirk Ferentz was brought to Iowa. If there is any one position that you want to be the core of your team and the development of your team, I think that it’s the offensive line and I think that this just spells great things for years to come because now, Ferentz has the nucleus in place.” Hartlieb said.

It’s amazing to see that Ferentz and his staff have turned Gallery, Nelson & Steinbach, all converted tight ends into future NFL offensive linemen. Nelson was also a walk on to the football program.

Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa staff have coached 40 games at Iowa since 1999. They are 15-25 during that time, but they are 13-7 in their last 20 games. Three of those wins have come against opponents ranked #12 in the nation or higher when they played them.

The 98-pound weaklings are now kicking up some sand of their own. And take a look at this for symmetry:

1997: 7-5, bowl loss
1998: 3-8
1999: 1-10
2000: 3-9, won two of last three
2001: 7-5, Bowl win

7, 3, 1, 3 and 7 wins over the last five years. Same backwards as it is forwards. The decline came, leveled out and the progress had been made at the same numerical rate, but it is always harder to climb a hill than it is to go down a hill.

How will the 2002 story end? Iowa is 1-0 in the Big Ten and avoids Ohio State. They have to feel that every game on the schedule is winnable from here on out.

If you are wondering about the symmetry theory, Iowa went 9-3 in 1996 with a win in the Alamo Bowl.

Iowa will likely play 13 games this year. They are almost half way home to the nine win plateau.

Since this is a column, I have no problem in saying the following, which has been and still is my honest opinion: I bought into Ferentz from day one. The first one on one interview I had with the man left me very impressed and his even-keeled approach to rebuilding the program has been very fun to watch.

And now, as HIS program begins to flex its own muscles without relying on the echoes from the past, he is still the same detail oriented person.

In lean times as well as in good times, Iowa has a head coach who does not waver.

The next eight games are going to be a very enjoyable ride and this point in the season is no time for the players and coaches to wax nostalgic and be content with what they have done. In Ferentz-speak, there is still some wood to be chopped, no question about that.

But for the fans and sportswriters, we can take pause to look at just how far this program has come under Kirk Ferentz and his coaching staff, because after Iowa's first five games of 2002, they have the same number of wins (four) than did the 1999 & 2000 teams combined.

To that, I say 'well done'.

Hawkeye NationHawkeye Nation was founded by Jon Miller, and later acquired by Rivals and Sports Illustrated. You can visit them at

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