Kirk Ferentz vividly remembers the day — and the details — when he started thinking about being the football coach at Iowa.
It was 20 years ago and Ferentz was the offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Ted Marchibroda for the three-year-old Baltimore Ravens. One day in late November, general manager Ozzie Newsome asked him to turn on ESPN. Quickly.
It was the Monday afternoon after Iowa’s last game. At the time, the then-43-year-old Ferentz had been in the NFL since joining Bill Belichick’s staff with the Cleveland Browns in 1993.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you walk down to the other end of the building,’ because they had ESPN,” Ferentz recalled Tuesday. “Coach [Hayden] Fry’s press conference was on and he thought I would want to see it.”
Ferentz, who had worked for the legendary Fry as his offensive line coach at Iowa from 1981 through 1989, was surprised by the sight of his former boss retiring, even at age 69.
“It was just kind of surreal,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “You never think of your dad dying in life. Most probably thought Coach Fry would never retire.”
It turned out Fry had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Ten days after Fry announced his retirement, Ferentz was hired as the team’s new coach.
At the time, it wasn’t well-received by Hawkeyes fans, who wanted Bob Stoops, a former team captain and All-Big Ten safety who had played for Fry at Iowa and was Florida’s defensive coordinator at the time.
“Ferentz — not a household name just yet” was the headline in the Daily Iowan, with a subheadline that read, “The new UI football coach has Hawkeye fans hopeful, even though they’re not sure who he is.”
Ferentz has now been head coach at Iowa as long as Fry.
When the Hawkeyes opened this season with a 33-7 victory over Northern Illinois, the 63-year-old Ferentz passed Fry and became Iowa’s winningest coach with 144 victories.
Iowa has added four more wins to that total in starting 5-1, losing only at home to Wisconsin, 28-17, on Sept. 22. Currently ranked 19th in the country, the Hawkeyes will host Maryland on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
“I can tell you, in 1981 when we came here from Pittsburgh, I didn't even know where Iowa was,” Ferentz said. “And the second question was, ‘Why would anybody live there?’ ”
Ferentz said he found out “what a quality place” Iowa City was during that nine-year stay on Fry’s staff. But coming back as a head coach was not exactly a honeymoon.
In his final season, Fry’s team went 3-8. In Ferentz’s first season, the Hawkeyes slipped to 1-10 and didn’t improve much his second year, going 3-9.
By 2002, the Hawkeyes shared the Big Ten championship, going 8-0 in the league and 11-2 overall.
Since his first two years, Iowa has had winning records in 14 of 17 seasons, going 6-7 in 2006, 6-6 in 2007 and 4-8 in 2012. When Stoops retired last year at Oklahoma, Ferentz became the longest-tenured coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“Certainly Coach Ferentz is one of the best coaches in our game,” Maryland interim coach Matt Canada said Tuesday. “He has been there for such a long time and continues to be the standard for technique, sound football. They do everything right on offense and on defense they know what they're doing and they know who they are.”
Asked about whether he was given time to rebuild Iowa because of his connection to Fry, Ferentz goes back to his own childhood in Pittsburgh, where he grew up a fan of the Steelers.
It wasn’t just the team’s success and consistency that Ferentz thought about but its coaching stability.
“If there’s been a good example in pro football of staying the course, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Ferentz said. “They’ve had three head coaches since 1969. And if you look now more modern day, the more stable franchises are the more successful ones.
“Baltimore is in that category. New England, Pittsburgh remains in that category. I think it takes a real special group of people in the leadership base that have to understand that. The Rooneys clearly understood that and still do.”
Ferentz has a similar feeling about Iowa.
“I think Iowa kind of parallels the Steelers in some way because we’ve had two head coaches now since 1979,” he said. “And we’ve only had three [athletic directors] since 1970. That’s unheard of.
“I think we have a culture here where they understand that you might stub your toe and not win the championship game, and when you don’t, it’s all about addressing problems rather than cleaning house and try to start over.”
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been on Ferentz’s staff for all 20 seasons, and is one of three assistants who’ve been with Ferentz for at least 15 years.
“Coach Ferentz came in here, he obviously had a plan being with Hayden Fry, and the other good coaches he’d been around in the NFL. … As a head coach, he’s very understanding, he easy to work for and you want to work with,” Parker said Thursday. “I think he makes the atmosphere the way he is as a person. Not only is he a great coach, he’s a great person to be around and be able to work with.”
Canada has matched wits with Ferentz’s teams as an assistant at Indiana. While he has to prepare for the personnel on this year’s team, Canada said earlier this week that the style of play doesn’t change much.
“The great thing about that program is they have a system that they continue to learn and teach and go, and over time those players know what it is,” Canada said.
Ferentz said he has changed with the times.
“You have to,” Ferentz said. “It’s an annual discussion or project. Every day you’re looking for ways to do things. To that point, we have a certain identity and it depends on where we’re at.
“A year ago, Central Florida — and this year — they’re playing really good football, they’re wide open. From what I understand, they have a lot of good skill players. This part of the country we're more line-of-scrimmage oriented.”
The difference-maker for the Hawkeyes, and Ferentz, is often at quarterback. This year, junior Nate Stanley has thrown for 300 yards or more in three of the past four games, including 320 and a career-high six touchdowns in last week’s 42-16 win at Indiana.
“Historically you need [at Iowa] something to help you get over the top a little bit,” Ferentz said. “It may be at quarterback. Nate certainly has a chance to be that guy. C.J. Beathard was kind of that guy for us in ’15.
“One of our best stories, in 2002, Brad Banks had never started a college game as a fifth-year senior and ended up being the runner-up to the Heisman to Carson Palmer.”
Ferentz doesn’t seem to have a timetable for when he plans to follow the now 89-year-old Fry into retirement.
While he never quite looked at Iowa as his “dream job” when he was the head coach at Maine for three years or an assistant in the NFL, Ferentz said he has had a dream career.
“Every job I’ve had I've really enjoyed,” he said. “Whether it was teaching at Worcester Academy like 100 years ago and when I came here in ’81, same thing. Then I coached in the NFL with Cleveland and Baltimore, and I totally enjoyed every day.”
The past 20 years haven’t changed that.