Ferentz, 58, entered his 15th season at Iowa as the dean of Big Ten coaches but with something to prove. His tenure is tied for fourth-longest among major college coaches and includes two conference championships and the Hawkeyes’ first victory in a BCS-level bowl since the 1959 Rose Bowl. His teams went 70-31 from 2002 to 2009.
Athletic director Gary Barta has resolutely stood behind his man — reiterating as much in an interview this week. But Ferentz stands to make $3.9 million this year in a contract that was extended through January 2020 after the Orange Bowl victory. That makes him the highest-paid public employee in Iowa and a target of criticism from some fans.
For his part, Ferentz was noticeably more available to local beat reporters this summer, offering no excuses for the dismal end to last season. The laconic coach is aware that his unflappable demeanor, a no-nonsense approach to his craft and a self-deprecating sense of humor become fodder for critics when victories are scarce.
“The bottom line is this — if you’re successful, if you win enough games, then what you’re doing is pretty good, no matter what your style may be,” Ferentz told reporters at the Big Ten meetings in Chicago in July. “If you’re losing, it ain’t good enough. Your personality, your style, whatever. The color jersey you wear.”
The old standard
Those jerseys will remain the familiar black and gold when Iowa takes the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The team is essentially built the same way as past Ferentz squads. He has retooled his coaching staff, hiring six new coaches in the past two years — with all three coordinators new to those roles. That matched the total churn on his staff in the previous 13 seasons.
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis, formerly at Texas, came on board last year. And Iowa is intent on playing at a faster pace this season, already eclipsing 80 offensive snaps three times after averaging 67.5 a year ago. But the strength of the team remains the offensive line and linebackers.
Junior tackle Brandon Scherff, a likely high NFL draft pick, anchors an offensive line that has allowed hulking tailback Mark Weisman, a converted walk-on fullback, to gain 468 yards to rank sixth in the nation.
The linebackers — Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris — are all sure-tackling seniors. They are the key reasons Iowa ranks 12th in the nation in giving up only 91.5 rushing yards per game.
Morris is from Solon, Iowa, in the heart of Hawkeye country. His father, Greg, is the team’s longtime equipment manager. No one is more eager to restore Iowa to gridiron prominence.
“I just always remember feeling the Hawkeye football team was somehow representing me, my family, my town, just blue-collar people who worked hard,” Morris said. “I just want to have a season I can be proud of. Hopefully, leave the program better than I found it.”