TAMPA, Fla. — As Kirk Ferentz tells it, he didn’t know the first thing about Iowa football, Iowa the state or the coach he was interviewing with when a mentor made the arrangements and sent him out to Iowa City more than three decades ago.
He also didn’t know then that he’d one day return as the head coach and never leave again.
Ferentz is a rarity in college football today.
In his 18th season with the Hawkeyes, who he’ll lead against Florida in the Outback Bowl Jan. 2 in Tampa, he is tied with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops as the longest-tenured coach at the FBS level.
He says it’s because he found a special place that gave him the patience and commitment to build and run the program his way. Leadership that stuck with him through a 4-19 start over his first two seasons and the occasional lull here and there since.
While coaches around the country routinely jump jobs for the next paycheck or get run off after just a few underwhelming years — in either case acknowledging that it’s merely how the business of college football operates today — Ferentz isn’t going anywhere.
He signed a contract extension before the season that runs into early 2026, and he is so closely identified with not only his school but his (adopted) state like few peers.
But no, he says, there was never any sort of master plan for this.
“I was really off the pickle boat when I ended up in Iowa. Don’t ask me how I got there,” he joked earlier this month. “I was a GA at Pitt in 1980. Somehow, someway in 1981 I became the (offensive) line coach for Hayden Fry, a man I had never heard of in a state that I had to look on a map to see where it was. But little did I know what I was walking into.”
A blueprint for success
Florida coach Jim McElwain talks a lot about the importance of institutional support, from the university leadership on down to every last rung of the staff.
It’s the bedrock of building a program, he believes. Without that support, there cannot be growth or sustained success.
He most recently brought this up in talking about his former boss Nick Saban at Alabama and the near-dynasty Saban has built with the Crimson Tide.
And in a different way, he also sees it in his Outback Bowl counterpart.
Ferentz hasn’t won a national championship at Iowa like Saban, but he’s built a culture, a “blueprint” that has endured the ebbs and flows for nearly two decades now.
“At one time it was the norm. Now it’s totally, doesn’t happen,” McElwain said of Ferentz’ longevity at one school. “And yet, I think he’s a special guy. Obviously what they’ve done there and what he’s built is pretty fantastic. And shoot, some of the assistants, take a look at their longevity. It’s pretty cool.
“It’s just a blueprint. What you do is, look, there’s a certain set and a certain way of doing things. He does it that way and he does it the right way. They’ve gotten players in there that believe in how he does it and what he’s doing and those guys perform well. That’s a credit to him and the people there believing in him.”
Ferentz especially needed that belief at the start.
After taking over for Fry, who had elevated a floundering Iowa program while going 143-89-6 over 20 seasons there, Ferentz went 1-10 in his first season and winless in Big Ten play. The next year, his Hawkeyes started 1-8 before winning two of their final three games.
Two years later, though, Ferentz led Iowa to an 8-0 Big Ten record, an Orange Bowl appearance and an 11-2 finish.
He’s had five 10-win seasons overall in his tenure, including a 12-2 mark and another perfect 8-0 Big Ten record last fall, but in a different time and place there’s no telling if he would have survived those early struggles.
“I’ll tell you, when we were 1-10 or 2-18, we were testing everybody’s patience,” he said. “That was before the internet and before all the FireFerentz websites, all that stuff. But again, I’m not sure there are a lot of places where they’d allow you to do that. And people did have the patience. I think the people that really counted saw growth behind the scenes. …
“Everybody was a friend last year, but when we were 4-8 in 2012, the people that really counted were so strong. To find that anywhere else in the country … I’m sure there are other places like it, but there aren’t a lot of them. You can probably count them on one hand.”
And after all these years, Ferentz has left his stamp on the Hawkeyes.
The former offensive line coach has routinely built teams known for their physical play and capable rushing attacks.
He’s thankful that he isn’t in a coaching job heavily scrutinized for the star rating of the recruits he and his staff sign. He says he learned a long time ago from legendary Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable that sometimes that best fits aren’t always the most decorated.
And he proudly touts that Hawkeyes strength coach Chris Doyle is the highest paid at that position in the country, with a reported base salary of $625,000 this year, according to USA Today.
“There’s a reason for that. If we don’t have the best strength program we’re not going to be able to compete. We can’t just do it, because we’re not going to be a Combine team, so we better find other ways to do it.”
After 18 years, Ferentz has no doubt found his way.
In it for the long haul
Ferentz, who is 135-91 overall with the Hawkeyes, is the first to admit this 18-year run at Iowa, heck, this coaching career in general was not exactly a plan he scripted at any point.
He was thinking about going to grad school at one point to pursue an MBA when his coaching mentor, Joe Moore, refocused his career goals.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to be a coach or do you want to go to school?’ That was the last I said anything about that,” Ferentz recalled.
Moore, who coached Ferentz in high school just outside of Pittsburgh, went on to become a highly-regarded offensive line coach at Pitt and later Notre Dame. He brought Ferentz on as a graduate assistant at Pitt and then set up the fortuitous interview with Fry in Iowa City that set all this in motion.
“He treated me like a son. He was so good to me. I practically lived with him in ’80. He got me the job. He’s the reason I got the job with Coach Fry. He talked him into it on the phone. I don’t know how he did it, and it’s a good thing I got the job because if I had stayed another year at Pitt I probably would have been divorced. My wife would have left me because I spent so much time with Joe. I was trying to just soak everything in I could, learn everything I could from him,” Ferentz said.
“Then I go out to Iowa and spend nine years with Coach Fry. Are you kidding me? I didn’t even know who he was. Square-jawed Texan, ex-Marine. That’s what I knew. I got a haircut, put on a tie and I’ve got an interview. So it’s hardly like it’s been a master plan.”
After working as the offensive line coach at Iowa from 1981-89, Ferentz left to become the head coach at Maine from 1990-92 before joining Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns staff in the NFL.
Ultimately, he’d find his way back to Iowa City to take over for Fry in 1999 and that’s where he’s remained since.
Ferentz has had opportunities to leave, but he’s never found the motivation to do so.
He’s proud to say that he’s had three kids play for his program, spanning 14 years. He’s had five kids in all grow up in the Iowa City community, where he says he such a part of the scenery by this point that he can make his daily coffee run (or two) and not get bothered by anybody.
After stints as the offensive line coach with the Browns and the Baltimore Ravens in the 1990s before his return to Iowa, Ferentz had been rumored as a potential fit for several NFL jobs over the years, mostly recently 2011 and 2012 with the Kansas City Chiefs. Then-Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli was a friend from their days together with the Cleveland Browns, and if Ferentz was ever going to leave Iowa, he acknowledges, it would have been to work for a trusted friend like that.
It never materialized, though. His youngest son had his college career ahead of him still and again, Ferentz felt there was something special about Iowa.
“Some people are smart enough to know when they’ve got a good job,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t, but when you’ve got a good job it’s smart to try to hang onto it and see if you can maybe stay a while.”
Again, he’s managed that as well as anybody.
He’ll be the first to note that doesn’t mean there aren’t fans who would like to see him go at times. Like when the Hawkeyes went 4-8 in 2012 or, as he quipped, as recently as a couple months ago after they lost 41-14 to Penn State to fall to 5-4 before knocking off then-unbeaten Michigan the next week to launch a three-game winning streak.
But the support hasn’t wavered in the most important places. Iowa gave him that latest long contract extension before this season that could take him through the end of his career.
“In today’s world, what have you done for me lately is kind of the mantra,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said. “I have thousands of advisors trying to tell me every time we lose a game, it doesn’t matter what our record is that year, hundreds of people saying I ought to be fired, he ought to be fired. But I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen a coach that fits better, that’s about everything we’re about and that has proven over and over that he can win.
“In the short window, you go from Penn State this year in one game when hundreds of people decided that we both ought to be fired, to the next week you beat the No. 2 team in the country. So I think what you do, you just keep looking at the big picture. When we a hit a lull, you lean on his past demonstrated success and you just forge through it.”
That extension, which reportedly pays Ferentz $4.5 million annually, has not come without criticism.
Barta’s heard it. He gets the questions, and he has his answer ready.
“I’ve told a lot of people who would listen, because of all those factors I just mentioned — the fit, the longevity — I want Kirk to retire at Iowa, and he wants to retire at Iowa,” Barta said. “So this was just a statement saying, who knows if he’ll work that entire 10 years, but we’re going to forge ahead under his leadership. He’s our guy. People have said, ‘Boy, that buyout is significant. It’s huge.’ That’s true if we plan to use it. We don’t plan to use it.”
It may not have been so clear all those years ago when he first arrived, but it’s actually not that hard to see now how a guy from Pittsburgh ended up returning to Iowa City and never leaving.