Steven M. Sipple: Even ardent Husker fans should tip cap to Ferentz’s staying power

August 1, 2018

You surely can find Iowa football fans who have “Ferentz fatigue.”

That happens when a head coach -- in this case Kirk Ferentz -- has been in charge of a program for two decades.

Funny thing is, some Nebraska fans might have “Ferentz fatigue” as well, tired of his Hawkeyes hammering the Huskers.

Even the most ardent Nebraska fan might consider tipping his cap to Ferentz. He’s made it to his 20th season as Iowa’s head coach and is secure in his job, an anomaly in the college game. His contract runs through the 2025 season at $4.5 million a year.

You can call him boring. I’ll go with bad you-know-what.

He’s held off the wolves in a quiet, dignified, almost mind-numbing manner.

Last week in Chicago, the 62-year-old Ferentz (143-97 at Iowa) fielded questions during Big Ten Media Days about being on the cusp of passing Hayden Fry as the school’s all-time victories leader. Ferentz was polite even though he tends to eschew the spotlight.

“If you do something that brings the spotlight, then so be it -- that’s usually a pretty good thing and we’ve had some good moments,” he said. “But that’s not what motivates you. That’s not what you live for, certainly.”

No, he doesn’t live to beat Nebraska, although Iowa’s captured four of the past five games in the series, including the past two by a combined 96-24.

If Ferentz derives extra joy from those blowouts, he wasn’t indicating it last week. Then again, well, he’s got that poker face.

“To me, the fun part about sports -- the fun part about team activities -- is the day-to-day, the working part of it,” he said. “You know, aiming for something and working toward it, with the camaraderie and interaction of the people involved, that’s the best part about coaching.”

He played it close to the vest when asked about new Nebraska head coach Scott Frost perhaps gunning for Iowa.

“I don’t think they’re just gunning for us,” Ferentz said. “My guess is Scott wants to gun for everybody. That’s what we all do. We all have the same goal. We’re trying to, in our case, find a way to get to Indianapolis.

“Scott’s done a phenomenal job in a fairly young coaching career, did a great job as a player, and he certainly knows the culture of Nebraska better than anybody. To me, it made such a great amount of sense for him to be the hire there. I’ll be shocked if they don’t do a really nice job there.”

For now, though, Iowa has the upper hand, and it’s not close. Ferentz’s crew prevailed 40-10 in 2016 and 56-14 last November in Lincoln. I never dreamed the Hawkeyes would dominate the Huskers to that extent.

I also never thought that when Tom Osborne retired following the 1997 season, Nebraska would cycle through four head coaches.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s had only two in nearly 40 years. Fry was 143-89-6 from 1979 to 1998.

Ferentz’s program is indeed somewhat predictable. It typically will tally between six and eight wins and every so often hit it big (11-2 in 2009, 12-2 in 2015) with a veteran roster. He’s made adjustments along the way. For instance, Iowa went to in-season morning practices in 2015, something Nebraska this season will do for the first time.

Ferentz has adjusted to the faster pace of recruiting and has strong opinions on the matter. To wit: He prefers that the early signing period occur in August instead of December.

“We felt like the guys who signed with us last December, 100 percent of them would’ve done that in August,” he said. “We feel that way right now about the kids who are committed to us.

“It doesn’t really matter how I feel about it,” he added. “It’s just where we’re going, so we have to make the adjustments.”

Ferentz’s program proceeds with a level of consistency that must be at once satisfying and maddening for Hawkeye fans. Look for seven or eight wins again this season. Or maybe we’ll see another rise to a double-digit win total. After all, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and quarterback Nate Stanley (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) have a year in the fire together. There’s much more experience in the receiving corps, with junior tight end Noah Fant, an Omaha South graduate, leading the way.

Most important, Iowa’s schedule is infinitely more manageable than, say, Wisconsin or Nebraska’s.

Plus, don’t underestimate the importance of quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe, who rejoined the program last season after a stint as an NFL assistant.

“I think we’ve got a really good system of communication. All three of those guys are on the same page. Everything about our offensive flow right now is entirely different than a year ago,” said Kirk Ferentz, whose team opens the season Sept. 1 against Northern Illinois.

With a win, he will make history.

“I think about all the games we coulda-shoulda won. Had we won one of those, this would all be done,” he said. “We wouldn’t be talking about it this summer. But bigger picture-wise, it’s a reminder of how fortunate I feel every time I get to go do anything as the football coach at Iowa.”

He’s done it for 20 years, a significant achievement in a volatile profession.

Just ask any Nebraska fan.

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