IOWA CITY — The path coach Kirk Ferentz currently walks to reach Iowa football’s new indoor training facility from his office is perhaps eight feet wide and made of dirt and rock. He’ll make at least $3.925 million as the Hawkeyes’ coach in 2013 — the only college football coach making north of $3 million who had a losing season last year, much less a 4-8 campaign. But, for now, he walks the same steps reporters do on a muggy summer afternoon.
The trail wends its way between the school’s Recreation Building, where the dynastic Hawkeye wrestling program holds its camps, and Duane Banks Field, where Jack Dahm headed the Iowa baseball team until his contract was recently not renewed after 10 years and a .438 winning percentage.
The trail passes by a sign that reads “Rally Alley.” A black Iowa shirt tucked into his khaki shorts, the 57-year-old football coach enters the football facility by way of a giant garage-style door, approaching roughly 20 reporters.
“What’s the best way to do this?” Ferentz asks. Then he smiles slightly.
“Should I get my back against the wall? That’s probably not advised, right?”
Four years ago, Ferentz served as lead architect of what might have been Iowa’s best season in a half-century, an 11-2 campaign capped by a dominating Orange Bowl defeat of Georgia Tech. Ferentz then signed what amounted to a work-until-retirement contract — 10 years, more than $36 million — that would help stave off NFL suitors.
The Hawkeyes entered 2010 as Big Ten favorites. They enter 2013 as a remote threat to win their own Legends Division. Many preseason magazines pick Iowa fifth out of six teams.
In the 38 games since that Orange Bowl victory, Iowa won just 19 and finished 10-14 against Big Ten opponents. The program endured 13 players being hospitalized after strength and conditioning workouts — and the resulting investigation that cleared coaches, trainers, the doctor and players of wrongdoing. Because of retirements or departures, including defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski’s move to Nebraska, Ferentz overhauled most of his coaching staff in the last two years. And the Hawkeyes had such a rash of injuries and arrests involving running backs that a popular Iowa football blog, “Black Heart, Gold Pants” referred to the phenomenon as the “Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God.”
when a reporter suggested Iowa’s running back depth is closer to normal, Ferentz had a ready reply. “It isn’t August yet.”
Iowa’s not in the state Ferentz found it in 1999, his first year, when the Hawkeyes started with a 42-7 loss to Nebraska and finished 1-10. And Ferentz has pointed out to local reporters that he’s rallied from mediocrity once before, when back-to-back six-loss seasons in 2006 and 2007 gave way to 2009, when Iowa won the Orange Bowl and quarterback Ricky Stanzi offered an impromptu paean to the United States — “If you don’t love it, leave it! USA, No. 1!” — on the trophy podium after a Fox reporter asked him about football in “Middle America.”
“I must have hit the rewind button on the DVR 10 times that night to watch Stanzi,” said Charlie Narmi, an I-Club booster who lives in Council Bluffs and played for Ferentz as a walk-on. The 24-14 victory over the Yellow Jackets was one of Narmi’s top Hawkeye football memories, along with the 30-25 win over LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, when Iowa hit a 56-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
But Narmi, an Omaha investment adviser who helps run The Narmi Group, said there’s “a sense of frustration” over the last three years.
Ferentz seems to be responding to the change in mood. His offensive coordinator — Greg Davis, in his second year after a long stint at Texas — installed this spring a no-huddle offense to spice up a stodgy pro-style attack. Ferentz is sitting down for the kind of extended interviews that coaches far prefer to give after championship seasons. He dished in May to the Des Moines Register that he pounds pints of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream after games. The enormous contract, which would pay Ferentz a massive buyout were he let go without cause, may be a lock on his job security. But it’s not soothing any competitor’s ego after a 4-8 record last year.
“Last year was disappointing,” offensive lineman Brett Van Sloten said. “There’s no other way to go about that.”
“People aren’t proud,” said Iowa linebacker James Morris, whose dad, Greg, is the Hawkeyes’ equipment manager. “You say you want to put your name on something? Our name’s on it. I don’t know how proud of it people are. That’s the truth. We’re embarrassed.”
Why? A six-game losing streak to end the year that included three-point losses to Indiana and Purdue. The ugliest loss in the streak was a 38-14 home setback to Penn State — a team Iowa’s owned for most of Ferentz’s tenure — on a night when the Hawkeyes had several top recruiting targets in town. The Nittany Lions outgained the Hawkeyes by 295 yards.
“It was one of those games where everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Narmi said.
In late June, Ferentz described Iowa’s final 2012 team meeting after a 13-7 loss to NU. Reality had sunk in. No bowl. No bowl gifts. No final month of bonding for the seniors. A long five weeks until training for 2013 could start.
“Just sitting around looking at the coal in your stocking,” Ferentz said.
The schedule gets harder in 2013. Ohio State and Wisconsin join it. Iowa travels to Iowa State and Nebraska, likely to be an underdog in both games. Michigan and Northwestern, which beat Iowa handily last year, visit Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes open at home against Northern Illinois — the Orange Bowl team that lost to Iowa to start last year, but that is favored to win the MAC again.
Iowa will face that slate with zero experience at quarterback — three players will battle in August for the starting job — and few explosive players on offense who can flip the field on one play. The Hawkeyes finished 113th in scoring offense and 117th in total offense. Aside from Ferentz’s history of rallying after bad seasons, the list of compelling reasons that Iowa will log even eight wins is short.
Ferentz appears optimistic. His offensive line, hit with two season-ending injuries in the Penn State loss, is healthy, and his defensive line has more experience. He said the Hawkeyes made significant strides in the spring. He watched for their response to the losing season — “you can sit around and mope and believe what everybody is saying about you, or you can go back to work,” he said — and liked the results.
“Usually actions have a way of giving you an indication of whether people are thinking all right or not,” he said. “And so far, so good.”
“Guys right now are hungry,” Morris said.
Iowa fans and media share base optimism. Or, at least, faith in Ferentz. When Sports Illustrated reporter Stewart Mandel named Ferentz one of college football’s five worst coaches last week, Hawkeye fans rallied quickly to Ferentz’s defense on Twitter, flooding Mandel with feedback. Columnists lodged their quick defenses.
“I admire Iowans’ loyalty,” Mandel tweeted. “Don’t like an outsider criticizing, I get it. No other coach got such a spirited defense.”
Narmi, who said he “bleeds Hawkeye gold and Bluejay blue” for Creighton basketball, pointed to Ferentz’s manner as one reason for continued support. Narmi compared Ferentz to current CU coach Greg McDermott — coaches who don’t get too high or low and never blame a loss on players.
Can Ferentz pull Iowa football out of mediocrity the way McDermott did recently with the Bluejays? Narmi said yes.
“America loves a good underdog story,” he said.
Said Ferentz: “We’re making improvement — and that’s all you can ever ask a team to do.”
Wins don’t hurt.