On Nov. 30, 1998, Bob Stoops accepted the head coaching job at Oklahoma, eliminating the possibility that he'd return to his alma mater. It's impossible not to wonder what would have happened and how long he would have stayed had Stoops gone back to Iowa instead.
Three days after Stoops' decision, Iowa introduced Kirk Ferentz -- who spent the 1980s as the offensive line coach -- as the new head coach to replace the legendary Hayden Fry.
Nineteen seasons later, Stoops has retired from Oklahoma with a national championship and years of consistent success on his resume, leaving Ferentz in Iowa City as the longest continuously employed head coach in college football. (Former Iowa assistant Bill Snyder has coached 25 seasons at Kansas State, but with a three-year break.) Ferentz has guided Iowa through 19 seasons, featuring a 135-92 record, six AP top-25 finishes, two Orange Bowl trips, one Rose Bowl trip and two shared Big Ten championships. He has done this while facing prolonged scrutiny for a conservative style of play, frustrating periods of mediocrity and bloated contracts (particularly the buyouts).
The frequent low-scoring games, the enthusiasm for punting, the forgettable seven- and eight-win seasons … they all make it easy to poke fun at the never-ending Ferentz era at Iowa, which is often the poster child for stereotypes of old-school Big Ten football. His longevity is almost unheard of in modern college football -- TCU's Gary Patterson is the only other FBS coach who started his current tenure before 2005 -- and yet, because of the long-term contracts that have gone beyond what is necessary, Ferentz's extended stay and high salary have become a punch line.
But it has also obscured the fact that Ferentz's high points are underappreciated, lost in the jokes about another punt inside the opponent's 40 and a career that seems to exist outside of modern hot-seat norms.
There's plenty of angst, sure, but the Hawkeyes have never seemed to have the outsized, unreasonable expectations that plague so many other Power Five schools. Iowa is comfortable in its own skin, recognizing that competing for championships on an annual basis is not going to happen, given the isolated recruiting territory the university occupies. There is a ceiling that is not going to be broken every season, and Iowa does its best to maintain a decently high floor through an identity that revolves around developing offensive lines -- a good strategy for a Midwestern team -- trying to win the line of scrimmage and uncovering and developing overlooked recruits. Fourteen decent bowls in the past 16 seasons is an impressive accomplishment. Iowa never falls to the bottom of the bowl pecking order, typically occupying the Outback/Alamo Bowl tier with occasional leaps to major games, and such stability isn't easy for a team that has significant recruiting hurdles to overcome.
The best hope is for the Hawkeyes to consistently make the postseason and have every recruiting class make a memorable run at some point during their college career. That's mostly what has happened under Ferentz.
After a rough start for a couple years, Ferentz's Hawkeyes broke through in 2002 behind Heisman finalist quarterback Brad Banks, who led them to a surprise 11-2 record and the Orange Bowl. It marked the first of three straight seasons in which Iowa finished No. 8 in the AP poll, with three different starting quarterbacks (Banks, Nate Chandler, Drew Tate). It was the type of early-tenure run that can doom a coach to fail in the long run because it set an unsustainably high bar. The Hawkeyes fell back to mediocrity for three seasons before rising again in 2008 with a 9-4 mark -- including a memorable November upset of undefeated Penn State -- followed by an 11-2 record and Orange Bowl win in 2009.
The result was Ferentz's infamous, massive contract extension through 2020, and afterward Iowa struggled to meet expectations for half a decade, including a 4-8 low point in 2012 that sparked warranted skepticism about whether his tenure had run its course, with Iowa needing fresh ideas. But just as patience was running out after 2014's 7-6 campaign, Iowa pulled an undefeated regular season out of nowhere and came one stop away from winning the Big Ten title and going to the playoff. Yes, the Hawkeyes were humiliated by Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but they still went 12-2 in 2015 and reached as high as No. 3 in the AP top 25 before finishing ninth, resulting in one of the most memorable seasons in school history.
Forest Evashevski, who guided national power Hawkeyes teams -- including a national champion -- in the 1950s, coached the four highest-ranked AP teams in Iowa history, according to Sports-Reference. Ferentz has the next five, all better than Fry (whose best team finished 10th) ever coached.
Since 2000 -- let's be kind and throw out Ferentz's 1-10 rebuilding debut -- Iowa is 28th in the FBS in winning percentage, according to Stassen, ahead of Notre Dame, Tennessee, Michigan State, Texas A&M, UCLA and plenty of other schools that believe they should be higher. In Ferentz's 19 seasons, Iowa has more AP top-10 finishes than Miami, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Penn State and Tennessee. It has more conference titles than Nebraska and Tennessee. It has had as many losing seasons as Michigan.
There are a number of middling Iowa seasons in which even just one more win -- perhaps to push the Hawkeyes into the top 25 -- would have made a significant difference in terms of perception. In the context of the past half-century of Iowa football, though, Ferentz's highs have been really high. The down seasons would have been easier to take at a school that plays a more entertaining style of football, but generally speaking, Iowa stays in its lane and plays to its strengths, allowing Ferentz to attain this sort of longevity.
Iowa could look at Big Ten rival Wisconsin and say that there's a model for winning a bit more at a consistently high level -- although the Hawkeyes have the same number of top 10s as the Badgers since Ferentz started -- and it could also look to Big Ten West rivals Minnesota and Illinois or in-state rival Iowa State for nearby examples of schools that haven't touched Iowa's heights under Ferentz.
Iowa football provides a truly satisfying viewing experience only every year few years, but it has nevertheless maintained stability with an admirable capacity to surprise every once in a while, more than most FBS teams. While Iowa will likely finish with seven or eight wins in 2017, it has the offensive line, running game and experience in the defensive front seven to potentially make a surprise run if things break right. We've seen it before. If not, the Outback Bowl or Holiday Bowl isn't so bad.
One top-25 finish in the past seven seasons is hard to stomach, but life could be a lot worse. Over 19 seasons, the Ferentz era has earned some of the criticism and earned many of the jokes, but it also deserves a higher level of appreciation than it typically gets. When the Stoops possibility fell through nearly two decades ago, it's hard to imagine that any reasonable alternative at the time could have worked out better than what Ferentz has accomplished.