Ten years ago, back in the days when he was a universally respected football coach, Kirk Ferentz played an active role in the most inane football game I've ever watched. It was a brisk October day in State College, Pa., in 2004, and Ferentz's Iowa team was on its way to its third 10-win season in a row, and Penn State was in the midst of an early-aughts malaise defined by unprecedented offensive ineptitude. And so Ferentz played it safe, as Ferentz generally tends to do -- his first season as an assistant at Iowa, back in 1981, the acknowledged game plan was essentially to let Reggie Roby punt the ball halfway to the moon and hope the Hawkeyes didn't turn it over -- and what resulted was perhaps the most prototypical example of toothless Big Ten football as has ever been witnessed by post-war American eyes.
As I would not wish the highlights of this game on anyone (and I absolutely refuse to link them here, for fear of receiving some sort of ethical reprimand from the FCC), allow me to explain: With roughly eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Iowa led 6-2, and faced a fourth-and-Pleasant Gap on its own goal line. Iowa had already had one of its punts blocked, resulting in Penn State's only score of the afternoon. A few minutes earlier, Penn State kicker Robbie Gould -- who, just as we all saw coming, would go on to become one of the most accurate placekickers in the history of the National Football League-- missed a 25-yard chip shot wide to the right. Under normal circumstances, no coach in his right mind would essentially dare the opponent to kick a field goal to beat him. But these were not normal circumstances, and Ferentz recognized that. He took the safety rather than punt. Iowa led 6-4, and Ferentz warmed up his closer in the bullpen. Penn State ran three more plays that afternoon: One was an interception, one was a sack and one was a fumble. Ferentz's ultra-reactionary gambit paid off.
Years ago, Centre College, a tiny school in Kentucky, upset Harvard, and all around the town of Danville people painted the words "C-6, H-0" in whitewashed letters. I cannot say the same was done in Iowa City after "I-6, P-4," but strangely enough, it did become a watershed moment in the career of Kirk Ferentz: His father had died a few days before this game, and he was away from the team most of that week, and his tongue-tied post-game interview endeared him to Iowa fans, perhaps in ways he hasn't endeared himself since. Ten years later, Ferentz is often regarded -- both within and outside of his own fan base -- as overpaid and underachieving, an ultraconservative coach in an ultraconservative league who hasn't adapted to the modern precepts of the sport. Ten years later, I-6, P-4 has come to define him, for better and for worse.
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This upcoming season will be Ferentz's 16th at Iowa, a program that has had only two coaches since 1979: The first, Hayden Fry, was a Texas gadfly who might be most famous these days for painting the visitors' locker room pink, and who made just enough Rose Bowls (three) to become a local legend. But in the modern era, that sort of stability, if not accompanied by the sugar rush of periodic high-level success, tends to breed contempt. And so it's gone with Ferentz, who followed up those three 10-win seasons (2002-04) with a three-year record of 19-18, who followed up a 2008-09 rebirth (20 wins, six losses) with a four-year Big Ten record of 15-17, who seems marooned in a zone of mediocrity.
In 2013, after Ferentz's team finished 4-8, Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel called Ferentz one of the five worst coaches in the entire sport; a few months ago, after Iowa's 8-5 "rebound" season, Matt Hayes of Sporting News labeled Ferentz the ninth-best coach in the Big Ten conference, pointing to the fact that eight wins in a weakened Big Ten is nothing much to celebrate. In the wake of these slights, Iowa fans seemed to bounce furiously between agreement and outrage. Once, their coach had been regularly courted by the NFL, and now here he was, the highest-paid employee in the state of Iowa, and nobody seemed to know what to make of him anymore. Was it even his fault?
And I suppose that's the underlying question here: What is the upside for corn-belt schools like Iowa and Nebraska, teams that traditionally stacked-up victories by pounding the football behind big-bellied linemen, when the game appears to evolving in the other direction? Is Iowa's recent malaise a result of disengaged coaching, or a symptom of the shifting universe at large?
In April, Ferentz's lead recruiter, Eric Johnson, walked into his office and told him he was leaving to open a Tennessee-based branch of Culver's, the angina-inducing Wisconsin fast-food chain. Johnson cited exhaustion and a wish to spend more time with his family, but you couldn't help but wonder if maybe it was indicative of something more, if maybe Johnson had decided the specific challenges of selling Iowa football were more difficult than selling hamburgers slathered in butter. (I know that's an unfair comparison, especially if you're reading this before lunch, but you get my point. Side note: Just looking up the nutrition facts for Culver's cheese curds will cause you to gain three pounds.)
This could, of course, the be the year Ferentz renders all this hand-wringing moot. Iowa's schedule is almost laughably facile, devoid of Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State, with road games against four of the more toothless programs in the Big Ten. Quarterback Jake Rudock is one of those hyper-smart dudes who also has the potential to be pretty good, and leading returning rusher Mark Weisman is my favorite Jewish running back since a guy named Jacob Rosenblatt, who doesn't actually exist because I made him up in my basement when I was 9 years old.
It will be surprising -- and perhaps telling -- if Iowa doesn't win at least eight games this season, and while Ferentz's massive buyout affords him job security, the larger question Iowa fans would have to worry about, if 2014 proves to be a bust, is whether this whole thing isn't Kirk Ferentz's fault, but the fault of larger and more pervasive geographic and stylistic forces that extend beyond Ferentz's control. I-6, P-4 was terrible and inane and depressing, but the notion of corn-belt Big Ten football being forever devoid of teeth is a far worse fate to imagine.