Kirk Ferentz is a survivor.
As he prepares for Saturday’s kickoff to his 15th season as the Iowa football coach, Ferentz has developed an appreciation for the journey.
There have been peaks and valleys, Big Ten championships and BCS postseason games surrounded by challenges presented by the need to recover from seasons such as 2012. The Hawkeyes will attempt to rebound from a 4-8 campaign with next weekend’s opener against Northern Illinois.
“It’s a hard race to run, a hard race to win,’’ Ferentz said.
Only three coaches currently working at the Football Bowl Subdivision level have been in same job longer than Ferentz.
Frank Beamer has been at Virginia Tech since 1987, Larry Blakeney has overseen Troy from a Division II program in 1991 to its FBS status today and Mack Brown was hired at Texas in 1998 one year before Ferentz was selected to replace 20-year coach Hayden Fry at Iowa.
The only other coach hired in 1999 still on the job with the same FBS program is Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, who also interviewed at the time to replace Fry.
“In today’s world, it isn’t easy to be somewhere that long,’’ Stoops said. “Just look around. There aren’t many that have stayed in one place that long, currently anyway.’’
Ferentz believes remaining true to core philosophies has positioned Iowa to compete over the long haul.
“The things that make you successful don’t ever change,’’ Ferentz said. “Peripheral things change routinely and you have to constantly be thinking about that, talking about that and assessing how much or how little you do to make an indentation. That’s the key.’’
A willingness to make those tweaks – from approaches in recruiting to nuances of the game or even fashion trends in uniforms – has helped the Hawkeyes sustain a competitive level as other coaches have come and gone.
“When I got here, the two biggest complaints I heard were ‘We don’t spread it out enough,’ which I assume means four wides because Purdue was having success playing ‘Basketball on Grass’ and ‘We don’t blitz enough,’’’ Ferentz said.
“That talk died down a bit in ’02, ’03 and ’04, then you know in ’06 and ’07 it went back up. Now, it’s about tempo but the only two years we’ve had a (Big Ten) championship game, the teams in it didn’t get the memo on tempo … The bottom line is if you’re successful, if you win enough games, then what you’re doing is pretty good no matter what your style may be and if you’re losing, it isn’t enough.’’
Iowa has had enough to reach bowl games 11 times in the past 13 seasons – including six January bowl games – and finish in the upper division of the Big Ten 10 times during that stretch.
The Hawkeyes posted a 38-12 record from 2002-05, the best four-year record in the program’s history, and the first three of Iowa’s five top-20 finishes in the Associated Press poll during the Ferentz era occurred during those seasons.
The development of lightly-recruited players such as Bob Sanders, Brad Banks, Dallas Clark and Robert Gallery helped the Hawkeyes build not only winning records, but future expectations.
“At Iowa, you need to keep an open mind as you recruit,’’ Ferentz said. “It’s more about mentality and personality and perseverance. You have to the have the requisite skill and ability, but the mental part is more important.’’
That, Ferentz believes, is what allowed Sanders, Banks, Clark and Gallery and ultimately Iowa, to succeed.
“Those guys were fun to coach,’’ Ferentz said. “… That is part of the whole idea of anything you do in collegiate sports, a guy improving, striving to push his boundaries and seeing how good he can be.’’
The Hawkeyes enter 2013 on a six-game losing streak, leaving Ferentz with a 100-74 record at Iowa and in a familiar position.
“When we practice now, it’s with a purpose. Guys just aren’t going through the motions,’’ senior defense end Dominic Alvis said.
“I say that because I’ve been through last year. We left this field after playing Nebraska with a terrible taste in our mouths, a 4-8 record. We were home watching bowls. It was the worst Christmas I’ve ever had. … Nobody wants that to happen again.’’
That includes Ferentz.
“When you’re 4-8, everything is bad. Believe me, firsthand, I understand that,’’ Ferentz said.
And as frustrating as a rugged season like that can be, director of athletics Gary Barta studies the track record and puts faith in Ferentz as the Hawkeyes work to rebuild.
“We’ve got a guy in Kirk Ferentz who has proven himself as a leader and a head coach, not only at Iowa but in all of college football,’’ Barta said. “He’s done it before. He’s proven that at Iowa. While 4-8 had us all scratching our heads and upset, you put your trust in history and get ready to go.’’
Iowa has demonstrated an ability to recover from disappointing seasons during the Ferentz era.
Former Hawkeye linebacker Mike Humpal believes the strength of the program is in its foundation.
“The core values and beliefs don’t change,'' Humpal said. "Everything is built off of that. While the level of execution may fluctuate from one season to the next, the strength of the base allows you to recover and succeed again.’’
Former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long believes a combination of young talent and the first significant changes in the coaching staff in Ferentz’s tenure – including the retirement of defensive coordinator Norm Parker and the departure of offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe – factored into last season's results.
“You could see a team in transition as you watched them play, particularly on offense,’’ Long said. “The precision that has been a trademark of Iowa football was missing. While they attempted to downplay that, it does make a difference.’’
Banks understands that as well.
“Every week, with coach O'Keefe, coach Ferentz, it was always about the little things, executing what you were asked to do,’’ Banks said. “We won because we took care of the details.’’
Former Hawkeye Aaron Kampman sees that detail-oriented approach as a reason Iowa can return to the upper echelon in the changing Big Ten landscape.
“With Nebraska coming in and now new divisions, it’s different, but when you approach things the way coach Ferentz does and the way (strength and conditioning coach Chris) Doyle does and guys buy in, things will get done,’’ Kampman said.
But that will never be easy.
Ferentz said he learned during nine years as an assistant on Fry’s staff at Iowa that the Hawkeye job is not an easy one.
“We know we are not going to start on the inside lane year in and year out. That is not how we are,’’ Ferentz said. “Maybe there were some exceptions in the 1950s, but at Iowa pretty much you know where you are going to start so you have to figure out how you are going to get to the front of the pack.’’