When Kirk Ferentz took over following the 20 year tenure of his former boss Hayden Fry, the cupboard of talent was relatively bare in Iowa City. However, just like his predecessor, Ferentz was able to raise the level of the program to conference champion or contender in just a few seasons.
Fry won conference titles in his 3rd, 7th, and 12th seasons (1981, 1985, 1990). Although there weren’t huge dips in program performance between these championships, these separated championship seasons may be referred to as Fry 1.0, Fry 2.0, and Fry 3.0. (Info on Hawkeye history here)
Ferentz is quickly approaching the two decade tenure of Fry, as 2014 is his 16th season at the helm. Just like Fry, Ferentz’s tenure has been highlighted by taking the program out of the dumps to championship caliber on two different occasions.
Using the same labeling metric for the good times as was used for Fry’s tenure, “Ferentz 1.0” happened between 2002 and 2004 (his 4th, 5th, and 6th seasons). The Hawkeyes won two conference titles and won 10 or more games each of these seasons, highlighted by an 8-0 conference record and Orange Bowl appearance in 2002. The program then dipped back to 6 to 8 wins per season until “Ferentz 2.0,” which happened in 2008 and 2009.
Once again, Iowa won more than 10 games in 2009 after a 9-4 record in 2008, and had it not been for an injury to starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi in November, the Hawkeyes may have won the conference title instead of surrendering it to Ohio State in an overtime game in Columbus. Still, even without a conference title, the Hawkeyes played in, and this time won, a major bowl game at the Orange Bowl once again.
However, the program has slipped back to middle-of-the-pack in the past four seasons, and this included the 4-8 season in 2012, which was Ferentz’s worst outside his first two seasons rebuilding the program. That has led to questions of whether Ferentz and his high salary are worth it, although the buyout remains very high considering his contract runs through 2020.
According to the recent USA Today report (our related story here), Kirk Ferentz makes just north of $4 million a year, ranking in the top 10 coaching salaries in all of college football. His buyout entitles him to about 75% of the contract money through 2020, which is over $13 million dollars according to Forbes. Iowa’s athletic department could pay that amount, but it is still a big hit that strongly discourages the firing of Ferentz for at least a couple more years.
But with the salary being so high, the Iowa fan base continuously wants to know: when and if will “Ferentz 3.0” happen? Why pay all this money unless there is a legitimate payoff coming?
That’s what makes the next two games on Iowa’s schedule so vital. Iowa has not won a division title since the Big Ten split into divisions, and no nine or 10 win seasons have happened since Ferentz 2.0 in 2008-2009. Despite the disappointing losses to rivals Iowa State and Minnesota, those goals could still be achieved with wins over Nebraska and Wisconsin (and one Minnesota loss in the next two weeks, which seems more likely than not).
Furthermore, thanks to a very light national schedule of big games this week, Wisconsin’s visit to Iowa will have more attention than usual, especially considering Melvin Gordon’s sudden rise in the Heisman race. That makes this a big statement weekend for the Hawkeyes, something Iowa really has not had since that 2009 game at Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
A win this weekend and next weekend signals that the 4-8 season in 2012 was just one of those weird blips on the road back to prominence and national relevance. In addition, it would add to the depth of the Big Ten conference and perhaps signal another two or three-year run at or near the top of the conference.
That level of success for a third time would match the three peaks in Hayden Fry’s career in Iowa City and would likely keep fans happy through the end of Ferentz’s contract, or his retirement, which could come sooner than 2020 if things are going well (he may want to go out on top).
By contrast, losing this weekend or both of the next two games would result in yet another 7 or 8 win season, which is where Iowa has been stuck for the past six seasons. That would make the program seem stagnant and not a true contender for the West Division, which is not what Hawkeye fans will accept, as evidenced by the trouble selling out games in 2013 and 2014.
With increased pressure to perform right now, Kirk Ferentz and his staff may not be able to handle all the added pressures and expectations. If no improvement happens, or if another disaster 4-8 type season occurs, Ferentz will likely not be saved by his buyout after 2016 or 2017. That would put Ferentz a full decade away from Ferentz 2.0 and well over a decade away from the last Big Ten championship, and his tenure at Iowa would end on a very sour note.
Considering his losing record to Iowa State (7-8) and his terrible record against the top team in the conference over the last decade, Ohio State (1-8), he would likely be remembered much like John Cooper at Ohio State. A decent coach, but no Woody Hayes (or in this case, no Hayden Fry).
Thus, while it may just look like a simple good opportunity for Iowa over the next two weekends, the effect on Kirk Ferentz and his legacy at Iowa cannot be understated. The next two weeks will likely begin to determine how the history books and Hawkeye fans will remember this period of Iowa football history.
For the sake of Kirk Ferentz, hopefully it goes well.