Replacing a legend is never easy. On December 2, 1998, Kirk
Ferentz was presented with that challenge.

Beth Dykstra
FILE PHOTO

With Hayden Fry’s retirement after 20 years as
Hawkeye’s head man, Iowa hired Ferentz, who had coached
offensive line for nine years under Fry from 1981 to ’89. He
had three years of head coaching under his belt — Maine from
1990 to ’92 — and was fresh off six years coaching
offensive line for the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.

The challenge proved daunting in Ferentz’s first year, as
the Hawkeyes suffered their worst football season in 26 years. Iowa
went 1-10 (0-8 in the Big Ten) with a win over Northern Illinois.
Ferentz made slight improvements in year two — the Hawkeyes
won three Big Ten games — but still finished 3-9.

Iowa senior running back Jermelle Lewis — who redshirted
during the 2000 season — recalled how Ferentz dealt with the
pressure of replacing Fry.

“It may have been tough on him, but he never showed it
because from the first time I got here, he’s always had the
same attitude and the same mentality — he’s always
positive,” Lewis said. “I remember, I think we were
playing Ohio State at home (the Hawkeyes lost 38-10). We were
really getting beat up on pretty bad. And he was saying the same
things on the sideline — trying to pick guys up — as he
says today and this year.”

Possessing a two-year record of 4-19, Ferentz faced some
grumblings around Iowa City. But he had at least one strong
believer: Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.

Carr, who says he had some friends on the Iowa staff, told
people to give Ferentz a chance:

“You could see at some point there, they were in every
ballgame. Any time you’re in every ballgame and you have a
chance to win it before the fourth quarter and you’ve just
taken over a program the previous year or two … you can just
feel they are starting to turn the corner.”

In 2001, Ferentz began to fulfill Carr’s prophecy, as the
Hawkeyes finished 7-5, including a 19-16 win in the Alamo Bowl over
Texas Tech. But 2002 was the year that brought Ferentz and Iowa
national acclaim.

“We had an excellent football team (in 2002),”
Ferentz said. “We had a very large and very strong senior
class. In my time here, that was by far the most talented group of
guys that we’ve put together.”

Led by quarterback Brad Banks — a Heisman Trophy finalist
— the Hawkeyes won the most games in school history, going
11-2 and earning an Orange Bowl bid. Iowa took a share of the Big
Ten title (just three years after finishing dead last) for the
first time since 1990, and Ferentz was named Associated Press,
Walter Camp Foundation and Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Ferentz enjoyed another solid campaign in 2003, posting a 10-3
record that included a 37-17 shellacking of Florida in the Outback
Bowl.

Finishing eighth in consecutive season-ending AP polls, Ferentz
has compiled the best two-year mark (21-5) in school history. And
in doing so, the coach has made a huge impact on each of his
players.

“I really love Coach Ferentz,” Lewis said.
“Not only is he a good coach and he makes sure to keep things
like discipline in line, but he’s also a father-figure to
like 100-plus guys. Not many coaches can do that.

“He’s helping me become a man right now, as far as
not being on the field. He makes sure that all of us have our
off-the-field things taken care of.”

It’s evident that Ferentz’s greatest attribute as a
coach is his ability to form close relationships with his
players.

“He’s very football savvy and he’s a guy you
can relate to,” Iowa senior defensive end Matt Roth said.
“He’s got a sense of humor. He’s that kind of
coach that’s in the weight room and down on the practice
field and in the meeting rooms — he’s a hands-on
coach.”

Although he’s tight with his team, Ferentz doesn’t
have a problem cracking the whip.

“I’d say he’s a players’ coach, but he
won’t hesitate to get on somebody if they’re not
pushing themselves,” Roth said.

Lewis agrees: “Whenever Coach Ferentz is around, his
presence is felt. It’s an aura that he carries with
him.”

Ferentz also boasts an innate ability to get the most out of his
players. Although Iowa never lands the top-notch recruiting classes
that have become the norm at Ohio State and Michigan, Ferentz
develops players as well as any coach in America. Many of
Iowa’s finest players in the past five years — like
three-time first team All-Big Ten strong safety Bob Sanders and
2003 team MVP and running back Fred Russell — were passed up
by most Big Ten teams coming out of high school because of their
small-stature.

“It’s just providing players with opportunities and
putting them in a position to do big things,” Lewis said.
“Plus, Coach Ferentz is a motivator. He’s really good
at motivating people and giving them confidence to do whatever they
want to do.”

Starting cornerback Jovon Johnson has led Iowa in interceptions
in each of the last two years. But the 5-foot-9, 177-pound would
not be playing major-conference football if it hadn’t been
for Ferentz.

“He gave me the opportunity to be the person and player
that I am on and off the field,” Johnson said. “I
really thank him for what he’s done for me personally
’cause, had he not looked at my tape and given me the
opportunity to come to the University of Iowa, I probably would
have went to Kent State.”

So Carr was right about Ferentz — maybe too right. Iowa
snapped a seven-game losing streak to Michigan in 2002 with a 34-9
thumping at the Big House — the Wolverines’ worst home
loss since 1967 — and then followed that up with a 30-27 win
at Kinnick Stadium last year.

But Ferentz doesn’t take the past two years into account
entering this season’s game.

“We’re clearly a different football team than
we’ve been, and Michigan is clearly still pretty darn
good,” Ferentz said. “I think it would be great if we
could borrow a few of the players that helped us get those (last
two) wins. I don’t think Lloyd would sign that treaty,
though. I’m afraid what he’d ask for in
return.”

After Carr’s early words of support, though, Ferentz may
already be a little in debt.

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