The tale of two coaches
Fifteen years ago today, Kirk Ferentz was introduced as Iowa’s head football coach. And the fortunes of Iowa football made a historic turn.
Sunday was also a monumental day: It marked the 15th anniversary of Bob Stoops being named the new head football coach at the University of Oklahoma. And likewise — Oklahoma football would once again return to glory.
One coach restored. The other resurrected. All of it made possible by one meeting in Atlanta 15 years ago.
During the winter of 1998, two of college football’s proudest programs completed their coaching searches. In Iowa City, newly appointed head coach Kirk Ferentz took on the unenviable role of replacing the iconic and beloved Hayden Fry. Nearly 700 miles to the southwest, Stoops sat in his new office, tasked with leading Oklahoma back to prominence.
The glory days of Barry Switzer and Billy Sims were a distant memory among the Oklahoma following. While fans in Norman, Okla., were still in search of the conference crown that had eluded them for more than a decade, the Kinnick faithful just wanted to have a football team to believe in again.
“I think there was an expectation that I should have just gone to Florida and offered Bob Stoops the job,” said former Iowa Athletics Director and current Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, 15 years after leading the coaching search that altered the face of the football programs at Iowa and Oklahoma.
“I got blamed for letting him get away to Oklahoma.”
Fred Mims, an Iowa associate athletics director who played a major role in the Hawkeye coaching hunt in the late-90s, remembers exactly what Iowa’s coaching search committee wanted all those years ago.
“We were looking for someone who knew Iowa. Someone who had a sense and a feel for Iowa. That was what set us out to find that perfect person.”
On Nov. 30, 1998, Iowa fans believed they had found that perfect hiring.
It made sense that Stoops would follow his former coach after the legendary figure Fry announced his retirement on Nov. 22, 1998, while battling prostate cancer. For an Iowa record 238-straight games, the Hall of Famer had patrolled the Kinnick Stadium sidelines. Stoops was on the field for game No. 1 as a freshman safety in 1979.
He was there for the team’s first winning season in 20 years in 1981, when the Hawkeyes knocked off two top-10 opponents en route to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth. The following year, Stoops was named the Most Valuable Player in Iowa’s Peach Bowl victory over Tennessee, the program’s first postseason win since the 1959 Rose Bowl, only the third in program history.
And so, led by Bowlsby and Mims, the university’s seven-person search committee set up a meeting in Atlanta to discuss the Hawkeyes’ options with Florida’s defensive coordinator, regarded as one of the nation’s hottest assistant coaches.
“Keep in mind the University of Florida was one of the well-known programs in the country; its head coach [Steve Spurrier] at the time was very well-known and well-respected as well,” Mims said. “That put a heightened interest in the individuals in the college ranks.”
The heightened interest in Florida’s defensive guru was warranted.
Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder knew all about the potential Stoops possessed when he named the 31-year-old to his staff in 1990. The two had faced off in practice for four years a decade earlier, after Snyder followed the legendary Fry to Iowa to run the offense in 1979. That same year, a freshman safety named Stoops arrived on campus in Iowa City.
With Snyder orchestrating the Wildcat offense and Stoops taking control of the defensive side of the football, the two oversaw a radical transformation in Manhattan, Kan. One of the nation’s worst programs won 35 games and made three bowl appearances in the next four seasons.
The success caught the eye of Spurrier, who picked Stoops to run his defense in Gainesville. A Stoops-led defense guided the Gators to a national championship during 1996, his first year in charge.
Stoops’ ability to lead a team was undeniable. His credentials as a coach, no longer questioned. Just a few years later, after turning down the head-coach positions at Minnesota and Arkansas, Stoops waited in the South, ready to hear what his alma mater had to say, with an offer from the Sooners on the table.
“Stoops was absolutely the runaway fan favorite and leader in the rumor-mill clubhouse,” remembers Gary Dolphin, who was hired as the “the Voice of the Hawkeyes” in 1996. “Coach Fry wanted one of his disciples to be the next head coach.”
To this day, the events that transpired in that late November meeting remain unclear to the public.
“All of the interviews took place over six or seven days; it was a pretty crazy chase for a while there,” said Bowlsby in a seemingly rare candid moment.
The meeting itself seemed a formality to many in the Hawkeye State. Rumors had swirled for weeks across message boards and media outlets. A week after Fry’s retirement, the Gainesville Sun reported that both Bowlsby and the former coach would travel to Florida to name Stoops the 26th head coach in the program’s history. The report included a timetable and salary figures. The only thing left to do was put pen to paper.
But Bowlsby squashed the rumor, and WHO-TV in Des Moines reported that while Stoops did say he was interested in returning to Iowa, he had received a “good offer” from Oklahoma. And when Bowlsby told Stoops that the committee didn’t feel it could make a decision without interviewing the final candidate on Nov. 30, Stoops called the Sooners to accept their head-coach vacancy. A day later, Stoops was named the head man at Oklahoma.
And so, the prodigy who was groomed by Fry, competed against Snyder, and blossomed under Spurrier, headed to Norman.
“Oklahoma knew that he was deep in the mix at Iowa, so they intelligently said, ‘We have to have an answer in the next 24 hours,’ ” Bowlsby recalls. “I had made a commitment to interview Kirk. He was the last interview.”
Fans across the Hawkeye State were outraged with the indecision. The media wanted answers. Everyone wanted some sort of explanation. They even turned to Bowlsby’s wife, Candice Bowlsby, for a statement from her husband. But the local media were told they would have to wait.
Bowlsby, meanwhile, was out of town, interviewing the candidate who eventually gave Iowa fans the success they had been longing for.
“Coach Stoops was gone by the time we made the decision,” Bowlsby said. “Coach Ferentz did a great job, and you know, the rest, as they say, is history.”
The growing process
Andrew Baylock has been involved in the University of Connecticut football program for nearly 50 years as a member of the Division of Athletics since 1964. He sounds like a football coach. His voice, deep and booming, comes across as direct and matter-of-fact.
But when you bring up the name of one of his former players, Baylock’s voice changes pitch. The excitement and giddiness he exhibited is contagious. Kirk Ferentz is one of his “all-time favorite guys,” he said. And it shows. At one point, he actually described his former player as a “dependable, accountable, responsible, loyal, well-spoken, self-disciplined, respectful young man.”
“It was just a pleasure to watch him grow,” Baylock said.
That growing process began at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh, where a young Ferentz excelled as a two-sport athlete on the baseball diamond and gridiron. But what drove the old Yankee Conference’s Connecticut Huskies to send a recruiter to the Steel City was the 18-year-old’s relentless work ethic in the classroom.
“You have two kinds of guys who come to school: student-athletes and scholarship athletes,” Blaylock said. “Scholarship guys get their Cs, move on, and do their thing. Kirk was a student-athlete.”
That combination of athleticism and academic standing earned Ferentz a scholarship with the Huskies, and it didn’t take long for the linebacker to make his presence felt in Storrs, Conn.
“You earn respect,” Baylock said. “Your peers are not just going to pick just anyone to lead them, they choose somebody that they respect. Kirk was that guy.”
Meanwhile, Stoops was making headlines for his play on the field as well.
Stoops an exception
Football is a physically demanding sport. If the theory is true that the game becomes more difficult with each new level an athlete obtains, Stoops would be the exception.
As a prep athlete at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, Stoops excelled on both sides of the ball, refining his craft under the tutelage of his father, Ron Sr., who served as the school’s defensive coordinator for 28 years.
Bob and his three brothers had a special relationship with their father, bonded by their love for the defensive side of the football.
“I remember Ron taking films home rather than watching them here at school,” said Stoops’ high-school football coach, Don Bucci. “That’s where all of his kids would be while he was breaking down the film, so they got an idea of what their father was doing on the field. No surprise they all became defensive coaches.”
Ron Stoops Sr. died after collapsing on the field while coaching for Cardinal Mooney in 1988. Days later, the elder Stoops was laid to rest with a No. 41 Iowa jersey by his side, the number his three sons wore while playing under Fry. His presence can still be felt on the sidelines his sons now patrol every Saturday, especially in Norman.
“He had a very strong impact without pushing anything on me and all of my brothers in that he was around sports every day of his life,” Stoops recalls about his father. “I just grew up in locker rooms and on courts and fields my whole life. He never had to push anything on us because it was all we knew.”
College football wasn’t much different for Stoops. In four seasons under Fry, Stoops lettered in every season for the Hawkeyes on defense — something rarely done in the program’s long and storied history. Stoops’ game was based on instinct.
“He played that strong safety where he would come up and just love to pop people,” said Bucci, the memories of his former player still vivid in his mind. “He was a tough, tough, tough, tough player. He enjoyed contact.”
Bucci chuckled. “That’s Bobby.”
Stoops led the Hawkeyes in interceptions in two of his four years on campus. He ranks 18th in Iowa history with 8 career interceptions, and his 230 tackles are good enough for 44th in the Hawkeye record books. Only eight other players in school history have finished in the program’s top 20 in interceptions and top 50 in tackles during their careers with the Black and Gold. He was recognized as one of the hardest hitters in the Big Ten during his time in Iowa City, and he finished his college career with All-American, All-Big Ten, and team MVP honors in 1982.
The unknown candidate
While the national and Big Ten spotlight made Stoops a no-brainer for a post-career hiring with any coaching staff, Ferentz spent time at Worcester Academy and Pittsburgh before crossing paths for the first time with Stoops at Iowa after the 26-year-old was named to Fry’s staff in the early ’80s.
“I just remember Coach Ferentz coming in, I think it was my junior year before the 1981 season, and thinking how young he looked,” said Stoops nearly 25 years after meeting Ferentz. “He didn’t look much older than any of us, and then we came to find out he wasn’t much older than any of us. He made a strong impact because we ended up winning the Big Ten championship and going to the Rose Bowl that first year he was with us.”
The success at Iowa help land Ferentz his first head-coach job at Maine in 1990. Jack Cosgrove, the program’s current head coach, was on Ferentz’s coaching staff in the Northeast.
“I recognized the name when he was announced as a candidate who would be coming out here for the job,” Cosgrove said. “I think he was exactly what you would expect of the guy. Pretty unassuming in a lot of ways. He really had a look in his eye, a football-guy type of look in his eye.”
And while the wins didn’t necessarily come in droves for Maine’s new man in charge, his outlook on both football and life affected those who played for him and coached with him.
“I think it starts with the most important word in our business — family. Kirk treats the people around him just like a member of his own family,” Cosgrove said. “While he was here, I think there was an establishment of the importance of caring for each other in the game of football. Working together, creating relationships, and building those relationships into the personality of a team.”
That philosophy would eventually lead to an opportunity in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns under Bill Belichick. Ferentz continued to climb the organizational ladder after the team relocated to Baltimore and was later named an assistant head coach in his time with the Ravens.
But the coach’s future lay in the collegiate game, more than 1,000 miles west of Baltimore. It was a place Ferentz had been before.
The early years
Ferentz admitted to feeling nervous on the day he was introduced as the 26th head coach of the Iowa football program. With the “Iowa Fight Song” playing, Ferentz and his family made their way to the front of the room at the Jacobson Athletics Building 15 years ago today.
“You don’t replace a legend, that’s for sure,” Ferentz told the standing-room-only crowd. “I’m going to follow Coach Fry; I won’t even try to replace him. That would be silly on my part.”
And so, after being contacted by Bowlsby in regards to a potential interview near the end of November, Ferentz accepted and met with Iowa’s search committee for four hours in Cleveland. His knowledge of the game and familiarity with the Iowa program eventually led to a job offer that Ferentz simply could not turn down.
“We were looking for a coach who could come in here and re-energize the fans for the football program,” Mims said. “Someone who had the ability and knowledge and an understanding of what it takes to get a group of student-athletes motivated to find success.”
While the hiring was initially off-putting to many of the Kinnick faithful, Ferentz’s “teachers first, coaches second, and recruiters third” philosophy was enough for Bowlsby and perhaps most importantly, his predecessor, Fry.
“I see a lot of me in him, in that he has a real sensitivity to his players,” Fry said after Ferentz addressed the Iowa media for the first time on Dec. 3, 1998. “Those players are going to love him because he’ll be right there next to them. With Kirk’s personality and his morals, he’s going to fit right in.”
But Ferentz didn’t fit in right away. The program struggled to compete on the field and the team dropped 19 of Ferentz’s first 22 games while he was in charge. But he possessed a way about him that was easy to embrace. He had a football passion about him, a love of the game. It was a mindset that would resonate with his players and fans across the state.
“Certainly there was pressure to win and succeed. There always is when you are replacing a Hall of Fame legend,” Dolphin said. “That said, Ferentz had the perfect demeanor and personality to rebuild things, and Bob Bowlsby was very patient with the process. Kirk’s familiarity with the university, the climate, and the fans also prevented him from pushing the panic button.”
Slowly, Ferentz began to turn things around. His unique enthusiasm for quality offensive-line play, which undoubtedly stemmed from a lifetime surrounded by brilliant coaching minds such as Joe Moore at Upper St. Clair and Pittsburgh, Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore, and Fry, became evident. To the ordinary fan, line play is simply viewed as a strength — to a football coach, it’s visual poetry.
“The value and importance of the offensive line, I never truly felt it in the art form that he made it until he was here,” Cosgrove remembers from their time spent together in Maine. “The detail, the attention to detail, post-practice work on pass rush. He really made that part of the game more extensive then, to that point in my career, I had thought it to be.”
After a 11-24 record in his first three seasons in Iowa City, Ferentz and the Hawkeyes went 31-7 in their next three campaigns. They won a share of two Big Ten championships and finished No. 8 in the AP poll in each of those seasons. In 2002, Iowa came out of nowhere to earn an invitation to the school’s first BCS Bowl. In that moment, Bowlsby’s decision had been validated, a decision he said, he has never doubted.
“I really wouldn’t have changed anything, because I made a commitment to interview the five people we interviewed, and Bob wasn’t in a position to wait,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t blame him for jumping at a great opportunity at Oklahoma, and I think I did the right thing by meeting my obligation to interview the five candidates we interviewed.”
A story still being written
Of the 24 head coaches hired across all divisions of college football before the start of the 1999 football season, only Stoops and Ferentz remain in their current positions.
Over the past 15 years, they have reached the pinnacle of their professions, experienced similar ups and downs and have become staples in the Norman and Iowa City communities.
While their success is now expected, the pair’s mutual accomplishments and triumphs cannot be fully appreciated until one puts into context where their programs were before their arrivals.
Oklahoma had not won a Big 12 championship since 1987 before the Sooners took the field for the first time under Stoops in 1999. In his second season as head coach, the Sooners captured the program’s seventh national title. He has since guided the Sooners to three more BCS title game appearances, eight conference titles, and a 39-game home winning streak (2005-11). The Sooners’ win over Bill Snyder and Kansas State on Nov. 21 gave Stoops the most victories in program history.
His Sooners are poised to play their 15th bowl game in 15 seasons after missing the postseason entirely in the four seasons preceding his hiring.
Every indication points to Ferentz doing the same in regard to passing Fry for the most wins in Iowa’s program history. With the exception of two seasons in the middle of the decade, Iowa football was mired in mediocrity for much of the 1990s. But under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes put together the greatest four-year run in school history between 2002-05 (32-12), including a school record 22-straight home wins during that span. Ferentz’s most significant achievement in recent years came in 2010, when he led Iowa to its first ever BCS victory in the 2010 Orange Bowl over Georgia Tech.
The dean of Big Ten football coaches is tied for third in coaching longevity among BCS schools and tied for fifth among all Division I head coaches. And with his contract extended to the 2020 season and his recent $500,000 donation made to the Iowa Football Legacy Foundation in an effort to bring a state of the art football operations center to the Iowa campus, all signs point to Ferentz digging in for the long haul.
Similarly, Ferentz and Stoops have both dealt with their fair share of scrutiny as well. On July 11, 2007, Stoops and the Sooners were placed on NCAA probation for two years for rules violations involving former quarterback Rhett Bomar and offensive lineman JD Quinn receiving payment for hours not worked. The university had decided to hold off on suspending the players, for which Stoops came under fire after the penalties came down. On the field, things weren’t much better for Stoops, whose team lost its third-straight BCS title game in the 2008-09 season and stumbled to a 8-5 record the following season.
After a remarkable start to his time in Iowa City, Ferentz fell on hard times as well. Following the school’s groundbreaking success in the middle part of the 2000s, the Hawkeyes lost five of their final six games in 2006 after starting the season 5-1. Their woes continued the following season, and Iowa failed to make a bowl appearance.
In January 2011, another stumbling block appeared off the field: 13 Hawkeye football players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, causing the university to launch an investigation to determine the common cause of each athlete’s injury. Procedures were subsequently changed, and the program received national attention because of the incident.
After leading the Hawkeyes back to postseason play for four successive seasons after their disastrous 2007, last season’s campaign ended miserably for Ferentz; the Hawks lost their final six conference games. But once again, Iowa’s headman rebounded, putting Iowa back in the bowl picture after picking up the team’s sixth win of the season against Purdue last month.
“I’ve never met a more grounded human being. He knows exactly what he wants and how to get there,” said Dolphin after watching Ferentz turn things around again in 2013. “You’re seeing the proof in the pudding. A young team is getting better and better.”
Despite Iowa’s success during his tenure, including another 8 win regular season in 2013, Ferentz knows the pressure to produce results and develop the program in Iowa City is always there. It is something the 15 year veteran accepts.
“We’ve been getting judged all along. I’m sure we’ll continue to be judged,” Ferentz said. But it’s like I said back in the spring or even in August, let’s wait till the book’s finally written, then go back and look at it.”
Throughout both their mutual hardships and achievements, Stoops and Ferentz remain incredibly grounded and connected to their respective communities. Ferentz and wife Mary continue to be involved in a number of charities in the Iowa City area. In May, Stoops showed up without fanfare to help out with tornado relief in Moore, Okla. For 30 minutes, no one was aware Stoops was even there. He still returns to Ohio, where he catches up with former teammates and friends, such as Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, helps out with youth football camps, and of course visits Bucci, who remains close with Stoops’ mother, Dee Dee.
Ferentz and Stoops even had dinner together before the 2011 Insight Bowl, the first time the two finalists for the Iowa job 15 years earlier coached against each other. The bond the two share still resonates with Stoops.
“Once I started being a graduate assistant, I started to hang around Coach Ferentz and Mary, his wife, over at their house, and they would have us over a little more and just had a lot more interaction with them. Not only was he a mentor but a great friend, and Mary was great to me and at the time, my girlfriend, Carol, who is now my wife. We had some fun times around their house. Kirk even helped me out and gave me some money by letting me paint his house.”
Cosgrove echoed the sentiment.
“There are things I have always remembered about him. He was very caring, very passionate about the game, very caring about people. The players, student-athletes who were here, the guys who were here and played for him probably recognize that at well,” said Cosgrove from his coaching office in Orono, Maine.
Baylock feels the same way about his former linebacker.
“Every time I see Iowa on TV, I stop what I’m doing and flip over,” Baylock said. “I want to see Kirk on those sidelines.”
To this day, Bowlsby and Mims remain unsurprised by the success their former two coaching finalists have had. Two coaches, their reputations preceding them wherever they are coaching, still excelling at what they were seemingly born to do, changing the lives of young men, both on and off the football field.
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