A struggling offense, a unique contract and the most interesting coaching subplot of the year

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Brian Ferentz has accepted his eventual demise, both in life and in coaching. For the latter, it’s actually kind of liberating.

Some anticipated the end of Brian’s time as Iowa’s offensive coordinator after the 2022 season, when the Hawkeyes tumbled to historic lows — 251.6 yards per game, 130th out of 131 teams nationally; and 4.24 yards per play, 129th nationally — despite the team’s eight wins. But Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz brought back his eldest son, extending a lifeline to his bloodline.

“It’s like mortality, right? We’re all going to die,” Brian Ferentz, 40, told ESPN last month. “Most people haven’t fully contemplated that. I’m still working on it. But in coaching, you have to face that at some point, too, and the sooner you do, the better off you are. Just accept that you’re mortal, and that’s totally out of your control. So let’s turn the focus to what I can control, where we can make improvements, and what can I do to be better?

“The reality is, that’s the same process, whether you have a great year or whether you have a bad year, whether you’re happy or unhappy.”

After a bad year on offense that left everyone unhappy, Brian Ferentz is setting out to fix things. He does so with a contract that now includes an unusual performance incentive — Iowa must average 25 points per game and win at least seven contests for his agreement to last beyond June 30, 2024. Iowa’s woeful offense in 2022 drew attention, and Ferentz’s contract quirk and continued work for his father have only amplified the scrutiny on him early this season.

AS THE 2022 season neared, Iowa’s coaches were “operating and planning in a contingency mode,” Brian Ferentz said. The unit’s challenges were known throughout the football offices.

Iowa’s offensive line, a position Kirk Ferentz coached when he first arrived at the school in 1981, and where his three sons (Brian, James and Steve) played for the Hawkeyes, was notably inexperienced and vulnerable. Although three linemen had starting experience, two of them, Mason Richman and Connor Colby, were true sophomores. Only three linemen had earned multiple letters. The group had similar experience issues in 2021, but standouts like All-American center Tyler Linderbaum helped cover the warts.

This time, a group that often had been a strength under Kirk Ferentz became exposed. The challenges were compounded by a wave of injuries at receiver following the transfer of Charlie Jones to Purdue (he would set Purdue’s single-season receiving yards record and earn second-team AP All-America honors). Iowa opened the season with only one of its top six receivers available.

When Kirk Ferentz watched film of the offense, he saw a lot of players just “trying to survive.”

“To think we were going to be a 400-yard-a-game offense would have been unrealistic, no matter what we chose to do,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Your personnel, a lot of times, dictates how things are going to materialize. Not that you don’t try to coach around it.”

No one was expecting Iowa to be a 400-yard-a-game offensive juggernaut last year — from 2019 to 2021, the Hawkeyes ranked 116th nationally in yards and 90th in scoring — but the numbers were staggering. Not only did the team fail to hit the 400-yard mark once, it didn’t even reach 200 yards in either of its first two games and eclipsed 300 yards only once in its first seven.

The Hawkeyes averaged less than 2.8 yards per rush in eight games, failed to reach 100 rushing yards against a power conference opponent, and got to 100 passing yards only three times. Quarterback Spencer Petras, who entered the season with two years of starting experience, posted career lows in touchdown passes (5) and completion percentage (55.9).

The reasons for Iowa’s personnel plummet are layered: recruiting misses, injuries, players not panning out, a reluctance to mine the transfer portal at certain positions.

But Kirk Ferentz doesn’t see 2022 as a coaching failure. He called it “one of my more gratifying years” because Iowa overcame a 3-4 start and widespread criticism and mockery of its offense to finish 8-5. Ferentz said Brian has “grown” from the experience, as have the other assistants.

Since Brian Ferentz was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2017, Iowa is 128th nationally in yards per game (327.8) and 105th in offensive touchdowns scored (203) but also 16th in winning percentage at .697 (53-23). The Hawkeyes lead the nation in defensive touchdowns scored over the same span with 21.

“What matters is that we’re finding ways to win the games,” Brian Ferentz said. “If you don’t get it done, the world doesn’t care about what your problems are, what your deficiencies are. No one’s interested in excuses, including us. Maybe the production’s not exactly what you want, but if you can get a W at the end, that’s ultimately the statistic you care most about.”

AS A YOUNG assistant at Iowa in 1982, Kirk Ferentz gathered for a staff meeting with coach Hayden Fry, who mentioned that a coordinator change had been made by Ohio State’s Earle Bruce.

“I think [Fry] was just reminding us so we can all be next,” Ferentz said with a laugh. “Then, ironically, we went seven years with the whole staff staying together. Seven straight years without any changes.”

Certain college programs have hallmarks. At Iowa, continuity is king.

Fry and Ferentz are the only men who have led the football program since 1979. Ferentz, who succeeded Fry in 1999, is the longest-tenured coach in the FBS by six years.

Iowa had four athletic directors between 1970 and August, when Beth Goetz took over the role on an interim basis following Gary Barta’s 17-year run. Because of nepotism laws, Brian Ferentz reports to Goetz, just as he did previously to Barta. Still, Kirk Ferentz puts together the football staff and does the day-to-day supervision.

“It’s unique,” Goetz said of Iowa’s long tenures, not just with front-facing coaches but behind-the-scenes administrators and staff. “Maybe others have had more changes and there’s always some things that are positive when you insert people with different backgrounds and experience, but the balance here has been good. That institutional pride and institutional knowledge is a critical piece.”

Iowa’s commitment to continuity extends to its football coordinators. Ferentz has had three offensive playcallers — Ken O’Keefe, Greg Davis and Brian Ferentz — and two defensive coordinators — Norm Parker and Phil Parker (not related). Fry compiled and retained coaching staffs in the 1980s that included several Hall of Famers — Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops, Barry Alvarez — and changed only when assistants left for better gigs.

Kirk Ferentz recognizes that most programs aren’t like Iowa, and that coordinators are regularly fired elsewhere. That’s just not how he chooses to operate.

“My question would be: Why would we?” he said when asked why he didn’t make changes after last season. “I just know this: I’ve been here 34 years now, two different times, and I’ve never witnessed a coordinator being relieved of his duties. I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Fry and the way he operated. If you don’t think somebody is getting the job done, then yeah, you have to suggest maybe it’s time to move on or whatever.

“You just try to evaluate your people, that’s part of your job. We haven’t had much turnover here.”

Brian Ferentz, of course, isn’t just any person for Kirk to evaluate. He was born in Iowa City during Kirk’s time as a Hawkeyes assistant, finished high school there and then played for his father as Iowa went 38-12 and won two Big Ten titles. A center and guard, Brian earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors as a senior in 2005. After four years with the New England Patriots’ staff, he joined Iowa’s staff as offensive line coach in 2012.

Kirk Ferentz’s decisions to promote Brian, to keep him in the role and to add quarterbacks to his plate after the 2021 season — Brian previously oversaw the offensive line and tight ends as coordinator — have drawn strong reactions, most of them negative.

“The reality is I chose to go into a profession where no matter what I do, I’ll always just be viewed as Kirk Ferentz’s son,” Brian said. “I’ll never escape that, and honestly, if I wanted to escape that, I should have chosen a different line of work. Or, I should have gotten the hell out of [Iowa] at some point.”

Father and son have grown their professional relationship, but Brian said the longer he and Kirk work together, the more they “lose some of the family part.” When Brian worked for other teams early in his career, he could call Kirk and get advice or even vent, which he can’t do now. As Brian joked, “What am I going to do: b—- about him to him?”

Both Ferentzes are in agreement about who has the more scrutinized job. Kirk Ferentz said the shift occurred about 10 years ago, when his offensive coordinator began to take more criticism than he did. Brian Ferentz might be feeling more heat because of his last name, but his experience isn’t exclusive.

“If you’re the offensive coordinator anywhere, but especially here, there’s a pattern,” Brian Ferentz said. “This is not a new phenomenon. I watched Greg go through this. I knew [O’Keefe] went through the same thing. This is what happens. It’s part of the deal.”

BRIAN FERENTZ’S ACTUAL deal with Iowa, and how it changed after the 2022 season, has added another layer of intrigue. The points-per-game provision has sparked a slogan, “Drive to 325,” and allows Iowa fans and anyone else to track Ferentz’s progress in real time. Iowa scored 24 points in a season-opening win against Utah State and 20 against Iowa State, 13 on offense, putting the Hawkeyes six points behind the pace (all points scored, including those on defense or special teams, count toward Ferentz’s contract provision).

The Ferentzes, meanwhile, could care less about hitting a points total.

“I want us to win, that’s what I care about,” Brian Ferentz said. “Would I like everybody to be happy? Sure. I would prefer that it’s not a story. But if we have a choice between winning a football game and what, in my opinion, would be careless or disrespectful … I want to make sure we win. I have a responsibility to the players and coaches and people in this building. This is not about me. I’m not going to make it about me.

“It’s still about Iowa football and winning.”

Coaches both at Iowa and around the Big Ten note the irony with Brian Ferentz’s contract amendment. One Big Ten coach said of the change, “There was pressure to do that, obviously,” but doesn’t expect it to affect how Iowa will approach games. Others agreed that Iowa would be the last team and Kirk Ferentz would be the last coach interested in tacking on points to meet a line item.

Kirk Ferentz is generally conservative and a true believer in complementary football, even when Iowa has had dynamic offenses, like in 2002 (No. 7 nationally in scoring) and 2005 (the last time the Hawkeyes averaged more than 400 yards per game). Iowa fans proudly wear “Punting Is Winning” T-shirts, a nod to the charitable campaign led by star punter Tory Taylor. But there is truth to the claim, backed up over time.

“There aren’t any style points in football,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s not like gymnastics. It’s about, do you get it done or don’t you? So no, I don’t care.”

Goetz finds herself in the important and yet awkward position of overseeing Brian Ferentz following the contract amendment, which she didn’t craft. A former athletic director at Ball State, she’s widely expected to land the permanent role at Iowa.

She’s building her relationship with Brian Ferentz, and described him as a “competitive, driven, passionate coach” whose love for Iowa is undeniable. Goetz and Barta went over the contract amendment before she took over for him, and she briefly discussed it with Brian.

“The way that it’s structured is unique,” Goetz said. “It’s going to create a lot of chatter, so how do we allow for that and understand it is what it is? That’s the agreement in place, so let’s just focus on what we’re doing. You beat another team by beating them by one, or a tenth of a second, pick your sport. That’s how these people are wired.

“There are pretty ways to win in any sport and maybe ugly ways. Pretty sure we’re all taking the win, no matter how it looks.”

IOWA’S OFFENSE STARTED this season by reaching the good kinds of milestones.

For the first time since 1991, the Hawkeyes had a passing touchdown on their season-opening drive. They reached the end zone on each of their first two possessions against Utah State, matching their points total from the first two games of 2022.

After 10 points on the first two drives against Iowa State, Iowa produced only three offensive points the rest of the game and finished with only 235 yards. There are signs of progress, like the emergence of running back Jaziun Patterson against ISU, but also clear concerns, like the inability to get more wide receivers involved.

“The beginning of the year, that’s when you find your identity as an offense,” said quarterback Cade McNamara, who transferred to Iowa from Michigan in December. “You try to figure out what is going to work with us this season, what are we going to rely on? That’s a really huge part of September, and as we continue on here, we’ll have the answers to those questions.”

The personnel outlook is stronger, which both Brian and Kirk Ferentz sensed back in August. Iowa’s offensive line has more veterans and depth, including Richman, Nick DeJong and Logan Jones, a converted defensive lineman who started at center in 2022.

“Our guys are more mature physically, I think they’re more confident, and that’s because they’ve been through some hard times,” Kirk Ferentz said. “This is the first time in three years now where we have some competition going on. We have more than five guys all of us are confident can go in and play pretty well.”

The team finally leaned into the transfer portal for key additions, including McNamara, who in 2021 helped Michigan to a Big Ten title and its first College Football Playoff appearance. Big Ten coaches think McNamara’s presence can help stabilize Iowa’s offense, much as he did Michigan’s, with one saying he makes Iowa “instantly better.” Tight end Erick All, who had 38 catches for Michigan in 2021, joined McNamara with the Hawkeyes. Although Iowa is still thin at wide receiver, Luke Lachey and All lead a promising group of tight ends.

Iowa also has a bit more to lean on at running back with Kaleb Johnson, who led the team with 779 rushing yards as a true freshman last season, and Patterson, who averaged 8.6 yards per rush against Iowa State. Asked after the ISU game about running more counter plays than normal, Kirk Ferentz joked, “Careful with categorizing people. We might throw it 60 times one of these days.”

“We’re better equipped right now to do more,” he added.

Before each game, ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock colors in the opposing depth chart for those who have logged significant playing time.

“The whole page is full of color,” he said of Iowa’s chart. “They’re much more of a veteran team.”

Iowa’s returning offensive players have heard the incessant talk about their performance and what it means for Brian Ferentz. Lachey gets “tired of it” and tries not to listen, but the topic is hard to avoid.

“He’s dealt with it well,” Lachey said. “He’s another guy that will just block out that noise. I don’t think he hears a lot of it at the end of the day.”

Brian Ferentz is at peace with whatever comes next. He said the longer he coaches, the less sure he becomes of himself, which he sees as a good thing. Ferentz links too much self-assuredness to arrogance — “The privilege of not knowing s—,” he explained.

Go ahead and question him. He’s already doing it himself. And knowing there will be an endpoint is both motivating and comforting.

“The longer you’re in life, the more you get your ass kicked, the more you get surprised, the less sure of everything you are, the better you can operate, because nothing’s going to knock you off kilter,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate at this institution that we value experience, we value continuity and most importantly, we value people.

“But if the head coach ever walked in here and said, ‘I don’t think you’re the person to do this anymore,’ I would respect the hell out of that. And I’d walk out the front door.”

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