In a cruel twist of fate for Iowa fans still cursing out the football program’s TaxSlayer Bowl debacle, head coach Kirk Ferentz will receive a $525,000 ”longevity bonus” at the end of this month.
I’d try to lighten the reactionary mood with a joke, but these days, it would just be met with a lot of awkward silence. Ferentz’s bloated contract – apparently, in retrospect, constructed with very little resistance or even negotiation given its one-sidedness – simply isn’t a laughing matter for the Hawkeyes anymore.
Money may not be the root of all evil in sports, but it certainly tends to change the narrative. Eight-figure deals have the potential to boost egos and deflate motivation in one fell swoop. Players and coaches alike have gone from driven to complacent after signing on the dotted line, oftentimes whether they know it or not.
At the time of Ferentz’s most recent extension – announced in early September of 2010 – his program seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. They were one season removed from an 11-2 overall record, No. 9 ranking and Orange Bowl championship. Athletic director Gary Barta proudly professed, ”I’ve said publicly, and privately to Kirk, that it would be my goal to have him retire at Iowa. This contract is a statement supporting that commitment.” Barta also called Ferentz ”arguably the best football coach in the country” as the ’10 campaign prepared for kickoff.
It’s easy to give those statements an eye-roll now with the benefit of hindsight. Five seasons ago, we barely batted an eye at the details of this new and improved mega-deal that’s being studied today with a fine-tooth comb. Whatever it took to keep Captain Kirk in Iowa City and away from the NFL, right?
Since that day, the Hawkeyes are 19-21 in the Big Ten and 0-3 in bowl games under Ferentz. They haven’t been ranked since Nov. 21, 2010. They’ve failed 12 of their last 22 home assignments. They were 0-5 in ”trophy” games this season (losses to Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Tennessee). They didn’t beat a single FBS opponent with a winning record this year, and are now 10-21 in their last 31 contests against plus-.500 ”Power 5” teams.
Iowa fans, as loyal as the day is long, aren’t exactly taking the decline sitting down. Kinnick Stadium was full to the brim 30 consecutive times from October of 2009 through November of 2012. There has been one sellout since. An estimated 5,000 Hawkeyes attended the TaxSlayer Bowl – a paltry number that may even be a bit generous – in a crowd of over 54,000.
For the time being, the Ferentz era has reached an impasse. I don’t see the almost-60-year-old head coach going anywhere heading into his 17th season at the helm. On the other hand, Hawkeye Nation isn’t about to lower its collective expectations. Big money and upgraded facilities should yield a better product than what Iowa fielded last week, and really, all year long.
Ferentz may tweak his staff a little, either by choice or by force. At the end of the day, though, the ball is in his court. Coaches reinvent themselves all the time, and now is the ideal moment for Ferentz to undergo some sort of makeover to preserve his legacy.
The question is, will he? Or has the money and adulation accumulated enough to have permanently poisoned the well? Ferentz needs someone – either Barta above him or an assistant below – to help set the record straight and give an honest assessment of the program’s current condition. He also must look inward and decide why this slide has occurred.
No one is questioning Ferentz’s prior achievements, and he has been handsomely compensated accordingly. Iowa needs to start moving forward again as a program, though, or it may eventually have to move on.
It’s your call, Coach.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org