You see them everywhere. On your daily commute, on TV commercials, and even some quirky social media accounts. No matter where you look there’s a good chance you will run into one thing: fast food restaurant chains. Now before I go any further I have to clarify that this isn’t an anti-fast food rant, if I’m being honest I have an affinity for Taco Bell that I will never abandon. We accept fast food restaurants as viable meal options even though we know how unhealthy they are. The main reason is because it’s quick, cheap, and we don’t even have to get out of our cars to get it. So despite knowing its flaws we still settle for mediocrity, and the same argument can be made for Kirk Ferentz.
Since moving to Iowa almost two years ago I’ve discovered that the people here do not like change very much. They live in the same town they grew up in, eat at the same places every week, and have the same friends they’ve had their whole lives. It’s this same love for consistency that Kirk Ferentz has thrived in to become one of the longest tenured head coaches in college football. His first coaching stint was in Iowa City under legendary head coach Hayden Frye where Ferentz spent eight seasons as the offensive line coach. After that he bounced around jobs including being the head coach at Maine, working for Bill Belichick in Cleveland, and then for the Baltimore Ravens. It was in 1999 when Hayden Frye decided to retire that Iowa searched for his successor and eventually hired Ferentz.
For the past 18 seasons Kirk has been at the helm for the Hawkeyes and his coaching legacy should be described as average at best. His record at Iowa is 135-92 which seems more impressive than it actually is. In those 18 seasons the Hawkeyes have only had 5 seasons with 10 or more wins. Those double digit win seasons were also sporadic, three were consecutive from 2002 to 2004 then the next season was in 2009 and the last one was in 2015. Some coaches can coast through mediocre periods as long as they have a respectable bowl record but Ferentz holds a 6-8 record in bowl games and to make matters worse he hasn’t won a bowl game since 2010. It’s baffling how a coach in modern college football has been able to hold onto his job for so long despite the lack of success compared to some of his peers.
In recent history there have been some long term head coaches who earned some legacy years, and by that I mean they have held onto their job because of their past glories and not their current merit. The best three examples are Bobby Bowden who spent 34 years at Florida State, Frank Beamer with Virginia Tech for 29 years, and Mack Brown who was the head coach at Texas for 16 seasons. Looking at their careers compared to Ferentz’s there is no logical reason why he is still coaching at Iowa.
Let’s start with Bobby Bowden who holds one of the most prestigious careers in college football history. He was the Seminoles head coach from 1976 to 2009. In his 34 years he won 315 games while losing only 98, reminder that Ferentz has 92 losses in 18 seasons. Bowden also led Florida State to 31 bowl games with a 21-9-1 record. The Seminoles won two national titles during that stretch, the first in 1993 and then 1999, plus produced a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. The last six seasons were what pushed Bowden into retirement. From 2004 to 2009 Florida State was 47-30 and only won one ACC conference title. At the end of his career he trailed only Joe Paterno in all time wins. So a legendary coach such as Bowden was gently pushed out after six seasons of mediocrity but Kirk Ferentz held onto his job despite going 34-30 from 2010 to 2014. Tying back into the fast food metaphor Bobby Bowden is McDonalds, a major success whose name and personality stand out above the rest.
Next is Mack Brown who returned the University of Texas to their former football glory. Brown took over in Austin in 1998 and was an immediate success, in his first season he coached Ricky Williams to the Heisman trophy. In his 16 seasons at Texas, Brown only had one season with a losing record, and the other 15 years he won at least eight games. Bowl games weren’t a problem for the Longhorns with Mack leading the way, that solo losing record season was also the only year they missed a bowl game. At the end of his career Brown left Texas with an impressive 158-48 overall record, 10-5 in bowl games, and won one of the most storied National Championships in college football history. His last four seasons are what pushed him out of Austin. After losing to Alabama in the 2009 BCS Championship game the Longhorns stumbled the following season going 5-7, Mack’s only losing season. After that they went 25-14 which isn’t a terrible record to have but their bowl games were the Holiday Bowl and back to back appearances in the Alamo Bowl. With the disappointing bowl games mixed with the lack of conference titles, Brown found himself in retirement, shortly, then on TV as an analyst. Bringing Ferentz back in, Iowa had a losing season in 2012 and since then their record is 35-18. Similar to Texas’ run after their losing season, it’s a respectable run but just like the Longhorns the bowl games haven’t been riveting. A pair of Outback bowl losses, a defeat in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and a soul-crushing blow out in the Rose Bowl haven’t necessary increased the Kirk Ferentz coaching stock. Tying back to the fast food metaphor Mack Brown is Burger King, has been successful but never the top dog.
Finally we arrive to Frank Beamer. He is the equalizer in this equation for Ferentz. One could make the argument that both Bowden and Brown were at traditional powerhouses located in the best recruiting hotbeds of the country but that’s where Beamer comes in to even the scales a bit. He was the head coach for Virginia Tech from 1987 to 2015 and after 29 years the Hokies were 238-121-2 under “Beamer Ball”. It was a rough start for Beamer in Blacksburg, in his first 6 seasons VT was 24-40-1 and didn’t make a single bowl game during that span. Then in 1993 they made a turn and for the rest of Beamer’s career the Hokies always had a winning record and made a bowl game. The Hokies made their solo appearance in the national title game in 1999, led by freshman Michael Vick, and ultimately lost to Bobby Bowden’s Florida State. Beamer’s last four seasons were the kindling under his hot seat. From 2004 to 2011 the Hokies posted double digit wins every season but from 2012-2015 they never won more than eight games in a season. So despite coaching 13 double digit win seasons in his career, producing a #1 NFL pick (Vick), and establishing a winning tradition at Virginia Tech Beamer was prodded towards the door after 4 seasons of mediocrity. In the world of fast food Frank Beamer is Wendy’s, always viewed as the small fry but still produces decent quality product.
Three legendary coaches in their own right who all fell victim to the same trend: a couple years of mediocrity and their seat suddenly got hot. These coaches all left their lasting mark on football programs that have all gone through some low points without them. Some have adapted and returned to glory like Florida State, some are still in the early phases of learning their new identity like Virginia Tech, and then some have tried to rebuild but have to start again like Texas.
Those coaches all accomplished far greater success than Kirk Ferentz has and just a few average years showed them the door but that same mediocrity has rewarded Ferentz with a contract extension through 2026 that pays him $4.5 million per season. Each coach holds onto better winning percentages than Ferentz’s .595 mark, all had better bowl game records, and all three have produced more first round draft picks.
There isn’t a meaningful statistical category where Kirk Ferentz makes any reasonable sense to be the 11th highest paid head coach in college football or to even be the head coach of a major conference program. His career is a paradox where he’s the longest tenured head coach just because of that very statement, it’s similar to how reality TV stars are famous just for being famous. In terms of fast food Kirk Ferentz is Carl’s Jr/Hardees (depending where you live), overpriced and the last choice for most people.
With the departure of offensive coordinator Greg Davis, another subpar recruiting class, and the graduations of key senior leaders CJ Beathard and Desmond King there are some tough obstacles for Iowa to overcome next season. If history has proven anything, is that next year will be another average season in Iowa City and I think it’s time we stop going to Hardees and time we start looking for a Taco Bell.