Let’s make this clear: Kirk Ferentz has done plenty of tremendous things in 16 years as Iowa’s head coach. After taking over a program that had fallen into disrepair in legend Hayden Fry’s final seasons, Ferentz restored the Hawkeyes to national prominence with 115 wins, four 10-win seasons and a pair of Big Ten championships.
He has been an outstanding leader and ambassador for Iowa as a program and a university as a whole. But for nearly every coach, there comes a time when their tenure grows stale. When it becomes plainly obvious that a change is necessary for both sides to move on and rejuvenate themselves, make a clean break.
For Kirk Ferentz and the University of Iowa football program, that time should be now. Friday’s 45-28 Taxslayer Bowl loss to Tennessee, which wrapped up Iowa’s 2014 season at 7-6, is not a cause or a final straw. It is merely a symptom of a larger problem—one that must be addressed sooner rather than later, despite the large buyout due Ferentz that change would require.
Since 2009’s unexpected 11-2 season, capped with an Orange Bowl win over Georgia Tech, Iowa has sunk into mediocrity. In the last five seasons, the Hawkeyes are 32-30 with two eight-win seasons and one bowl win, a 2010 Insight Bowl victory over Missouri.
That’s a terrible return on UI's investment. Per a recent USA Today survey of college football coaches’ salaries, Ferentz will make $4.075 million this season, which ranks as the ninth-highest salary among FBS coaches.
Per a recent article from Forbes’ Chris Smith, Ferentz’s base salary is $3.55 million annually. His contract runs through 2020, and his buyout equals 75 percent of the total salary remaining on his deal. If Iowa were to fire him tomorrow, its buyout would equal $13.3 million, a staggering figure.
However, Smith argues that Iowa would save $7.7 million over the life of the contract by eating Ferentz’s contract now, although the department would spend significant salary on a new coach.
Is it worth it to arrest Iowa’s decline? Absolutely. With Ohio State’s return to the national elite, Michigan’s hiring of Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State’s continued success (not to mention James Franklin’s presence at Penn State), the Big Ten is not getting any easier.
Fortunately for Iowa, all four programs reside in the Big Ten East Division. Iowa is in the West with Wisconsin and Nebraska, both of whom have endured their own coaching changes this season.
The Hawkeyes are showing no signs of making a move in the West. This season set up as Iowa’s easiest schedule in recent memory: rival Iowa State, Wisconsin and Nebraska at home, with no Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State on the schedule. The Hawkeyes? They gave ISU one of its two wins on the season and lost to both the Badgers and Cornhuskers.
Next fall, Iowa again avoids the East powers but must travel to Iowa State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
It’s more than the schedule, though. Too often this fall, the Hawkeyes have looked unmotivated and uninspired. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ system was bland, entering the Taxslayer Bowl averaging 28.2 points per game, No. 71 nationally. Neither Jake Rudock nor C.J. Beathard were truly effective at quarterback, and the defense often struggled to stop people and tackle well (a major concern Friday).
Tennessee led 35-7 following a lifeless first half and held a 45-14 lead before Iowa narrowed the gap with a pair of garbage-time touchdowns. The Vols' Jalen Hurd rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, and UT was never threatened.
And this isn't a young team: Iowa will lose 10 starters, including senior left tackle and Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff and all-time receptions leader Kevonte Martin-Manley.
The team’s performances epitomized a program that has gone stale, and Ferentz himself did little to combat that narrative. Asked repeatedly about the Hawkeyes’ mistakes following the Nebraska loss, he repeatedly answered, “That’s football,” which doesn’t sit well with fans seeking answers.
Ferentz still has the support of his boss, as Iowa athletic director Gary Barta made clear to Rick Brown of the Des Moines Register during a recent interview.
Without question he will be our coach next season. That being said, (myself), Kirk and others surrounding the program have very high expectations for Iowa football. My expectations are for us to compete for and win championships. Maybe that's a bowl championship. A Big Ten Championship. Maybe, someday, even beyond that. And because they are so high, in 2014 we didn't meet those expectations.
Money, Barta told Brown, isn’t a factor in Ferentz’s tenure.
The money is not what I'm basing my decision on. If he was making half of what he's making, or he was making two times what he's making, I would be going through the exact same process. I'm trying to evaluate where we're at, and then trying to decide if the foundation is strong enough to go forward with the current coach. And I absolutely believe that it is.
Iowa might not be able to compete consistently with the Big Ten East, but it can certainly challenge for Big Ten West titles. And now is the time to ensure the Hawkeyes can do so consistently.
If money truly isn’t a factor, then Barta and Iowa officials should act now to change the program’s direction. Thanking Ferentz for his contributions and moving on would be the best tonic for a program that is obviously in need of a major shake-up.