IOWA CITY — The season and the grind and the tension and all of it, it knocks on Kirk Ferentz’s office door.
That’s just fine. Ferentz’s life is in rhythm. This is the calm before the two-a-days.
Ferentz will begin his 11th season as Iowa’s head coach with a newly signed contract, paying him $3.02 million through the 2015 season. He knows he has it good in Iowa City, a place his family has called home for 20 years.
Still, he’s a million miles from complacent.
In a 45-minute conversation Thursday, Ferentz discussed the NFL question, his contract, Twitter and discipline.
ME: In your 11 years, your personal life and your kids’ lives, you’ve had some big changes.
KF: It’s scary. Stephen was 4 when we came back. Ken and I met with Joe Philbin a few weeks ago. His oldest son is going to be a senior at West Point. Whoa! He was a little kid when he came here. It’s just amazing.
ME: Does it change things for you?
KF: A little bit. The one that got me the most was Bruce Kittle (1977-81). We took a group of players out for a community service project and Bruce was the guest speaker that night. He mentioned that he had just turned 50. I was like, ‘Holy crap, you can’t be 50. I coached you.’ That was my first year, 1981. I thought that’s not possible. You can’t be 50.
ME: New contract, does family growth change ambition, your vision for yourself?
KF: Nothing’s really changed on that front. It makes you realize how quickly the time goes. It grabs you that way. I had that moment when Bruce said he just turned 50.
When you sit back and reflect a little bit, yeah, Brian was in 10th grade going into 11th when we showed up. Now, he’s married and up and running a little bit. One thing, not a prominent goal, but one of the things Mary and I were hopeful of, was getting five kids through one high school. I’ve said that before. We’re three years away from that now. That’s a tough accomplishment if you’re in coaching. That doesn’t happen a lot. We feel lucky and fortunate that we’ve been able to let our kids know where home is and still have the best of everything else too. It’s been pretty good that way.
ME: The new contract, do you look at that as a lifetime contract? If you look at the numbers, you’d be 61 or so . . .
KF: Yeah, that would put me in my 60s. But I think you know I’ve taken pretty much every year, just go year by year. Just hope I can make it through one more and worry about the next one afterwards. I learned at the University of Maine. I was up there three months and they were talking about dropping the program. It was the first time I understood and appreciated and valued what a contract is. You at least had some security that way. I wouldn’t have been doing what I wanted to be doing necessarily, but at least, you know you weren’t going to be put out on the street. That part’s nice and it’s good not to have to worry about those kinds of things. But at the end of the day, you approach your job the same way you always have. That hasn’t changed since I got going back in the late ’70s.
ME: Was there a time where you saw yourself coaching in the NFL?
KF: I’ve thought about it. Nobody brings this up, but I may end up going back to high school, too. I could go that way, too. To me, it’s always been about the people you’re with. Maybe not always, but I think you learn that over time. It’s the most important thing, the people you’re around on a day-to-day basis. One of my mentors gave me that advice back in the late ’80s and I thought it was really good advice and it’s probably meant more to me each year going through things.
I’m not saying I would never go to the NFL, but if I ever did, it would be more because of the people more than because it’s the NFL. That’s one thing, there’s always been a perception by a lot of folks, not all but a lot, that bigger is better. The NFL is the highest level, which it is, arguably it is, and there are some inherent challenges that come with that as well. Contracts and trying to get an entire organization on the same page. That’s a massive challenge, or it can be a massive challenge if you’re not in the right organization.
As an outsider looking in, I got six years of inside experience, there are some real challenges there. Basically, for me, if I ever went that route, it’d be driven by the people involved than it would be to go to the NFL. It’s not like I’ve got to go there. I’ve never had that feeling, since I’ve been out of it. Maybe if I had never been in it, it’d be different. I enjoyed every minute of it, almost every minute of it, but I’ve enjoyed this job an awful lot too. The fact that I’m allowed to stay is one thing. The fact that I’ve choosen to stay is because I really enjoy this job.
ME: You’ve seen the highs and lows here, you have a high level of security here, does that factor?
KF: A couple things. My time in sports has taught me that you can never get too attached. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I go back, and it’s like when it comes up in recruiting, I’ve been here 20 years and I’m going into my 11th in my second span. You can put that up against most people in college sports. I think there are three. I read this in the winter, I still get the Connecticut newsletter, and right now Randy Edsall, Bob Stoops and myself are the only ones remaining from our class (of coaches who were hired in 1998). That’s a little scary. The reality of what we do is that it could come to an end at any point. Not always, but I’ve come to understand that over the last 15 years. I’ve never let that affect me. But that being said, I’ve always felt that if I was going to leave here, I’d need a compelling reason to leave. Certainly I’ve not had any reason for that.
Iowa has its challenges, but it also has so many positives. That’s the obvious reason why we’ve enjoyed it here in our first stint and now our second. Our perspective has been different both times, but it’s been equally as good and rewarding. I appreciate the fact that we have a unique situation. Growing up in Pittsburgh, the comparison I always make is the Steelers organization. Not only from a coaching standpoint — we’ve had two coaches here in 30 years — but also from an administrative standpoint. Three ADs, I don’t know when Bump started, late ’60s or ’70s. Roughly when Chuck Noll started in Pittsburgh, they’ve had three head coaches. We’ve had three athletics director. I don’t think people in Iowa understand how unique that is. I can’t imagine many schools can say that. As a coach, you really appreciate that, too. There’s a certain level of expectation in our state and that’s something I’m comfortable with.
ME: The continuity . . . Michigan and Ohio State have continuity and they are what they are. Iowa is starting to have that kind of continuity and it seems as though it’s starting to pay off.
KF: I spent a lot of time when I was away from here, after the nine years, looking back at what made us successful in my first nine years. In some ways, we’re a little bit of a small market. We’re the Cardinals, we’re the Brewers.
ME: Twins, I wrote Twins earlier this summer.
KF: Twins would be a better example. Cardinals are where they are because they’ve had the continuity with Tony LaRussa. The Twins, I think they’ve had two managers, I don’t know when (Tom) Kelly started (the Twins have had two managers in 24 years). Probably with any business or any organization, stability is a good thing. Everybody can come to grips with what the expectations are and there is some consistency there. The part of having stability is people have to understand there are going to be highs and lows, and certainly in sports there are going to be. I don’t know much about our economy, but I guess it’s true in the business world, too. You have to be able to weather those lows and weather the highs, too, and realize that everyday isn’t going to be like that. That gets down to the decision makers. The decision makers need to understand those kinds of things. They’ve got to be able to be realistic. I go back to the Steelers. The Rooney family has always understood that they can’t panic. Cowher had a great run, but there were a couple years where they didn’t go to the playoffs. They just went to work. They didn’t panic. They didn’t start executing, throwing people off the ship. They just went to work and fixed it.
I know it helped us in the ’80s. We went seven straight years before Barry left. We all knew each others’ moves. I think we operated efficiently as a staff instead of wasting a lot of time. You want to spend your time on things that are going to help you win.
ME: The economy . . . I got a call after the contract story about the plane and that kind of thing. I know you’ve answered this question before about the money and perks. This is what the going rate is anymore.
KF: It’s the market. It’s what’s been established. You can argue the rights and wrongs about it, but it’s just reality. Boy, I acknowledge we’re in tough times. We always try to find ways to give back and we plan on doing in the future. We’ll do more. We’re going to do more. But the facts of the matter are, too, but what you do in coaching isn’t related to the economy. We could be in a bad economy and if we well, that’s a great thing. We could be in a great economy and if we’re not winning, the reality is we’re not going to be around long. It’s kind of a separate entity, if you will. But I understand it’s a sensitive issue, too. I understand that, totally.
ME: Right around 2004, recruiting was something that wasn’t your favorite. Seems like you’re in a good place with that now. Last year’s class didn’t rank highly, but it filled needs. This year’s should rank highly.
KF: I enjoy recruiting, but the frustration level with recruiting . . . you’re never quite sure you’re spending your time wisely. It’s a little easier in football, preparing for a game and going back and studying. When it just comes to football items, I know where to spend our time. I know what I’m comfortable with in terms of hey, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that and spend X amount of hours studying different things. In recruiting, which I guess is like sales, you don’t know how many doors you’re knocking on that are never going to get opened, but you have to do it. That’s the thing that frustrates me about recruiting. It’d be a lot nicer to know on the front end where to direct your time and efforts. In a perfect world, you’d love for a recruit in that first week or two, when you get introduced to them, to tell you, ‘Hey, you guys have a 10 percent chance of even having my interest.’ If I knew that, we’d just move on. But most prospects are very friendly and warm at the front end. It takes you a while to figure out which way they’re going as the process evolves. That’s probably the hardest part.
The other hard part about recruiting, and I don’t see any change to it right now, as different as it was when I got here 10 years ago, now it’s accelerated 10 fold since that time. There’s really no end of recruiting. In January, I’ve spent a lot more time recruiting juniors, with notes and school visits than I was seniors. It’s kind of the nature of the game right now. Back in the ’80s, there were clear lines of demarcation. This period ended and then there’d be quiet periods. Right now, there really isn’t. It’s the nature of the game and it’s not going to change. It’s like a lot of things in life. You change with it or you’re going to pay a consequence. I am getting older, but that’s one area I know we have to be accessible. The hard part about it is it really puts a time strain on a lot of folks. We really work a lot of Saturdays and a lot of weekends. Those are things people don’t know about. We’re not looking for a pat on the back, but it’s just like everybody else. You end up working Saturdays and Sundays. If a recruit comes to campus, it might be as many as six people tying up their time on one prospect. So again, it’s not the most time efficient way to do things, but you have to do it or you’re going to pay a price. That’s the frustrtating part. The interactions are great. The people you deal with are great. It’s fascinating and fun and all that, but when you’re looking at the big scheme of things, and I’m not just talking about the coaching staff but our support staff and everybody in this building, the time demands that are put on them, the time it takes from their personal lives, time with their kids, those types of things, it’s my responsibility to worry about those things a little bit.
ME: Do you have a Twitter account?
KF: No, absolutely no.
ME: Do you know what it is?
KF: Yes, I heard it mentioned on the radio coming into work this morning, Mike and Mike in the Morning, (football commentator Mark)Schlereth and his tweets and Twitters. I think I even have my usage of tweet and Twitter down. You never say never, but if you see me with a Twitter account, just hit me with a baseball bat. Go ahead, take a whack at me.
I don’t think anyone cares if I have Wheaties or Honey Nut Cheerios. I don’t think anyone cares what I had for breakfast, what I chose this morning.
ME: Would you consider having someone on staff with a Twitter account?
KF: I’m not ready to go down that road. I think this might be one of the dumbest inventions in the history of mankind. I don’t have a BlackBerry yet, either. That’s one of my professional goals. I might get one when I retire, when I have nothing to do.
ME: Do you go on the internet?
KF: I never go on the internet, unless I’m looking over someone’s shoulder.
ME: Then, you probably don’t need a BlackBerry.
KF: If it’s important, call me. That’s my motto.
KF: Got one in my car. Don’t know how to use it. I know how to get our film. That’s all that counts. I know that computer. That’s the only one I know how to use. I don’t know everything, but I know what’s important on there. I don’t know anything about business, but I think part of the problem with our economy right now is how much time we waste on these technological thingies we have now. It’s like March Madness 12 months a year.
ME: Discipline has been and is a topic. The program has had 26 arrests. You can set lines of demarcation anywhere. But the fact of the matter is it’s (trouble) never going to stop. There’s going to be a certain amount of “breakage” every year. There’s alcohol, college and kids. Are you at the point where you feel good about messages being sent and punishments?
KF: In rough terms, I think we have a very disciplined program. That’s a word that could be interpreted in a lot of different ways. To me, the reality of it is we just had a horrific year in 2007. Anytime you get into multiple violations or, more importantly to me, we deviated from college-aged issues. When you’re dealing with credit card fraud or things of that nature, that’s a path that everyone finds distasteful. I can’t to this day give you an explanation for what happened during that stretch. Roughly, the credit card thing was charged in August but it took place in May. And then the close of that period went from May to the following February with the last two guys being arrested.
During that span, seven or eight guys left the team. The only thing I can say there is that we took swift and decisive action. You can judge the harshness of it. I think we treated it appropriately. The thing that concerned me was after four or five guys left the football team, I wondered at that point, what’s it going to take to impact some of the guys making bad decisions? We had it continue. That was the time period that was the most alarming and most concerning. Since that time, you can argue the number. I’m just looking back from last August to today, I think last year is an average number with the incidents we had. There’s going to be linkage going back to the line of demarcation that everyone is using. Until we move away from those kinds of things, it’s going to be natural. I’ve talked to our team about it. There’s going to be linkage until we get away from it and have some distance. I go back to the last calendar year in August to this date, basically we’re back to dealing with alcohol-related incidents. Anyone who knows anything about Iowa City knows that’s not going to go away. There are more than 2,000 arrests a year for PAULAS, public intoxes, that’s a matter of fact. It’s also a matter of fact that kids can get in bars here at age 19. Until that law is changed, either the drinking law goes to 19 or access to bars is 21, I don’t anticipate those numbers going down, the public intox and PAULA numbers. I don’t think that’s realistic. As a result, we’re going to have our percentage in that group. I’m not conceeding anything. All I know is what I know, but I’ve talked to guys like Norm (Parker) and I’ve talked to other people who’ve been around other places in college football. Norm would tell you we’re as proactive as any place we’ve ever been. We’ll continue to be and we’ll try to improve that. We’re committed to educating our players. It starts there. We’re committed to being decisive but also fair with our punishments. The bottomline goes back to these guys are college-aged guys. Anyone who’s been a parent can understand not all kids are perfect. Mary and I are raising five of them, five kids, and we’ve had excitement probably with every one of them so far. That’s part of being a parent. It’s part of our existence. On one hand, if we can keep it centered on college-town issues, that’s a start. Once we get off that path, that’s really where I’m alarmed. I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from the fact that 2007 off the field was an awful year. There’s no denying that. Nobody’s proud of it and we’re all committed to making sure we don’t have another year like that. And 2001 wasn’t a great year, but 2007 exceeded that. Wish I could give you an explanation. We never dropped our guard. We were working at it, but it just didn’t show up in the results.
ME: It’s not easy to just “kick a guy off” the team.
KF: The bottomline is everyone we recruit, be it a walk-on or scholarship player, our goal is for them to graduate first, have a great experience in football and have a great experience as college students. That’s what we’re shooting for and we’re no different than anyone else. Anytime a player doesn’t have a good experience in all three of those areas, it’s a failure. Certainly, if you put someone off the team, it’s a failure. We failed somehow. Somehow we didn’t get it done. There’s ownership involved with the player, too, but bottomline, that goes down as a loss. Anytime you lose a player that way, it’s not good. Just like if a guy doesn’t graduate, that’s a loss.
ME: At this point, what do you tell the guys about alcohol? I think the big point is that it’s going to hurt performance, across the board.
KF: It’s such a huge part of our culture, such a huge part of our college culture, it’s a tough battle. It’s been that way for 30 years. It’ll be that way for 30 more years. The guy sitting in this chair 30 years from now is going to have the same issues. It’s not going away no matter what they do with the laws and the ages. I was in a car five or six years ago traveling east and I remember Johnny Bench was on the radio talking about as a young player someone gave him advice on moderation in his personal life — alcohol, women, hours, those types of things. That’s a message I’ve tried to relay to our players. It’s unrealistic to think that nobody on our team is going to drink. We have a lot of guys who are legal age. I’m not sure I have the right to tell them they can’t. I can suggest it. But the bottomline is that it gets back to moderation. It pertains to all of us in everything we do. Just understand how things affect you. Typically, most of the incidents we’ve dealt with, whether major or minor, a very high percentage involved alcohol and a very high percentage involved late hours. It’s so predictable. We relay that message. There are a lot of negatives involved with it and if you can’t handle it and handle it responsibly, bad things are going to happen. Current events that have come across the last couple weeks, alcohol has been prominent and it’s the same old story.
ME: Have the guys at this point been banned from downtown?
KF: I wouldn’t say banned, but we’re controlling the environment the best we can and trying to explain to guys why we do have the requirements we have right now. I don’t want guys to be in a totally controlled environment their entire careers, but we just all have to understand where we are right now.
ME: Do players push back?
KF: That’s the unfortunate part. Even in 2007, the majority of our guys were doing a great job basically in all ways of their life, but you know, it takes a couple hits and everyone suffers. It’s like when a guy jumps offsides on third-and-1. We all pay a price. There are some parallels there. These guys are young men. It’s like when you’re trying to impose some rules with your kids at home. They pushback and question. And that’s fine. I don’t mind giving them answers. But at the end of the day, I guess that’s one of the perks I have, I’m allowed to make the final decisions on what we’re going to do.
ME: You have a couple players with OWIs and who face suspension. What do you weigh in the length of the suspensions?
KF: It’s a team policy, not the department’s code of conduct. (OWIs) face a minimum of a game. This is going back a couple years ago. I added a couple things with our team. If you face one of these charges, you’re looking at suspension time that’s above and beyond. There’s a lot of gray area there. I’m the judge and jury, I guess, in a lot of ways. If I’m looking to suspend a player, James for instance, he had a PAULA and I suspended him the rest of the season. He wasn’t playing anyway, so it didn’t kill any game time, but he missed the experience of being in the lockerroom after the Penn State game, being on the sidelines, which is something that’s eating at him, I’m sure. So, I guess relative to where a player is in his career, a suspension for a guy who’s being redshirted or who’s going to be a backup isn’t as severe as it is for an older guy. I weigh those factors. Another thing I take into account is where they’re at in the program. What they’ve done. Have they accumulated a lot of credit? Have the been working on the negative side of the ledger? All those things factor into the discipline we dole out. A lot of times, I’ll interact with our leadership group and see what they think is fair. Typically, they’re a little more stringent than maybe I would be. That’s kind of the typical response. Usually, they’re a little harder on guys than I would be.
ME: They are the cream of the crop, for the most part. They got there, partly, because they followed rules.
KF: There are some things where there’s no discussion. This is going to be the result. But there’s a lot of gray area with these things. It’s like your kids at home, you try to be fair. The difference is I’ve got 115 kids watching. I’ll go back to the Benny Sapp thing. The last thing I wanted to do in 2002 was put Benny off our team. That was the last thing I wanted to do. We had no answer to who was going to replace him as a player. But he and I had conversations going into that and he really left me no choice based on the conversation prior to his incident, which didn’t merit dismissal but it was an accumulation. The one thing I won’t do is factor how it impacts our team from a playing standpoint. You can’t do that. You just can’t do that.
ME: A guy like Stephane N’Goumou from Maryland. His a kid, he’s 17 or 18. He’s playing video games at home. He comes here, do these guys know the pedestal. There’s a certain amount of pedestaling that goes on here. It’s a different world. Take away alcohol and downtown, if a kid is at the mall wearing his hat sideways, it reflects. Do these guys know the spotlight?
KF: We spend a lot of time on that. It’s a realization we had a couple years ago. Typically, our orientation was in August, that’s the way it used to be. Now with players coming in earlier, it became clear to us that we needed to do our best to indoctrinate them. We’re a little unique. We’re in a group of less than 10 percent or 5 percent of the Division I programs that doesn’t require its incoming freshman to come in for summer school. It’s kind of like me and the BlackBerry, we’re way out of the norm there. I just can’t imagine that’s critical to a team’s success. I can’t imagine it. I’m not ready to buy that one yet. As a result, we have guys coming in at different times. We do try to orientate them right off the bat. We get our older players to help out. It really doesn’t matter where they come from. They can come from small towns or cities, but the thing that is unique no matter from where they’re coming from is the level of attention that they’re going to see.
It’s one of the things that makes this a great place to play. It was no different for me running out of the tunnel for the first time in 1981. Gosh, unbelievable. Kinnick is unique that way. We have the greatest fans. But there is a double-edged sword, obviously. Responsibility comes with that. We all love it when we come out of the tunnel and the fans are going crazy, but the flipside is that our fans are going to be interested when things are going wrong, too. If someone is dressed inappropriately, acting inappropriately, we have to be aware of that.
It’s part of the educational process and it’s ongoing. We’ve even started it now in June. We probably had eight or 10 guys in June. We start then. Chic (Chigozie Ejiasi, director of player development) has a hand in that. Chris (Doyle, strength and conditioning coach) talks to them about it all the time. We have older players talk about it as well. It’s ongoing. It’s tough for a kid to be prepared. Just going to college is enough of a challenge. But the level of scrutiny here. I’ve always joked about this, our guys don’t need to be good to be big deals around here. All they have to do is wear an Iowa football T-shirt, that’s, oh gosh, they’re on the team. They might not be doing well, but they’re on the team. That’s not normal or natural either. Usually, you get the attention with performance.
ME: This is the dawn of a new season. What revs your motor about this? What do you look forward to most?
KF: It’s funny. Pro football taught me how to get away, how to remove myself a little bit, find some time to think about other things or thing about things from a different angle instead of pounding away at things. That’s kind of what this time of year is for, to think about things that you might not take the time to think about. Too much of that time is dangerous, too. It always fun when you get going. I’ve always enjoyed preseason camp as much as anything. It’s strictly you and the team. People on the outside know not to call you. They know not to ask you to go speak here or there. They know you’re full-scale. The fun part is to see where the team is at. That’s a great thing about college football. I’ve said this before, but players change so dramatically. That happens at different stages for everybody. So, all of us are curious to get on the field and see what that first week brings. The other thing about preseason is that it’s a long enough period where the picture becomes clear as you go along. We have a lot of positions right now that are undecided and all of that. Twenty five days of preperation have a way of bringing certain players to the surface. Other players will dip a little bit. Then, you have the other variables, injuries and all of that. It’s always an interesting puzzle. It’s really the one time where it’s pure coaching. We’re not worried about any one opponent, especially for the first two-thirds of camp, so it’s just pure teaching, pure coaching. You spend all your time with players and the staff. If you like football, it’s a great time. It’s a lot of fun. There’s always that eagerness to see how things are going.