In this story, you’ll see a reference to Kirk Ferentz taking some “flak” while assembling his initial staff as head coach at Iowa. For the record, said flak wasn’t from me. I was still covering Iowa State when Ferentz was hired in December ’98.
I play hockey, so I know Maine as a hockey school, a darned good hockey school. That’s how they roll in Orono.
Ferentz got start at Maine
By Marc Morehouse
(University of Maine)
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz poses inside the Maine lockerroom during his coaching days at the college. Ferentz’s Hawkeyes host the Maine Bears on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz and Maine go way back.
Ferentz’s Iowa Hawkeyes open the season Saturday against the Maine Black Bears, a Division I-AA squad that finished 4-7 last season. There’s a connection. Iowa and Ferentz didn’t just throw darts for Maine.
Maine is where a 35-year-old Ferentz worked out the kinks in his first job as a head coach from 1990-92.
Ferentz, 53, had nine years as Iowa’s offensive line coach under head coach Hayden Fry. He wanted to grow professionally and started to get the itch. He recalled reading a Sports Illustrated story on an Iowa bus trip to Northwestern during the ’89 season. It was about Maine and then-coach Tom Lichtenberg.
Lichtenberg left Maine after the ’89 season to become head coach at Ohio University. Maine athletics director Kevin White had a job to fill.
Ferentz, who played against Maine in the Yankee Conference during his days as a linebacker at UConn, gave Maine a call, literally.
“I called up there and talked to the athletic director’s secretary and said, ‘My name is Kirk Ferentz from Iowa. I’d be interested.’ She said, ‘What you need to do is send an application, send three letters of recommendation, and Dr. White will take a look at it,’ ” Ferentz said.
It almost ended there.
“I said, ‘I really don’t want to go through that process, I just wanted to inquire. Here’s my name, here’s my number, if Dr. White has any interest, ask him to call. Otherwise, I won’t waste your time,’ ” Ferentz said. “I thought that was it.”
White, who’s now AD at Duke, had some Iowa ties, serving as Loras’ athletics director from 1982-87. Those Iowa ties had him following up that phone call from Ferentz.
White got a recommendation from Mike Reilly, a 1963 All-American at Iowa, former Iowa football radio analyst with Ron Gonder and Dubuque native. Reilly’s son, Jim, played for Iowa from 1985-88 while Ferentz was there.
“This is how dumb I was,” Ferentz said, “I’m not a big network guy. I didn’t realize Kevin had been at Loras. When I actually went up and interviewed, I got off the plane, and Kevin said, ‘I just got off the phone with Mike Reilly.’ I looked at Kevin and said, ‘I’m too dumb for you to hire.’ I didn’t even make the connection — Loras, Dubuque, Mike Reilly, Jim played for us. Long story short, I got the job only because Tom O’Brien (former Boston College and current North Carolina State head coach) didn’t want it. That’s who they wanted to hire. I’m always the second choice, third choice, fourth choice.”
Ferentz and White also had a family connection, something that introduced itself during the interview process.
“I’ve got four screaming kids running around, and all heck has broken loose, and the phone rings,” Ferentz said. “It was Kevin White on the other end of the phone. I’ve got four kids just screaming, and we’re talking on the phone. Little did I know at the time that Kevin had four kids, too.”
Ferentz said he wasn’t “burning” to leave Iowa. But the salary cut he took when he was hired said otherwise.
He took a $3,000 cut when he left for a $60,000 salary at Maine. Ferentz has joked often about the pay cut all state employees were forced to take a month after he took the Maine job. The idea was growth. In that regard, it was a positive experience.
Ferentz’s record in three seasons with the Black Bears was 12-21. But after two 3-8 seasons, he lifted the Bears to a 6-5 record in 1992, his final season.
He left Maine to become offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns.
“The things I remember most about Kirk, great teacher especially in the offensive line,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove, who took over for Ferentz in ’93 after serving as Ferentz’s offensive coordinator. “He was an inspiration to a lot of people around him. He’s got five kids, he’s a great dad and husband, just the way he lives his life. . . . And I think he’s one of the fairest human beings I’ve ever been around, just the way he treated people.
“Everything about Kirk is done with a high level of integrity. He’s a very humble man and it’s easy to see why he’s been so successful over the years.”
Ferentz went in with no idea of what it took to be a head coach.
“The first thing I learned was when Coach Fry shut the door, he wasn’t in there reading the paper, drinking coffee and watching TV, like I always thought he was,” Ferentz said. “That’s the first thing, I learned there was a lot more to it than appeared to be.”
It trained Ferentz in putting together a staff of assistant coaches. He also developed a thicker skin.
He illustrated the point by talking about assembling his first staff at Iowa. The coaches came from all over the map, including Harvard (former O-line coach Joe Philbin), Fordham (offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe) and Lincoln High School in Port Arthur, Texas (running backs coach Carl Jackson who retired in February).
Ferentz endured open skepticism in the media at that time, but the bulk of that first staff was around for Iowa’s Big Ten co-championships in 2002 and ’04.
“I think that part all worked out,” Ferentz said. “But maybe if I hadn’t been at Maine, I might not have had the confidence to stay the course because, if I recall, there was some flak outside the walls at that time, and that was probably my first experience with getting some flak.”