Real Success with Nate Kaeding: Brian Ferentz

Brian Ferentz and Nate Kaeding, shown at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City. PHOTO GABE HAVEL

Sponsored by West Bank, this is the latest edition of the CBJ’s Q&A feature with Nate Kaeding and notable Iowa business and cultural leaders, available first to CBJ members. Read more about the idea for the series here, and watch the video interview at the CBJ’s YouTube channel.


By Nate Kaeding
[email protected]

Twelve games, 60 minutes of action. All the glory (and heartache) of a football season lives inside those 720 min­utes for players, coaches and fans.

But for managers of football teams, like Iowa’s Offen­sive Coordinator Brian Ferentz, those game minutes are simply a piece of a much-larger puzzle.

Football, like many things in life, is all about the in-be­tweens – the time spent between games and seasons craft­ing a winning strategy, drawing up the touchdown play and developing athletes for future success.

Having spent most of my adult life around the game of football and around football coaches, I know firsthand just how maniacal, and exceptionally adept, coaches like Bri­an are at the art of preparation. On the eve of yet another highly anticipated Hawkeye football season, Brian and I had a chance to sit down inside the Iowa football training facility to talk about the important role preparation and development play in the success of a football team:

NK: What does the annual cycle of preparation look like for the Hawkeye football program?

BF: It all starts with our winter program. That essential­ly consists of strength and conditioning and very mini­mal football. Mostly those guys are just in the weight room and doing things with Coach Doyle [Chris Doyle, strength and conditioning coach] and his staff to develop a good base and increase their strength levels.

We then go through spring ball with 15 practices, and then move out of spring ball into what we call the “speed phase,” which is essentially two weeks with Coach Doyle in the weight room, where guys are going to be running the fastest times they’ll run all year. Then we’ll move back into the summer program, and that’s about seven weeks of intensive strength and conditioning. We then move into the in-season phase, which is what I think people are more familiar with.

In this phase, starting with training camp in August, we basically have three goals: one would be mastering the fundamentals, two would be mastering a system and three would be creating that team chemistry and that cul­ture of football. Once we get to the games and have a new opponent, then we’re preparing for them and playing against them, we’re making corrections, seeing what went right and what went wrong, and doing it all over again for about 12 weeks.

How is your approach to preparation different than other teams in the Big Ten conference?

We feel that we’re a more developmental football pro­gram and we take a lot of pride in that. What I mean by that is, if you look at us in February, we’re not going to finish in the top 10 for recruiting rankings … but we know that if we take the developmental approach to how we’re doing things, we’ll finish in the top 10 for [actual] football rankings. We’ve decided that’s markedly more important than recruiting rankings.

Basically everything in our culture starts in the weight room – with developing strength levels, developing speed, increasing athletic ability, getting bigger, getting stronger. It’s taking guys that maybe didn’t have all the physical mea­surables coming out of high school, but had the tangible measurables, and then having the right culture – develop­ing them a little bit and maybe year four or five, they’re pret­ty darn good football players. Some of that starts with the recruiting, because you want the right kind of guys in there.

As athletes, the payoff is always on game day, but the important stuff happens in the lead up to the game. How do you as a coach constantly remind your players of the importance of development and preparation?

That’s a constant battle. It’s 12 months a year. You just think of it as education. What’s important is explaining the how and the why. We use business books and busi­ness lessons, because we’re really doing the same thing. We ask, “what is our most valuable resource as the Uni­versity of Iowa football team?” and there’s a little bit of discussion, but it’s actually pretty simple. The consensus is that it’s just people. Our resources are our people, so we want to make sure we’re educating guys and spend­ing time developing our people. … There’s not a day that goes by in our building that we’re not going to spend time talking about our culture, what we believe in, our people, why we are the way we are, and why it’s important to do things a certain way on a daily basis. 

One of my favorite memories of playing for your day [Kirk Ferentz, head coach] was that every season had a “theme,” or some sort of motivational story to rally the team around. I know from a management standpoint a lot of thought goes into that. Talk a little bit about the theme of the 2018 season.

The theme this year is “Break the Rock.” We actual­ly used that theme for the 2000 team, but these guys didn’t know anything about that. We felt like it was time to bring that back.

Describe the break the rock story.

“Break the rock” is very simple. It’s a stone mason who comes to work everyday and hits a rock with a hammer. He strikes it every day but really there’s no change. He hits the hell out of it again and again, and one day the rock breaks. It’s not necessarily the single strike that broke the rock, but it’s the culmination of days and years of blows. It’s just a fable about daily preparation and it’s simple for kids to grab onto. It was simple in 1999, and we found that it’s still simple in 2018.

One of my favorite Kirk Ferentz quotes is “The hay is never in the barn.” Football teams are preparing right up until kickoff. Walk us through what the 24 hours before a big game look like for you person­ally as the offensive coordinator.

Brian Ferentz on the sidelines at practice. PHOTO UI ATHLETICS

Interestingly enough, the last 24 hours as a coach are markedly different than the last 24 hours as a player. Our job is really to prepare the football team and make sure the players are ready to play. We live in a world where coaches have really taken on a new significance. There are a lot of coaches who give a lot of face time. The best coaches I’ve learned from, their whole motto was “coach­es coach, players play.” It’s interesting to me that the fo­cus has come off the players, because on game days, I’ve yet to see a coach score a touchdown, make a tackle or a kick.

There’s an old adage in coaching that when you think about big situations or big moments, it’s not about making that touchdown in the moment – it’s about the players, not the playing. When you think about downs and passing in that situation, you better think about who you’re giving the ball to rather than what the play is. You could be the best player in the world, but if it’s not with the right people, it’s not going to be good.

You asked about the last 24 hours – well, you spend six days pre­paring for that plan. You formulate a plan, you formulate some hypotheses, and you go out and test them. Something as simple as first and 10, or second and six or less – that’s the number one situation in a football game. No one thinks about it that way because it’s normal. Those are going to be the majority of my calls. Then you’re going to have the third downs – you’re going to separate those by short yardage, like one yard. All week you’re going against what you’ve seen on tape, you’re going to study your opponent, you’re going to define the match-ups you think you can exploit, if any – sometimes there aren’t so many, and that’s when things get interesting. You need to figure out what you do well and what they do well, and it’s as simple as trying to match those two things up. By the time you get to Friday, the plan is set.

Friday evening and the morning of [the game], it’s real simple for a person like me. I’m just rehearsing in my mind these situations that are going to come up. It’s no different from a public speaking engagement – no differ­ent than a role-playing board game. Situation, call; situ­ation, call.

Do you have any rituals or superstitions on the morning of the game?

I like to get up early, go out and get some fresh air. I used to run a little bit – it’s more walking now – but as I do that, I like to go through things once more in my head. Not necessarily those situations in real-time but just check-listing what I’ve prepared to do that day.

For example, I don’t have a photographic memory and I have to work really hard at remembering things, but I always tell people that you see a lot of guys out there on the field with these big Denny’s-sized menus and they’re trying to read off of them all game. To me, you should be able to put that thing in your pocket, because by Satur­day, you should have that list memorized. For me, it’s not really as hard as it sounds because we’re doing the same things all the time, but you want to make sure as you’re going through, you’re inventorying things in your head and making sure you have all your situations covered.

If A happens, we do B. Personnel is obviously a big thing on Saturdays. What’s our plan when John gets hurt? What’s our plan when Jimmy gets hurt? What’s our plan if Johnny on their team gets hurt? I learned that lesson the hard way. Players are going to get injured and bad things are going to happen throughout the course of the game. If you don’t have those contingencies ready to go, then you’re going to be left with indecision, which is going to lead to losing about 90 percent of the time.

And then the preparation for the next week starts immediately after a game. Take me inside the coaches’ meeting room the Sunday after a game.

Sunday morning is still about what happened Saturday. We have to close that loop from the week before, and now we’d better take some lessons out of it, whether they’re good or bad. It starts with special teams and what went right and what went wrong. Then the head coach is going to stand up there, and he’s going to talk about what we thought going into the game, on Friday night at that last meeting. We’re going to look at it objectively on Sunday and see if we accomplished A, B and C. If we did, then we see if it led to the things we wanted, because sometimes we’re wrong as coaches. There was only one coach that I’ve been around who was right every week and his name is Bill Belichick [coach of the New England Patriots], and he’s still right every week. But we’re just trying to be as honest and transparent as we can be, whether it’s player-to-coach or coach-to-player.

You are a relatively young coach with lots of sky ahead of you. What are some things you can im­prove on as a coach?

One of the things I’m always trying to evaluate and im­prove upon is, how am I teaching? Not just teaching foot­ball, but teaching skills. The smartest people in the world make very difficult concepts easy to understand. When I travel, I like to observe how other people teach.

The reality of football is that the expanse of the sport and the variations in the way it’s played are so expansive that we don’t know them all. You can’t know everything there is about the sport. You’re always trying to learn and meet other people. A fun part about coaching is going out and meeting someone very different than you. Maybe they believe something different from you or personality-wise, they’re very different from you. I like being around peo­ple like that. Life is no fun if you’re just around people like you all the time.



What other profession would you most like to attempt?

If I’d had the courage, I would’ve liked to join the military. I have the utmost respect for what those people do.

What business leader do you look up to?

Herb Kelleher [co-founder and former CEO, Southwest Airlines]. There are a lot of parallels to coaching in how we’re competing here at Iowa against teams with more money and greater resources.

Favorite TV show or podcast?

Podcast is “How I Built This” on NPR. My favorite show of all time is “The Office.”

Motivational quote?

“Never complain, never explain.” – Benjamin Disraeli

30 extra minutes in a day?

Spend time with my family.

Favorite book?

“Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business” by Chet Richards.

In one sentence, how would you define success?

I would steal it from Ray Dalio’s book, “Principles”: “Success is the ability to struggle well.”