Kirk Ferentz is the head coach of the University of Iowa football team, a position he has held for 25 years.
Coach shares with me how he has seen the landscape of football change since he started his career in the ‘80s, how they continue to see big returns from small innovations, and how his job at Iowa compares to his time in Maine. We also discuss why he has his team read books on productivity and collaboration, what real success means to someone who has already found a significant level of success in his career, and shares some positive thoughts on special teams and kickers.
Sponsored by MidWestOne Bank, this is the latest edition of the CBJ’s new podcast feature with Nate Kaeding and notable Iowa business and cultural leaders, available first to CBJ members. Listen to this episode below, and subscribe on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher.
Nate Kaeding: This is the big 50th episode of the podcast for us here, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to join us for a little conversation. You’re going into your 25th season, which is amazing. I was here right at the beginning of all that, which ages me a little bit as well. One of the main hallmarks of your career has been that you’ve had amazing kickers here at Iowa, right? What has made you such a great head coach for kickers?
Kirk Ferentz: First of all, it’s an honor to do this. I have no background in business at all, but I do think a lot of things that we do in our world will transfer over. No question about that.
To your point about kickers and punters — it’s almost ironic, because I was here for nine years as an assistant coach back in the ’80s. I had no interest in special teams at all. Coach (Hayden) Fry made us coach the punt team. Take money off of our paycheck, but don’t make us be involved with that stuff. But I will say I did grow an appreciation for Reggie Roby really quickly. I figured that out. Then when Tommy Nichol hit three field goals at Michigan in 1981 as a true freshman, I said, “this is a good thing too.”
It really is my time in the NFL where I developed my appreciation for special teams and just how important they are. That’s a key component to being successful. We don’t live in the world of Penn State, Michigan, or Ohio State. We never have and probably never will, yet we’ve been able to compete with them. To do that, special teams is a critical component. It has won a lot of football games for us over the last 20-plus years.
Back to the business side of things. Do you think much about the economic impact that Iowa football has on the university, this region, and the state at large?
It’s not prominent in my thoughts. The one thing that has really changed so much in my 20+ years here in college football is the money. It’s unbelievable. Most of it is driven by TV revenue. I remember, during my time in the NFL, wondering “Where’s it all going to end? Where’s it going to stop?” It hasn’t, and it has trickled down to college football too. If you look at these conference TV deals that have been cut the last several years, you think back to Jim Delany launching the Big Ten Network, right? He was looked at as an enemy of the people. Everybody made fun of him. Next thing you know, everybody was trying to be Jim Delany a couple of years later.
Did you have any fears stepping into this role and essentially running your own business as head coach?
I had two big fears coming into this role. I actually asked Mary, my wife, on the way out for the interview with the people from Iowa. We met in Cleveland with the search committee, and as I was leaving, I said, “Are you sure you’re on board with this?” I’ve never owned my own business, but I just told Mary, I said, “My guess is this is going to be like having our own business.” Pro football was great because if there were ever any issues, my phone never rang. When I went home, I went home. The phone calls went to the head coach or the GM and I didn’t have to deal with them. I told Mary, “My guess is all the phone calls are going to come to me now.” This is back before cell phones.
But my other fear was donor involvement and maybe donor over-involvement. Ironically, one of the biggest blessings of my life are the donors I’ve been able to interface with and interact with and develop relationships with. Mary and I are both involved with the people that have been supportive of our program, and I’ve learned so much from so many people. They’re not trying to lecture you about what they do or give you tips, but it’s just about listening to them talk about their stories and how they were successful. There are an awful lot of parallels and an awful lot of things you can learn from people who have experience.
How does a program budget work in college football, and how involved are you in that process?
I was head coach at Maine for three years. Back then they called it 1-AA, but now it’s FCS. I was a lot more involved in budgets there and had to be aware of everything. Coach Fry’s answer on budget questions always was, “We need what we need to win.” That has really been the situation here. At a place like Maine, you just don’t have a budget. That’s true at most FCS schools. Then you come to a Big Ten school like this and it’s well supported. It has never really been an issue outside of trying to build facilities and grow. The other flip side is that I don’t think we’ve ever asked for things. We’re not extravagant in our taste, if you will. So we’ve tried to be reasonable. If we do ask for something, there usually is a really good reason and we’re able to justify why it’s important. The training table comes to mind right off the bat when the NCAA allowed us, I think it was in ’14, to start feeding our athletes. We’ve really done a great job.
You got a carton of milk back in the old days, or a bagel with no cream cheese.
They had all those crazy rules. I know we’re at the upper end of spending money on food for our players, but it makes so much sense because they train so hard. That’s a big part of what we do. They train hard, they burn a lot of calories, and they need to have those replenished so they can grow and develop. The administration has always understood that we typically don’t ask or don’t emphasize something unless we really think it’s important and going to be integral to our success and the success of our players.
One of the things I loved when I was here was how you focused on professional development, including having reading as a major component.
I have a habit of collecting articles or I’ll print them out and just throw them in a briefcase if I’m on a plane or something. Probably 15 years ago, I read an article (in) a coaching magazine about a competition they did internally with their football team. So we formed what we call the Hawkeye Championship. It’s an internal competition we do from January until August. We divide the team a couple of weeks after we begin the winter program and they elect captains.
It’s geared toward what they’re doing in the strength conditioning field, but also there’s a component for academic achievement — being on time and where they’re supposed to be, and doing quality work. They can pick up bonus points through having a perfect week for all the criteria that are set. They go out and do community service projects and meals together.
So that’s kind of where the book part got involved. All of our players read The Slight Edge at some point when they come in. Jeff Olson is the author, I think. There are so many good illustrations of things that all of us can do in our lives to just be a little bit more efficient and a little bit more productive with what we do. The Culture Code is one of the books that we read. I thought that was really great. Do Hard Things was this year’s read.
How are the young men coming into your program now different from those who came in earlier in your career?
You know, when I went to college, it was the early ’70s. It was right after Vietnam was finally coming to an end. It was a really crazy period in our country. I was a kid at that point, and I’m just looking around thinking it had to be a tough time to be a coach or to be an educator or a parent. I would suggest the last 15 years maybe are the same thing because of social media. When I think about the good parts of social media, I think about how The Wave all started. A woman in Anita, Iowa, Krista Young came up with the idea and went on social media and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if …”. But for every one of those, there’s so many things that are just crazy.
I don’t think people have changed that much, but I think the influences have. As a coach, I think you always have to be in tune to what your audience is. What are the influences that our players are being affected by, and then the key thing is trying to be proactive.
It’s hard to find anybody really trying to promote the value of teamwork or the essence of working hard. An easy example to cherry pick would be last year. We’ve lost two in a row, I guess it would’ve been, and we go to Ohio State and just get smashed. It was not pretty, obviously. So we come back here and we’re three and four. I’m not out looking for the negativity, but I can only imagine what our guys are hearing out in the real world. You have to be really proactive and try to get your players to understand that the noise really doesn’t matter. What matters is what we’re doing together, how we’re thinking, how we’re talking to each other, and what we’re doing to find a solution.
I want to hit on change management and innovation. Not only do you constantly have new players coming in and out, but you’re also constantly innovating in small ways. Can you speak to that?
So one of the changes you and I were discussing before was the day off thing, and that was a byproduct of our ’14 season. I fully understand and appreciate how teams get evaluated by the public and the media. Basically, it’s your win-loss record in a nutshell. I’ve always resisted that. I’ve always judged every week and every game, and then every season by just the feel and how we operated. Did we maximize the opportunities in front of us? Did we do it in a smart way? Did we all work toward the common goal?
2014 is a great illustration. It was one of the more frustrating years for me as personally as a coach. I think about 2008 and I think about last year. We just never hit our stride. That off-season, when everybody got off the road in February, we spent a couple weeks just going through everything in the program: Facilities, the way we practice, the way we structure things, the weekly plan.
That’s really where we made two major shifts. First of all, we went to morning practices and there was an academic component to that. I was frustrated because we were practicing in the afternoon and there are budget cuts going on, so less classes were available. We had more guys coming late and more guys leaving early. I’m wondering about who is missing what messaging.
Then the thing you referenced: Going to a Thursday off-day as opposed to Monday. Traditionally, Sunday or Monday is what everybody does for an off-day. That was one of the scariest things we did. We just kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and we were pretty sure it was going to happen. But it didn’t, and we still do it that way. The interesting thing is that there were a lot of byproducts of making the shifts that we made. I would love to tell you we knew at the onset that was going to happen. But those are things we discovered through the process. So yeah, I guess the moral of the story is sometimes you take a risk or take a chance and it really can pay off for you in ways you don’t even think about or aren’t smart enough to anticipate.
As you look back on your career and look to the future, what does real success look like to you?
There’s such an opportunity to learn. This is such a dynamic process. Things are changing all the time. The landscape’s changing. The core values and things that are really important for moving things forward don’t change, but the world around us changes so much. So I find that highly stimulating at times and frustrating at times.
This is where I was in December: Discouraged about this N-I-L stuff and about the portal. I have eight or 10 players come into my office in a couple day period saying they’re going to leave the program. That’s a little bit of a blow to your ego in some ways. You take it personally for a little bit. Then I started thinking, well, maybe if they’re not 100% happy here, it’s better they leave and maybe we find some guys that are going to be 100% happy. There’s always opportunity.
The thing that brought me back to center in December was our players. You just can’t buy it in the real world, having that opportunity to be with the guys, working together on something that’s really hard to do and being around great individuals. That’s a part that’s going to be hard to walk away from.
Every year it’s a new team, and even if the same team comes back, it’s a new team, new circumstances, and new challenges. I think that’s the thing that’s so stimulating about it. It’s a new puzzle every year. Success is putting that puzzle together that way.
Thank you so much for your time and for coming on the show.
It’s a pleasure and an honor to do this. One of the good things about doing what I do is to see people like you do what it is that you do in your professional lives. Not a lot of guys get to have a pro career like yours. People don’t understand just how unique and how hard that is to do. But then there’s the bigger picture of raising a family and being good members of a community. So hats off to you. Makes an old guy feel good.