Hawkeye faithful everywhere still beam with pride when the name Hayden Fry is uttered. After all, it was Fry who provided Hawkeyes a new sense of identity, not just for the football program he inherited which had gone a dismal 17 years without a winning season prior to his 1979 arrival, but also all other sports at the University of Iowa, which now universally use his personally-designed Tiger Hawk logo to instill awe in friend and foe alike.
Less known to the younger Hawkeye Nation, however, is the place current head coach Kirk Ferentz played in that 1979 revival and the lessons he learned in the process which contributed, ironically enough, to his own ‘99 renaissance of a program which had once again become mired in mediocrity under the last few years of Fry's 18-year tenure.
Entering the 2015 season, however, Ferentz’ one-time untouchable status after a series of 10-win seasons in the early 2000s has been rocked by a four-year run in which the Hawkeyes saw their team go a pre-Fry-style 26-25. Even more shocking, Kinnick Stadium, named for legend Nile Kinnick, Iowa’s lone Heisman Trophy winner, saw the Hawkeyes’ once-unbeatable home dominance dwindling fast. And the losses in Kinnick weren't to perennial powers like Michigan and Ohio State. They were coming at the hands of unlikely foes like Northern Illinois and Central Michigan.
Which brings this program into the 2015 season riding a mediocre 34-30 record over the last five years, and Ferentz is no longer a man with whom Hawkeye faithful feel is best suited to remain at the helm once his larger-than-life (and 10th largest in FBS) $4 million annual contract expires in ‘19. As a matter of fact, Hawkeye Nation now questions whether he should even be there after this season. He's no longer getting the results he once obtained, and the faithful 70,000-plus fans in Kinnick every fall Saturday have lost patience with the teams’ subpar performances. Meaning there is likely no hotter seat in the Big Ten in 2015 than the one currently occupied by Ferentz.
When discussing the issue of success at the collegiate level it's often tempting to look at only the wins and losses. But there's more to the story of Iowa's slide from its dominant years of the early 2000s and Ferentz’ rebuilding job. And it starts with public perception.
For more than five years, from 2007-12, Ferentz stubbornly stood by his then-offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe even as the offense repeatedly failed to perform and became a potent symbol of the lack of entertainment the Hawkeyes were providing on the field. It seemed that in the battle of public perception, the Hawkeyes had grown much more entertaining off of the field, where player arrests and controversy reigned. Yet Ferentz refused to budge in making changes to his staff, which could have eliminated both of those problems at least until the Hawkeyes’ dismal 4-8 showing in 2012.
Then there's the issue of how assistant coaches and coordinators perform their jobs, which can be measured in large part by the revolving door that first showed up in Fry's program, as his staff members were regularly vetted for movement up the ladder by other programs. This season will see five former Fry assistants, including Ferentz, leading their own highly successful FBS programs in some capacity, including Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Kansas State's Bill Snyder, Arkansas' Bret Bielema, and Wisconsin's former coach and now athletics director Barry Alvarez. In all, only one former Fry assistant from his 1983 coaching staff, Dan McCarney, has not gone to post a career winning record as a head coach.
And what of Ferentz’ former staff? Only a select few have moved up the coaching ladder after departing Iowa. A clear sign that the once vaunted Iowa coaching tree has indeed seen its own drought.
Which brings us to the players themselves. What's become of some of the most talented recruits Ferentz has coached at Iowa? To his credit, this is where Ferentz shines, having moved more college players to the NFL than any other Big Ten coach during his tenure. Which begs the question, if the talent was that good why was Iowa still enduring the continuing long slow slog through slightly better than .500 seasons?
The answer, while complicated in many ways, most likely comes down to one inevitable issue. Kirk Ferentz himself.
When he arrived at Iowa, Ferentz’ bravado off the field was muted, with most considering him a humble type who shunned the spotlight in favor of a modest approach that focused on slow growth and teaching. And while he was successful in initially recapturing the glory days of Fry's success, that humble approach ultimately meant his program was left to fight over players that the Oklahomas and Ohio States of the college football landscape didn't want. In most respects that seemed a good fit for Iowa. Except for where low-key intersected with the fanbase’s long and storied history of demanding overachiever-style success, a history former Iowa basketball coaches Lute Olsen and C. Vivian Stringer both publicly cited as creating unrealistic standards.
So what of these under-performing Hawkeyes entering this season?
One look at the schedule shows a luxury not often seen by the Hawkeyes recently, playing seven of their 12 games in the once-comfy confines of Kinnick Stadium. But oh those five games played on the road — a slate that includes Wisconsin, Nebraska, as well as the often Ferentz-vexing Northwestern and Iowa State.
Run the slate in the non-conference and win Big Ten games against lesser opponents like Indiana, Purdue and Illinois, while pulling off at least one upset on the road and Ferentz will likely have successfully silenced his critics for one more year. Lose even one of those games, however, and he may very well have cemented his legacy in the same category as Fry, who in spite of his success was thought to have stayed five years too long.
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a native Iowan currently living in Los Angeles. A University of Iowa graduate, Boleyn is a Hawkeye fanatic and former contributing writing for The Daily Iowan. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.