Howe: What's Iowa's Ceiling?

What is the ceiling for the Iowa football program? Is being an elite program realistic? Are you satisfied with your Hawkeyes? publisher Rob Howe explores.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - Maybe he was tired of the topic. Perhaps I asked one question too many. Whatever the case, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz was done with my inquiries.

Tuesday, I was searching for Ferentz's opinions on what he calls his "developmental" program. At the end, I asked what the ceiling was for the Hawkeyes. Could Iowa become a consistent top tier program in terms of wins and losses? Could they be Alabama or Oklahoma or Ohio State or USC?

Yes, those schools have some valleys. But those never seem to last as long as they do at other places.

"You guys know this stuff better than I do, for crying out loud," Ferentz said. "You have got more time to look at that stuff. You can do the research. It's a good project to work on. So anyway; I'm worried about this Saturday. Ok."

Understood. Although I'd like to see him try being a work-from-home dad with that cares for three kids ages 6 and under and see how much time he has, Mr. Big Time Football Coach.

I kid.

There's probably not a right response for him there. If he says Iowa could become a Nebraska of the '90s, he's asked why they are not. If he says there are too many obstacles, then he's making excuses. I get it.

As someone whose been an assistant coach at Iowa for nine years and the head coach for the last 12, I thought Ferentz might share his opinions to a degree. He did when answering my questions leading up to the one that made him uncomfortable.

I could research the topic, as he said. Maybe I will some day. It won't be this day. There are too many snacks to get and dirty diapers to change.

The problem comes when deciding on a formula to compare schools. Do you use strict data, such as measuring the Hawkeye program against schools that mirror it in such factors as state population? Is it about conference affiliation or recruits in the region and the competition for said prospects? How are the other programs with whom you compete with prospects doing during a segment of time?

The data is always changing. I think you can work the numbers to tell you whatever you want to hear, to a degree.

I've had this discussion with many people who speak from Iowa's point of view. Former A.D. Bob Bowlsby always was good at laying out the Hawkeyes' obstacles, the main one being that they have the smallest state population in the Big Ten, which affects recruiting.

"Population helps," Ferentz said. "It's not everything. Nebraska doesn't have a Nebraska State to compete with or a Northern Nebraska."

Still, the Huskers had to go out of state to put together national championship teams. Iowa has relied heavily upon non-Iowans to succeed as well. I'm not sure that Iowa State and Northern Iowa have hindered the Hawkeyes a whole lot.

Ferentz has called Iowa a developmental program many times through the years. He's also said that there have only been a few programs that are not that way, Tuesday pointing out Alabama and Oklahoma.

"It's a race against time, how quickly can you move on if you don't have a lot of experienced players, how can you get that experience and get guys to react in a good way when situations pop up," the coach said. "So it's an ongoing process and as you know, there's a lot of variables that take place during the course of the season, and that's the deal."

Injuries and transfers impact a developmental program a lot more than they do Alabama or Oklahoma is what he's saying. I'll buy that.

"We hit a stride in 2002 after the second half at Ann Arbor," Ferentz said. "Things kind of fell in place for us and that turned into one of those deals where we took off. But really outside of that, that's really kind of the way our seasons have gone.

"We have had a couple big wins and we've had a couple bad losses, too. But for the most part, it's pretty closely contested, and the team that does the best with the opportunities that are in front of them is usually the team that wins. That's the challenge that's out there. It really has not changed a heck of a lot."

After two years of rebuilding as the head coach, Ferentz led the Hawkeyes to the Alamo Bowl in 2001. Then, from '02-'04, Iowa finished each season ranked eighth nationally and won two Big ten titles. The Hawkeyes have been rated in the season-ending poll twice since then - 20th in '08 and 7th in '09. In four of those years, they lost at least five games.

Ferentz was asked Tuesday if it's inherent for developmental programs to go through peaks and valleys year to year.

"You guys make the conclusions on that," he sad. "If you look at college football, there are a handful of teams that have great population bases, great resources. Look at stadiums -- common sensical things that I think -- and it really has not changed much over 30 years, 40 years, probably longer than that, what schools those are.

"They start on the inside track and there's others that start way on the outside and there's some in the middle, and that stuff fluctuates year-to-year. But there are some teams inside that lane each and every year."

I really don't know where the ceiling of success sits for Iowa. I hear from plenty of people who profess that they do. They don't. It's opinion and speculation.

One camp points to history to make the case that as a developmental program what Ferentz, and Hayden Fry similarly did before him, is the best Iowa fans can expect. That movement brings up that most of the fruitless '60s and '70s as where Iowa could be. It's a legitimate reminder of the bottom.

Then, there are the folks that wonder if they should be dictated to by history. They desire more and don't feel like they should limit expectations based on the past. They can't help but think there's another floor on the elevator of success for their beloved Hawkeyes.

Both sides are entitled to their opinion. There is no right or wrong because the landscape continually changes.

One thing is for sure. Ferentz won't coach forever. He's closer to the end than the beginning of his run here. At some point, we'll see if things go backward, forward or stay the same.

Then, he can come over my house and help me with my kids.

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