Howe: Familiarity Breeds Contempt for Ferentz

Kirk Ferentz has witnessed a lot during his 15 plus years as Iowa's head coach. As HI Publisher Rob Howe writes, one things he's seen is an increase the number of his critics. That was apparent after Saturday's loss to Iowa State and not unique to the Head Hawkeye.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Perhaps in no other walk of life does the saying familiarity breeds contempt hold up stronger than it does in sports. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz is a living, breathing example of it.

Ferentz sits a quarter of the way through his 16th season leading the Hawkeyes. That's an eternity in his line of work. He and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops rank third behind Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech and Troy's Larry Blakeney for longest current tenure among FBS coaches.

Mack Brown had Stoops and Ferentz beat by a year until he was run out of Texas after last season. It got ugly in Austin for a coach that won a national championship and returned the Longhorns to prominence after more than a decade of disappearance from national title contention.

Brown then became a victim of his own success. After a 13-1 mark in 2009 that ended with a loss to the machine known as Alabama in the BCS Championship, Texas compiled a 30-21 record over the next four campaigns. Last year's 7-2 mark in the Big 12 was not enough to save him.

Brown's case was not an exception on today's college football landscape. It's become a billion dollar business where the coaches are handsomely compensated. With that comes expectations and less patience from the fan base, donors and media. June Jones resurrected SMU then retired after two games this season.

No sane Iowa fan holds Ferentz to the standards at Texas, where it's national championship or bust. The Hawkeyes should strive to win it all, no doubt, but the inherent challenges to do so are much greater here than in Austin.

What rational Hawkeye followers expect is what Ferentz has produced - Big Ten title contenders. Reasonable people understand anything on top of that is a bonus.

After rebuilding the program in his first three seasons, Ferentz won a conference crown in 2002 and again two years later. He set the bar for himself. Since then, it's been a roller coaster ride.

After the high of '04, the Hawkeyes progressively sunk into a valley that ended with missing the postseason in '07. It was at this point that Ferentz felt his first real heat from fans. They wondered if his schemes were outdated and if he was averse to change.

Rumors of Ferentz's demise were proven to be greatly exaggerated when the Hawkeyes rebuilt and raced out to a 9-0 record in '09. They lost in overtime at Ohio State in what was a de facto Big Ten title game and then went on to beat Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. All was well again.

The state of the program looked so good to Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta that he awarded Ferentz a 10-year extension at around $4 million annually. Added to what the coach had accomplished to that point, one of the largest salaries among his peers brought greater pressure to win at a high level.

While the extension and compensation raised some eyebrows, Ferentz's public approval rating among his constituency remained solid. The Hawkeyes returned a good deal of future NFL talent in '10. He would earn his dough with another run at a Big Ten championship.

The cart headed downward on the roller coaster track again, however. Iowa finished 8-5 overall and 4-4 in conference for '10. Ferentz created more critics by failing to meet outside expectations.

A year later, the Hawkeyes fell to 7-6. In '12, they bottomed out at 4-8, losing their final six games of the campaign. Ferentz lost a fair amount of the fan base for good at that point.

Once again, the coach rose from his apparent professional death last season. With very low expectations going into '13, Iowa posted an 8-5 mark and reached the Outback Bowl. The coaster cart was moving uphill again.

Of course, by righting the ship last year, facing a perceived cupcake schedule and returning a lot of key players this fall, the Hawkeyes were pegged as a league title contender. Kirk Herbstreit tabbed them as a dark horse to reach the first football playoff with the nation's top four teams.

Those high expectations, realistic or not, received a kick to the groin Saturday. Rival Iowa State, winless through two weeks, upset Iowa, 20-17, in Kinnick Stadium. Ferentz critics resurfaced quickly, loudly.

The Cyclone loss triggered this blowback but it was bubbling under the surface. While a faction of the fan base basked in the light of a 2-0 start and assured itself defeating ISU was a formality, another segment expected a pitfall and was waiting to pounce if it occurred.

Ferentz lost some believers in '07, but the majority of the dissenters gathered from '10-'12. Arriving on the heels of a big raise and extension, the Hawkeyes stumbled to a 19-14 overall mark and were 10-14 in conference during that three-year stretch. The collapse of '12 caused some folks to get off the ride as the roller coaster bottomed out.

This week's criticism, disgust in some cases, didn't stem from a bad day against ISU. It's built up over time, mostly during the three seasons prior to the last.

The evidence comes in falling attendance numbers. Despite bouncing back with eight wins last season, almost 10,000 tickets went unsold for Iowa's first two games in '14. Among those who did show up were a noticeably higher number of opposing fans than in years past.

Tickets remained for the Iowa State tilt up to a week before kickoff. They're still available for the rest of Hawkeyes' schedule at Kinnick, which includes homecoming against Indiana, a date with Northwestern, and trophy contests against Wisconsin and Nebraska. Again, this is coming off eight wins and a New Year's Day Bowl.

Extremists on one side are calling for Ferentz to be fired. On the other, stand loyalists who believe all is well with the coach and his program.

Asking for Ferentz to be shown the door at this point is ludicrous. Almost as outlandish are people believing the coach can do no wrong and gets a pass to retirement.

Through his first 11 seasons, Ferentz won two Big Ten titles and competed for another. Since then, after a hefty raise and extension, he's 29-20 overall and 15-17 in the league. Whether it's Iowa or Texas or Timbuktu, the performance does not meet compensation.

And, yes, the money means something. If it didn't, Ferentz and his agent wouldn't have engineered his current deal in a state where the cost of living is very reasonable. It mattered to them and it matters to fans.

No, tax payer dollars are not part of supporting team. What raises the money are donors and Joe Average Iowa fan. People fork over hard-earned cash for the game-day experience, Hawkeye gear, cost of watching the team on television and other contributions to fund one of the highest grossing programs in the country. It's theirs just as much, if not more, than it is the coach or the AD or the school president.

Some fans are fed up. Others are worried. The emotions are triggered by what they have witnessed, the familiarity of a coach and his perceived weaknesses.

He's stubborn. The game has past him by. He lacks fire. He doesn't take chances. He's too conservative, they say.

Ferentz is doing it like he's always done it. He hasn't changed what's worked even when it's not working. Staying the course has served him well.

What has changed is the length of the leash he has with the Iowa fan base. It's not unique. It shortened up on Hayden Fry, though that's been largely forgotten over time and the legend has emerged.

Ferentz still controls his own destiny. Although tighter, the leash's lead is not choking him. It stretches beyond the final nine games of this fall and likely years ahead.

That won't sit well with the fans who have bailed on this regime and its approach. And their cries will increase unless the program builds on last season's step forward. More importantly, butts could continue vacating Kinnick, fans speaking loudest with their wallets.

Iowa football is not crumbling nor is it flourishing on the field. It's in neutral. It's at a crossroads. It's hoping to avoid an apathetic blitz.

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