Howe: Fans Hold the Fate of Ferentz

Iowa's season ended with a thud on on Friday when it was smashed 45-28 by Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The display ratcheted up angst in an already uneasy fan base. As HI Publisher Rob Howe writes, the Hawkeye faithful will determine the future of the program.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Iowa spent the last month refocusing. The players and coaches got back to work and became reenergized following a flop of the regular season. They were prepared to tackle Tennessee head on in Friday's TaxSlayer Bowl, they told us.

Turns out, it was just talk. And that was cheap. The Hawkeyes' actions here at EverBank Field looked eerily similar to what we saw all season.

Whatever work was done since losing three of their final four regular-season games failed to fix lingering deficiencies. A 6-6 Volunteers team embarrassed Iowa, 45-28, in game reminiscent of the 51-14 debacle at Minnesota on Nov. 8. The Vols led this one, 42-7, after three quarters before allowing some cosmetic touchdowns.

If a 7-6 season can be considered a disaster, you witnessed it this fall. The Hawkeyes failed to beat an FBS team with a winning record and lost all four trophy games, three of which were played at Kinnick Stadium.

Friday's disaster looked familiar. The other team just pressured Iowa's defense on the edges early and then busted it up the gut. The Hawkeyes chipped into to their demise by missing tackles and taking poor angles.

Offensively, Iowa was predictable. Jake Rudock or C.J. Beathard at quarterback, it didn't matter. With three years in the books, the Kirk Ferentz-Greg Davis experiment has been an unmitigated mess.

Perhaps beating Tennessee wouldn't have removed all doubt about the direction of the program. What unfolded allowed more to flood in.

Ferentz deserves a lot of credit and praise for his 16 years heading up Iowa. On campus sits a handsomely renovated stadium and high class facilities in large part due to the coach's accomplishments.

That said, it's not just his program. It belongs to the university and its fans. And they have a say.

This season's results capped a five-year run that saw this team finish above. 500 in the Big Ten once. That stretch has soured a lot of the followers.

That was readily apparent here where Tennessee fans outnumbered their opponent in alarming fashion. The last two years, Kinnick Stadium has witnessed just one sellout (Iowa State) and a lot of seats occupied by other teams' colors.

These things usually work themselves out. When teams fall short of expectations, fans become angry and then apathetic. When that occurs, they stop supporting the program with their wallets and it eventually fosters change.

"If I'm going to sit around listening to the temperature, reading the temperature on the outside… really what I need to do is probably just take the energy that I can put towards the job and put it on our improvement," Ferentz said of fan criticism after the game. "That's typically what we've tried to to do for 16 years. Did that answer the question?"

Ferentz was asked if he was aware of the temperature outside the program and how he reacts to disappointment from his program's supporters.

"Single digits in Iowa," he said. "Do you want to be more specific? I'm serious."

Ferentz knew what he was being asked. He's a good football coach because he's a smart guy. It's just what this thing as deteriorated to, him being snide or dismissive to being questioned, be it media or disgruntled fans calling his radio show. It's a pretty natural defense mechanism.

The coach can't gather public support with words, anyway. The only way for the coach to erase doubt about his ability to lead the program is to win big in 2015. And with a schedule similarly as manageable as this fall's was, it better be real big.

Ferentz knows there's noise out there. If he hasn't seen the T-Shirts sold at Iowa Book mocking his "That's Football" explanation to his team's shortcomings, he's certainly heard about it.

Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta came out publicly in support of his coach a few times last month. He also called the 7-5 regular-season unacceptable. Ferentz said he wouldn't use that word to describe it as they sat together at a press conference.

There's tension. Football is the main bread winner of the athletic department. Barta said last month he was worried about next season's home attendance and hoped that the team could get off to a good enough start to being people back. That's a tenuous existence.

"I haven't seen it this intense even when we were 4-8 (in 2012). It didn't get to this level of (fan) angst ," Barta said here on Friday.

Fan rage is prevalent on our Hawkeye Insider message boards and others of its kind. The same can be said for social media and talk radio. The wave is rising.

None of that will matter much if people continue to fill Kinnick. Just like the coaches and players talked about refocusing, screaming at the media or fellow fans for change won't make it happen. It's big business and money matters.

Iowa football boasts more staying power than a lot of schools. Autumn saturday's serve as events for fans. Giving that up is tough.

It's easier these days than in the past when the experience cost less. The investment these days is tied to emotion and monetary expense. It's tough to separate those two sometimes.

If nothing else, the offseason brings intrigue. There are decisions to made. Ferentz must figure out how to get the program going again while the fans have to make up their minds if they're in or out with their hard-earned cash.

The 10-year contract Ferentz signed in 2010 has now been split in half. Buying him out isn't as prohibitive as it was just a few years ago. If things continue to deteriorate, it might make more fiscal sense to cut him loose.

Ferentz has risen from the depths of doubt before. In those cases, he had more support.

It's the biggest uphill battle the coach has faced since taking over the program in 1999. He turns 60 in August with his legacy on the line.

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