IOWA CITY, Iowa - Most of the 70,000 plus fans at Kinnick Stadium stuck around after the final horn on Saturday. They watched highlights of the 2009 season on the jumbo-tron after the regular-season finale.
The Hawkeyes finished at 10-2 after a 12-0 victory against rival Minnesota. The big screen showed miraculous wins being captured from the jaws of defeat. It was a season to remember.
The Seniors walked off the field proudly raising Floyd of Rosedale above their heads. Two years ago, the seniors exited to boos after losing in their last home game against Western Michigan.
I remember walking to the locker room after that ‘07 game thinking that this program was in trouble. The Hawkeyes had compiled a 12-13 record in ‘06-07 and many arrests off of the field.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz did an incredible job taking over for Hayden Fry in ‘99 and rebuilding the program to the point that it finished ranked eighth in the country for three years in a row (‘02-04). He received a fat raise and became Hawkeye royalty.
As good as that run was earlier in the decade, what Ferentz and his staff have done the last two years tops it. It's the most impressive aspect of their last 11 years in Iowa City.
We see coaches all over the country rebuild programs only to see the wheels come off (Kansas' Mark Mangino, Illinois‘ Ron Zook, etc.). Re-rebuilding a program has to be one of the toughest things to do in sports, but Ferentz and his assistants have pulled it off.
Iowa ran its record to 19-6 over the last two seasons. The Hawkeyes have won 14 of their last 16 games. They also have kept their noses clean off of the field with no arrest reports during the season.
"It starts with Coach Ferentz getting us back to doing what we need to do to win," Senior Linebacker A.J. Edds said. "I guess my freshman and sophomore years it was just kind of a dip. I don't know if I would say that guys were too comfortable but maybe they lost the edge a little bit. We were able to get it back the last couple of years."
Iowa earned a reputation as the bullies of the Big Ten during the first run of high success under Ferentz. While nobody has said they're back in that regard, no Iowa team has shown more fight than this current group.
The Hawkeyes stumbled to a 5-4 start last fall with a series of close losses that have doomed plenty of teams before them. They stayed resilient and won their last five games, starting with an upset of No. 3 and unbeaten Penn State last November, even enduring a quarterback controversy early in the campaign.
Still, many prognosticators, including yours truly, felt like this year's road schedule might keep the Hawkeyes from achieving the success in the win column that the '08 team enjoyed. Ferentz expressed as much in the summer. I had them at 8-4.
Iowa gutted out what I believe to be the most impressive coaching job done by the coaches. Yes, the ‘04 team played with a decimated running attack, but this year Iowa was hit with injuries at running back, quarterback, offensive line, tight end, linebacker and the secondary. Even defensive coordinator Norm Parker was relegated to the press box for the last four games of the season.
Saturday's win against Minnesota was a microcosm of what this season was about. The Hawkeyes performed nothing like a 10-2 team should on offense, but the defense stepped up for a shutout. Whatever it has taken this season, this team found a way to overcome with the exception of falling to Northwestern with back-up quarterback James Vandenberg playing his first meaningful college snaps and at Big Ten Champion Ohio State by a field goal in overtime.
The Iowa players should be complimented on their grit and determination. There's also a bunch of talent on this team. But the main reason that this team is 10-2 was because Ferentz and his staff put its foot down a few years ago, changed the attitude of the program and got the group believing in the next-man-in philosophy that paid off so well earlier this decade.
"It starts with the personnel, but we try to coach it," Ferentz said. "Guys that don't buy into it don't surface and guys that do buy into it do OK. Our culture is what we want now. We got it back to where we want.
"The other part of the equation is not taking it for granted. We have to be working all the time."
Ferentz called a six-game stretch in ‘06 that ended with an embarrassing defeat at Minnesota in the regular-season finale the worst run in his coaching career. He called it the "poorest job I did."
"Football wise, a little entitlement virus got in there," Ferentz said. "Probably all of us took things for granted a little. We paid the price for it."
The coach felt like things began to turn around in December of ‘06 when they enjoyed a good month of postseason prep that concluded in a close loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Much to his dismay, the off field issues became the worst in his career in ‘07.
"I can't explain it to you but it was an immature team, a young team," Ferentz said. "They were beyond being college kid mistakes in ‘07. That's when you really get concerned. I know it goes on around the country. You see things happen. But it ain't OK. We all knew that in third grade. We can‘t have that happening."
Ferentz booted players from the team, including a couple of seniors for relatively minor offenses. It was clear that he was at the end of his rope.
"Right after my sophomore year (2007), we got back to work quick and worked as hard as we have since I've been here," Edds said. "We were determined not to let that happen again. We've done a good job of staying strong and staying the course under Coach Ferentz's guidance and leadership which trickles down through the coaches.
"We're not done. We want to keep it going. We're laying the groundwork and paving the path for future teams."
Iowa is in position to reach a BCS bowl for the second time (‘02) in the Ferentz Era. It's an amazing place to be considering what it was like here at Kinnick just two short years ago when some of the fan base and nationally media were calling for his head and tabbing him as being overpaid.
Hawkeye followers will always hold fond memories of the ‘02-04 run because it was fresh. It was new. What has happened the last two years has impressed me more than that.
Ferentz is the slam dunk conference coach of the year, and although he won't win the award on the national stage, nobody in the country has done a better job. I admit that I questioned his ability to save this thing a few years ago. I knew he possessed high character and was exceptional at running a program, but sometimes these things can become a run-away train.
"It was pretty clear we had to change something," Ferentz said. "The way were operating wasn't going to get it done."
The coach was noncommittal when asked if he should win conference award for his work.
"If I am (coach of the year), it's because we have the assistants and players of the year," Ferentz said. "If it ends up coming this way, that's the story right there."
It's been a group effort, but there's no doubt who's leading the charge. I left here with a much different feeling Saturday than I had back in ‘07. I was thinking that Ferentz rarely makes the same mistake twice, and that's a pretty important trait.