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December 1, 2009

Dienhart: Q&A with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz

Iowa's Kirk Ferentz may be in the midst of his greatest coaching job yet in his 11th season at Iowa City. The only Big Ten coach who has been on the job longer is Penn State's Joe Paterno.

Despite injuries to running back Jewel Hampton, quarterback Ricky Stanzi, tight end Tony Moeaki and offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, among others, Ferentz kept the Hawkeyes together.

Iowa jetted out to a 9-0 start before losing at home to Northwestern in a game in which Stanzi was injured and lost for the rest of the regular season. Iowa lost the next week at Ohio State in overtime before finishing a 10-2 regular season with victory over Minnesota.

Now, Ferentz and the Hawkeyes are in line for the school's first BCS berth since 2002.

Rivals.com caught up with Ferentz, the 2009 Big Ten coach of the year, to get his thoughts on the season.

When did you think this team had the potential to be special?

Certainly our first game [Northern Iowa] was a tough one in a lot of areas and a lot of ways. I thought we responded well the next week over at Iowa State. Certainly, the way we played at State College, that took a phenomenal effort to get that thing done. With us, traditionally, if we can experience some positive moments, then we may have a chance to grow from there, and I think that's what has taken place for this team.

Are you guys lucky, good or both?

I don't know. I'm not a great believer in luck. You can put it however you want. But I think we have a good football team. But I'll go back to my stump speech. Really, every year since 2001, we have had a good chance to have a good team. For us, a big part of it is how we develop and improve, how we handle the challenges that come up in any season. They have responded in every way possible. We have had a lot of things to deal with, and so far these guys have really done a wonderful job of taking on the challenges that have popped up.

Have you ever had a team overcome this kind and amount of adversity?

It's kind of like the 2004 team. We played pretty good on defense then. We've been playing well on defense [this season]. But I think we have a much better offensive team [this season]. We still haven't gotten to where we are capable of getting, mainly because that's where our injury challenges have been. Last year, we had a bunch of good players, and [running back] Shonn Greene emerges as a marquee guy and had a great season. We felt good about Jewel's development during the course of the year. We were very comfortable that he would be a good player for us this year. But he had the knee injury in camp. So suddenly we are down.

One of the guys we felt would compete in the spring was Jeff Brinson, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. So there's a couple players who disappear. Yet we have had Adam Robinson do a tremendous job and [true freshman Brandon] Wegher has done a great job of helping fill the void. That's one thing this team has done. Bulaga was out three games and Riley Reiff, a redshirt freshman, stepped in and played very well. We have been able to absorb the hits. A lot of young guys have stepped up and done a good job of not just helping us get by but helping us win. That's probably a difference from 2004, when we were just getting by.

Given some of the turmoil the program went through a few years ago, is the success this season that much more gratifying?

I thought '05 was a very successful year. We did go to a January bowl. We lost in overtime to Michigan and in the last minute to Northwestern. I thought we were competing at a very high level. We weren't nationally ranked like we were the previous three years. I do get a kick out of how people lump that in as an unsuccessful year. I don't look at it like that at all. A lot of teams would be happy to be in the Outback Bowl and be as competitive as we were. It's like the perception of the Big Ten -- it's easy to start generalizing. I do want to clarify that.

For me, our most disappointing stretch here, and that includes our 1-10 season in 1999, was the last six games of 2006. People forget we started that year 5-1 and had a pretty good team at midpoint. After that, we went 1-5. If you ask me, that would be the point when I was most disappointed with our play on the field. I believe since then we have been on the upward swing. But you have to look at the next year, and we were 2-4 to start. So if you look at those 12 regular-season games, that would be the portion I would highlight, though I thought we were on the path to recovery in 2007 when we were 2-4. I thought we were operating again the way I thought we're supposed to operate, as opposed to what was keeping us from having success at the end of the 2006 season.

What changed to turn things around?

I like to describe it as a virus, but it is a lot more than that. For some reason, we lost our competitive edge as the '06 season went on. Everyone asks why I've been at Iowa so long or why I like coaching at Iowa; it's because if things get screwed up here, there's only one person I can blame. Clearly, I didn't do a good job of keeping our team sharp or having them ready at the end of that year. I think we've done a better job of that in that regard since that time. I think we are building back up to having the kind of fun we want to have on the field.

Last year, we ended up 20th in the country, but we didn't threaten anyone for a league championship or end up being a top-10 team. Last year was as enjoyable a year as I have had in coaching because we had a great group of guys who were all committed. I think our team this year is similar. I think we are back to operating the right way. Last year, I think we lost four games by 12 points, so we weren't at a stage when we weren't competitive. When you coach anywhere, that's what you want -- a team that can compete and give itself a chance to win.

Before last season, Iowa added a life-skills coach. How has that been working out?

We have had two years off the field that were very disappointing. And in 2001, we had way too much going on. And '07 was by far the most disappointing year we have had. I can't really explain it other than to say both of those teams were young. We didn't have the maturity level that you have to have to make the choices and options that are available to all college students. Apparently, we didn't have the right culture established internally. One thought I had during the course of that year was, 'What can we do to improve things?' We had gone through something like this in '01, and we came back and had one of our best years ever in 2002. But we couldn't assume that what worked in 2002 is going to work in 2008.

One thought I had was that if we have academic counselors, strength coaches, medical trainers, all of these people who work with our student-athletes and help them develop ... the one area I thought we could improve or bolster was the social part of things, helping the kids make the adjustments. Most of our instances happened with young players. Usually. the mistakes are made by first- and second-year players. The idea was to hire a guy, a former player, who could work and help supplement the younger players as they made the transition to campus and the choices they'll have to make in college, whether they come from a city or small town.

We hired Chigozie Ejiasi [as director of player development] He was a walk-on who grew up in Cedar Rapids [which is about 30 minutes from Iowa City]. A walk-on back in my early years, he ended up being a great special teams player for us. He was a good team member for us who earned a scholarship. He was a good choice for us.

How good has the defense performed?

Typically, the way we are built when we are playing great defense, it starts up front for us. We have had some good players at linebacker and good ones in the secondary. But for us to be playing well on defense, it helps to be strong up front. And our guys have done a good job. We moved Christian Ballard inside. so it has taken him a while to adjust and he has grown almost every week. Broderick Binns and Karl Klug have stepped in to start and play well. And Adrian Clayborn is playing like we expected him to play.

How do you deal with what typically are the annual Ferentz-to-the-NFL rumors?

I'm sure they will start again at some point. In '07, I guess they were trying to send me to Canada. If those rumors persist, great. I get a kick out of it. I tell our guys if any of these other schools are throwing that out there [on the recruiting trail], how many of their head coaches have been somewhere for a long time? This is my 20th year here now [as an assistant and head coach]. I think the record speaks for itself.

Would you rather win a close game or by blowout?

If we win any way, it's OK. Earlier in my career, I used to worry about those things, but I have been coaching long enough now that you appreciate wins no matter how you get them. In the championship seasons I have been involved at Iowa, in the 1980s and now, you have to have games like we have if you're going to have any chance to win a championship. That's usually true with most teams. You usually have one or two of those games. Eight of them, I don't know!

How does it feel to be the second-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten behind Joe Paterno?

That's a heck of a commentary on our profession. The good news is I think Iowa is one of those places where you may have a realistic chance to win. You are gong to go through peaks and valleys.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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