CHICAGO As the son of a prominent college football coach, James Ferentz grew up learning to comprehend that the pulse of a community was measured by the performance of his father's team on Saturdays each fall.
Win, and he could walk the school hallways on Monday with a smile. Lose, and a melancholy mood wafted through the city for days.
"When I was in elementary school, I don't think I understood how important the University of Iowa and the football program was to Iowa City and the state," Ferentz said during Big Ten media days last week. "I didn't ever really piece it together until junior high when kids would point out how good they were. That's when we started winning."
Fortunately for Ferentz, a starting center for Iowa's football team, the happy days have far outnumbered the sad ones during his time in Iowa City. Of course, the same can be said for his father, Kirk Ferentz, whose model for consistently winning teams now has made him the dean of Big Ten football coaches.
With Joe Paterno no longer the coach at Penn State, Ferentz takes over as the longest-tenured and winningest coach in the conference. In 13 seasons at Iowa, Ferentz has amassed an overall record of 96-66 (.593 winning percentage). No other Big Ten coach has more than 60 victories or has been in charge of his football team for more than six years.
Hawkeyes quarterback James Vandenberg said Ferentz's ability to stay even-keeled despite the pressures of the job has contributed to his longevity.
"He's the most unwavering guy I've ever met," Vandenberg said. "If we won 20 games in a row, he'd still be right there, and if we lost 20 games, he'd still be in the same spot. I think that's a strength he definitely has and I think that's something you have to have being a coach at such a prestigious university in the Big Ten."
That sort of patience was crucial in 1999, when Ferentz took over an Iowa program that was in shambles. During his first season, the Hawkeyes finished 1-10. A year later, they completed a 3-9 campaign. In between, Iowa lost a school-record 13 consecutive games.
Even then, Ferentz didn't flinch with a fan base on the cusp of growing impatient and longing for the days of former coach Hayden Fry. Two years later, Iowa was 11-2, undefeated in the Big Ten and an Orange Bowl participant.
"We got off to a less-than-stellar start," Ferentz said. "But I never really thought much about it and I still don't. We kind of take one year at a time. And each and every season we go into, it's a fresh beginning, and really that began back in January for us after our last ballgame."
University of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema served as Iowa's linebackers coach from 1996-2001 and spent his final three seasons working directly under Ferentz. Much like Vandenberg, Bielema noted that Ferentz's demeanor did not change, even when the Hawkeyes endured significant struggles.
"The more I'm in this profession, the guys that are consistent in everything they do can have success, and Kirk's that guy," said Bielema, who is entering his seventh season at Wisconsin, tied for the second-longest tenure in the Big Ten with Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald.
"Kirk's the same guy every day of the year and is a really good ball coach. And he's in a great situation. Part of head coaching success is you've got to find the right environment to be the head coach."
Ferentz was offered the Iowa job based, in part, on his past involvement with the program. He served as the Hawkeyes' offensive line coach from 1981-89 under Fry. After stints as head coach at the University of Maine and offensive line coach for Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns, he became Iowa's next head coach.
For a family that was used to moving, James Ferentz said the extended stay in Iowa City has been a welcome relief. And though Kirk Ferentz, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, has had opportunities to leave Iowa over the years as a candidate for several different NFL head coaching jobs, he has remained loyal to the Hawkeyes.
Ferentz has been in his position at Iowa long enough to coach his oldest son, Brian, and see him return this season as the Hawkeyes' offensive line coach. His youngest son, Steve, will join the team as a walk-on freshman tight end this season.
"I feel fortunate we've had five kids graduate from one high school," Ferentz said. "That's hard to do in this profession. I've had a great experience on a personal level and then a great experience professionally. So I'm just honored to be the head coach there and very much looking forward to this year."
Iowa is coming off a 7-6 season that included a 4-4 mark in the Big Ten and a 10th bowl appearance in the past 11 seasons. The Hawkeyes return Vandenberg, a senior who may be the Big Ten's best pure passer after throwing for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last year.
With Vandenberg under center, expectations this season for Ferentz and Iowa remain high despite playing in a division that includes Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.
James Ferentz admits that his father disappointing a fan base remains as scary a thought today as it was when he was growing up in Iowa City.
"My darkest fear is that we lose 10 games and then he gets fired the next day," James Ferentz said.
Given Kirk Ferentz's model of consistency with the Hawkeyes, a drop-off of that magnitude doesn't appear likely for as long as he wants to stay at Iowa.
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