IOWA CITY, Iowa — On a cold January afternoon in 2017, one week after losing to Florida in the Outback Bowl, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz handed the keys to his offense to his oldest son but always kept his foot on the chicken brake.
Now, nearly seven years later, Brian Ferentz will exit as offensive coordinator effective at season’s end, triggering the release valve on a situation where the pressure had reached untenable levels. From stadium chants of “Fire Brian,” to locally produced apparel calling for his dismissal to daily references about the ‘Drive for 325,’ the frustration that swirled among Iowa fans about the offense was so combustible the only place left was for it to dissipate into apathy. Mercifully for Iowa football, interim athletics director Beth Goetz did not let that happen. Instead, Goetz ended the speculation and announced Brian Ferentz would not return next season.
“After conversations with head coach Kirk Ferentz, coach Brian Ferentz and President (Barbara) Wilson, I informed Brian that our intention is for him to be with us through the bowl game, but this is his last season with the program,” Goetz said in a statement. “Making this known today is in the best interest of the program and its loyal fans; it provides clarity during this pivotal time in the schedule.”
Iowa OC Brian Ferentz will not return next season
This is the only workable solution for the Iowa football program, one that was here 110 years before Kirk Ferentz took over as head coach in 1999 and one that will be here centuries afterward. Brian Ferentz is an outstanding coach in several areas, but coordinating an offense isn’t one of them. Kirk Ferentz is a potential Hall of Fame coach, but his resistance to offensive evolution and his unwavering loyalty to his assistant coaches — especially his son — prevents him from being considered a generational coach. Collectively, that combination has made Iowa a good, but limited, program.
Iowa fans are a patient lot, but witnessing the worst statistical offense in the Big Ten in at least 25 years was too much for them to bear. They’re tired of watching and reading national media joke at their expense. The Hawkeyes sit last nationally in total offense at 232.4 yards per game, which is 26.4 yards below the No. 132-ranked offense. It’s also nearly 20 yards below Iowa’s offense in 2022. Every time the numbers seemingly hit rock bottom, quicksand figuratively dragged the Hawkeyes’ offense to another depth. It needed to stop at some point, and Goetz did that Monday.
It’s unusual, as Goetz concedes in her statement, for an administrator to step in and make such a change. But it wasn’t her move that initiated this situation; that belonged to former athletics director Gary Barta. In February, Barta halted Brian Ferentz’s two-year rollover contract and cut his salary by $50,000, which actually was $122,000 based on earned bonuses. Brian Ferentz’s performance objectives for 2023 included seven wins and 25 points per game. If he met those goals, his contract would be reinstated with a bonus. If not, then the contract would expire.
Because of university nepotism laws, Barta was Brian Ferentz’s supervisor. The high-profile clauses gave the university an out in the event the offense could not exceed its woeful performance in 2022. But Barta retired on Aug. 1, which elevated Goetz to interim athletics director. When she came aboard, she said the contract remained in place and shrugged off questions about the situation.
“We certainly know that we’d like to have more offensive production and understand the frustration when we don’t,” Goetz said earlier this month. “But we’re excited about what we’ve done to this point and we’re going to continue to evaluate the team and support them, week in and week out.”
Since Goetz’s comments, the Hawkeyes have continued to struggle offensively. Against Purdue, they didn’t complete a pass to a wide receiver for the first time since 1978. At Wisconsin, they passed for 37 yards. In a loss to Minnesota, they gained just 12 yards after halftime. In those three games, Iowa’s offense totaled four touchdowns. As a testament to the defense and special teams, the Hawkeyes won two of those games and nearly a third before a punt return was called back in controversial fashion.
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Kirk Ferentz has faced similar offensive challenges, albeit without a personal connection. In 2016, the Hawkeyes finished 8-5 but its offense ranked 121st nationally. Even with NFL quarterback C.J. Beathard, Iowa threw for 80 yards or less in three of its final four games — and won two of those sub-80 games.
The passing game sputtered often during Greg Davis’ five-year tenure as offensive coordinator. In his first season, Iowa’s 10.09 yards per completion was the program’s lowest since 1946. In his final year, Davis’ 153.2 yards per game remains the worst since 1981. After a 55-yard passing day in the Outback Bowl, Davis retired and a week later, Brian Ferentz was named his replacement.
As offensive line coach and run game coordinator, Brian Ferentz helped shape an attack with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and a line that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best. In 2015, the Hawkeyes ran for 35 touchdowns in a 12-win regular season. With his New England Patriots background, this seemed the next step in Brian Ferentz’s development as a football coach.
But the family dynamic was an issue from the very beginning, too.
“I don’t think it’s a huge deal and probably if anything it works against him in this position,” Kirk Ferentz said at the time. “It’s a position of everybody has got an opinion about what he’s going to do moving forward.
“It’s just one more thing that’s going to be wrong — first time we’re three-and-out, first time we throw an incomplete pass. It’s one more thing, one more log for the fire.”
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For half of Brian Ferentz’s tenure, the move worked. In 2018 and 2020, the Hawkeyes exceeded 31 points per game, two of the four highest-scoring seasons in the Kirk Ferentz era. Quarterback Nate Stanley threw 68 touchdown passes from 2017-19 which ranked 13th in Big Ten history. Brian Ferentz mixed brilliant play-calling performances against Ohio State (55-24) and USC (49-24) alongside a stinker every season, but the results were solid.
But over the last three seasons, the burning logs referenced on Brian Ferentz’s announcement day turned into a forest fire. The Hawkeyes averaged 31.8 points a game in 2020, then fell to 23.4 in 2021 and 17.7 in 2022. Yards per game have fallen in a similar trajectory from 368.6 in 2020 to 303.7 in 2021 to 251.6 last year. From 2020 through today, Iowa quarterbacks have thrown just 34 touchdown passes. In 2015, Beathard ran for 34 first downs. From 2020 through the present, Iowa quarterbacks have run for exactly 34 first downs.
The downward slope of Iowa’s offense led to a spotlight of attention on the Hawkeyes’ situation. The glare intensified in February 2022 when quarterbacks coach (2017-21) and former offensive coordinator (1999-2011) Ken O’Keefe stepped down and Brian Ferentz took over quarterbacks as his positional responsibility.
“Brian is more than capable of doing that job,” Kirk Ferentz said of the move. “He knows our offense better than anybody, quite frankly. I think it’s going to be a good, positive move for us.”
But the offense continued to falter. It wasn’t just Brian Ferentz’s fault; injuries, recruiting misses, attrition and lack of development all played a major role. But Kirk Ferentz’s reluctance to make changes in scheme, personnel or among the coaching staff withered away Iowa’s opportunities to compete for titles beyond the Big Ten’s West Division.
Perhaps Brian Ferentz summed up the philosophy best when he was asked why he wouldn’t switch quarterbacks in 2022.
“I’m not interested in making a change for change’s sake,” he said. “What I’m looking at is I’m saying what’s the upside?”
At Iowa, the upside is something different on offense. And different can’t be worse, right?
(Top photo of Kirk and Brian Ferentz: Matthew Holst / Getty Images)