The University of Iowa and Iowa Farm Bureau will showcase the many ways America needs farmers at the seventh annual America Needs Farmers (ANF) Game Day held Saturday, September 23, at Kinnick Stadium. “We are honored for the opportunity to work with the Iowa Farm Bureau to help tell this important story. What Hayden (Fry) said is as true today as it was 26 years ago: Iowa and America do need its farmers,” says Coach Kirk Ferentz.
Ferentz is in his 19th season as head football coach and 28th season overall at the University of Iowa. His tenure as Iowa’s head football coach trails only Hayden Fry, who led the Hawkeyes for 20 seasons from 1979 to 1998. Ferentz shares the distinction of being the longest tenured head football coach in the nation. He joined the Iowa staff after serving as assistant head coach and offensive line coach for the Baltimore Ravens in the National Football League. He had been a part of the Baltimore (Cleveland Browns prior to the move) organization for six years.
Ferentz was born August 1, 1955, in Royal Oak, Michigan. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in English education, where he was a football captain and an academic all-Yankee Conference linebacker. Ferentz and his wife, Mary, have five children: Brian, Kelly, Joanne, James, and Steven.
SF: What was your first thought as an assistant coach when Coach Fry brought up ANF in 1985 during the farm crisis?
KF: Just a genius thought on his part and very much needed and very much appreciated. I think that is the feedback that all of us got. He was really sensitive to those times and the people of this state. And I think it was a great way on his part to bring some real attention, national attention, to what was going on here with the economy and making people aware of how important it is to have a strong farm economy.
SF: How has ANF changed from back in Coach Fry’s days?
KF: I don’t know if it has changed. I mean the whole concept in my mind was just to take pride in something that is so important in our state. More so than just that segment of the economy, but the people who make agriculture go. To me, it was all about the people, the plight they were facing during those times. Just heightened awareness nationally that we need and just how important it is that states like Iowa feed the world. It really brought a real positive recognition to that. We are proud to continue that honor. It’s just that tradition. It’s something that Coach Fry came up with and between that and The Swarm, I think those are two of the most lasting things that he did besides doing a great job as a football coach.
SF: What kind of work ethic do you see out of the farm boys who come into your program?
KF: I’ve joked about that, but I can’t think of a farm kid we’ve had who wasn’t a really hard worker. They are really grounded and understand what it means to get up every day and do something. Chad Greenway, this year’s honoree, is a perfect example of that. This was nothing, coming down here and doing our stuff, compared with the chores that he had to do every day. That’s been a commonality.
SF: Has there ever been an NFL head coaching job where you sat down with your wife and asked, “What do you think?”
KF: Oh, yes, there might have been one or two where we took pause and just said, “Are we sure? Are we sure we’re sure?” And, you know, the answer clearly was yes. There hasn’t been much to make me really stop and think. I feel very, very fortunate to be here.
SF: How fortunate do you feel to be able to coach your three sons?
KF: There’s no way to describe it or articulate it. It is like a lot of things that happen, you know, there was no design. There certainly was never a design for me to live in Iowa, let alone coach in Iowa. But that just happened by coincidence in 1981. Something I thought that was going to last a year or two ended up being one of the greatest things that ever happened to us. We’ve been here 28 years now. That was not the plan. I’m not sure we ever envisioned having five children either, let alone three boys who were going to play college football. It’s just been something that is truly priceless. It’s a great thing. Part of that is I missed a lot of what my kids were doing because this job is very time consuming, so I feel like I’m getting back a little bit in some ways, you know, some of the things that I missed. At least I get a chance to see them in a different light than most dads wouldn’t have an opportunity to do, so I really feel fortunate about that as well.
SF: That leads to my next question. How do you feel about your son, Brian, and possibly your other sons coaching college football?
KF: They both seem to have an interest in it, and I think our third one will at some point, as well. It’s kind of funny. One thing my wife and I were really careful of going back to 1983 when Brian was born, we never wanted any of our children to feel like they needed to be involved in football or any sport. It just so happens that’s what I ended up doing for a living, but we didn’t want them to feel like just because your dad does something, doesn’t mean you have to follow in that direction. We were just hopeful they’d find something that they could really embrace and be excited about, be passionate about. It’s kind of interesting how it worked out, but part of it is probably by osmosis.
SF: Tell us why you think the Big Ten conference is the best conference in college football.
KF: I’ve felt that way a long time. I’m a little biased, you know, I’ve been in the league now 28 years. I think if you talk about and compare what our teams do in all sports, not only team sports but individual sports, the level of competition in this conference, the academic success and integrity in this conference. And the tradition and the fan interest. And all those things that I think make being a college athlete special. I just can’t imagine there is a better conference to compete in. The schools are tremendous. I’m not as well versed on the last three to join the conference. But the first 11, 10 plus Penn State, I know a lot about them and they are all just tremendous schools and places you would be happy to see any of your kids go.
SF: What are your goals every year for your football team and your players?
KF: You know, it is really quite simple. We are just trying to maximize any opportunity that we have. Overall, the first thing we want to do is make sure they leave here with their degree. And understand the value of a degree and also understand what it takes to earn a degree on a college campus. So that’s first and foremost. We want them to excel and play at their highest levels possible as athletes. Beyond that we want them to hopefully have a great experience, beyond college, beyond the classroom, beyond the sports, and hopefully meet some great lifetime friends, those kinds of things.
SF: How much football do you get to watch outside of your team and scouting your opponents? Do you get to be a fan?
KF: Not really. Not in season. You know, when our season’s over, I’ll try to catch bowl games, but that’s even tricky and tough because we’re usually preparing. I’ll watch in January and February, that’s a neat time. For pro football, it’s the best time to be watching. And a little bit in December when we are in breaks, that type of thing, but it’s hard to be a fan when you are engrossed in your team.
SF: A few rapid-fire questions. Who was your favorite football player growing up?
KF: Oh boy, first name that comes to mind is Ray Nitschke.
SF: What are your hobbies outside of football?
KF: Anything related to our kids. I like that, and I like to read. Some form of exercise. Those are probably the top three things. Kids and spending time with my wife too, which I don’t get to do a lot of that.
SF: What's the best football team in history?
KF: Oh boy. That’s a great question. I don’t know if I can answer that. I’d be a little biased, but I’d probably lean toward one of the Steelers teams of the 1970s. I was a big Steeler fan.
SF: Who's the best football coach of all time?
KF: Oh boy, tough one there. First names that come to mind as far as the best: Vince Lombardi is widely recognized that way, Bear Bryant, and you have to throw Bill Belichick in that list as well right now, and a guy I really respected and was really curious about and just read a great book on was Chuck Noll. I grew up in Pittsburg so I thought a lot of the things he did were great. My mentor was my high school coach, Joe Moore, who also trained me to be a line coach, who I think is the greatest line coach ever to live. He was a tremendous coach, too. It is hard to just name one person.
SF: What kind of gum do you chew on the sidelines?
KF: That’s easy. Bubble Yum, sugarless.
SF: So on your week off, can I get you to come down and drive a tractor for me?
KF: Probably not. Springtime, you might give me a call in the spring.
SF: How does American agriculture affect your life?
KF: Well, I just got done eating, so there’s a real obvious answer there. You asked about hobbies, I love to eat. That’s where it all starts. I think Iowans can be very, very proud of all the things that we do to help feed not only the country but the world. It’s something we can all take great, great pride in.