When Iowa and Louisiana State played in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year's Day, it was a matchup of the two college football coaches many considered the most likely to jump to the NFL. But while LSU's Nick Saban finally bit on a lucrative offer from the Miami Dolphins, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz stayed in school and even signed a contract extension that could keep him employed as the Hawkeyes' coach through the 2012 season.
Ferentz, a former assistant with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, has been linked to many NFL coaching jobs during his six seasons at Iowa. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns have all gauged Ferentz's interest in rising to the pros, and the University of Florida and Notre Dame also called him about their coaching vacancies after this past season.
But Ferentz, who coached with Saban on Bill Belichick's staff in Cleveland, has been reluctant to leave Iowa, where he was an assistant coach under Hayden Fry for nine seasons before becoming the head coach at Division I-AA Maine in 1990. Ferentz and his wife have five children, including son Brian, a senior guard on the Iowa football team this year, and he seems reluctant to move his family.
Hawkeyes officials have gone to great lengths to make sure Ferentz stays. With the three-year extension Ferentz signed in November, Iowa boosted his annual salary to $1.2 million and promised him a $400,000 longevity bonus every June.
It is easy to see why Iowa Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby wants to keep Ferentz so badly. Ferentz has guided the Hawkeyes to unprecedented success with 31 victories and 20 Big Ten Conference wins since 2002, the best three-year period in school history. The Hawkeyes finished No. 8 in the final Associated Press poll each of the past three seasons -- two-time defending national champion Southern California, Oklahoma and Georgia are the only other schools that have been ranked in the top 10 each of those years. Ferentz has twice been named Big Ten coach of the year and he has beaten LSU, Texas Tech and Florida in bowl games.
With 12 starters back this season, including all-conference quarterback Drew Tate, the Hawkeyes figure to be in contention for their third Big Ten title in four seasons, along with traditional powers Michigan and Ohio State and upstart Purdue.
"A fair share of last year's squad has moved on to the next level," Ferentz told reporters in Iowa City earlier this month. "They were experienced and leaders. We'll need to work hard to replace that experience and leadership. I'm optimistic we can."
Ferentz's best coaching job might have occurred last season. Iowa lost two of its first four games while its top four tailbacks were lost for the season because of injuries. But the Hawkeyes rallied to win their last eight games and a share of the Big Ten championship with Michigan. The Wolverines went to the Rose Bowl because they beat Iowa, 30-17, during the regular season. The Hawkeyes then stunned LSU, 30-25, in one of the most memorable endings in school history, with Tate throwing a 56-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Warren Holloway on the game's final play.
"One thing I discovered is anytime you finish with a win in a bowl game, it is a real positive and gives a little extra energy to your team coming back," Ferentz said. "The way we won it last year was very representative of the kind of football team we had last year. They played the entire game each and every week. It's been a big positive for us."
Iowa certainly figures to have a better running game than last season, when the Hawkeyes finished 116th among 117 Division I-A teams with only 72.6 rushing yards per game. Nebraska transfer Marques Simmons, who played in only six games in part because of an ankle injury he suffered against Ohio State, is back for his senior season. So is senior Marcus Schnoor and sophomore Albert Young, who last season suffered season-ending knee injuries in the first and second games, respectively.
The Hawkeyes' backfield was so decimated last season that junior Sam Brownlee became the first Iowa walk-on to start at tailback since 1987. He started the last six games and ran for 224 yards.
"Certainly, I think we're going to be more experienced up front," Ferentz said. "We had a lot of injuries in the backfield last year. Hopefully, we'll be healthier at the running back position this year. We're solid right now. With an experienced quarterback, that also allows us to get a little bit more balance and opportunity."