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August 4, 2008

Can Ferentz right the sinking ship at Iowa?

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz remembers the good ol' days. Heck, it really wasn't that long ago. It only seems like an eternity.

There's Ferentz, celebrating a 2004 season-ending, 30-7 win over Wisconsin that clinched a share of the program's second Big Ten title in three years. Shrouded in late-fall darkness, not a soul had left their seat in rocking-and-rolling Kinnick Stadium. Iowa would go on to beat LSU, 30-25, in the Capital One Bowl in scintillating fashion, with a Drew Tate-to-Warren Holloway 56-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the game, sending Nick Saban out a loser in his final game as LSU coach.

High times amid the high corn of Iowa. But that was then, this is now.

Today, you'd hardly recognize Iowa. The program has fallen harder, faster and farther than any in America. A toxic mix of ugly off-field incidents and poor play have concocted a volatile cocktail that has the Hawkeyes hacking and wheezing.

Ferentz knows this. He's also familiar with this old coaching adage: If a coach wins, he's hounded less when players run afoul of the law. But if a coach loses and his players are getting in trouble? Well, more trouble looms.

Welcome to Kirk Ferentz's world.

"Certainly we have opened the door for the immense attention that we have received, some fair, some unfair, maybe," Ferentz said. "The bottom line is that we opened the door for it and it comes with the territory. Anytime you do that, you can expect negative reporting because they were reporting on things that were negative. I think that is only fair. The only thing that I would include there, is that I don't think any coach on our staff, myself included, or any player, offered any excuses and we will remain consistent on that front."

How rough has it been in Iowa City? Since April 2007, 17 players have been arrested for a variety of things, ranging from petty offenses to egregious ones.

"I'm sick of it," senior offensive lineman Seth Olsen said. "This stuff can't keep happening. If guys don't start getting the point, then they don't deserve to be part of the Iowa football team."

The latest imbroglio is the ugliest of all. The mother of a female Iowa athlete has accused school officials of not properly handling the case of her daughter's alleged sexual assault at the hands of two former Hawkeyes. Some claim the school brass tried to cover up the incident.

Further sullying the hue Ferentz has polished on his program is the oh-so-average 19-16 overall record (11-13 in the Big Ten) the past three seasons. The thud last season was especially resounding. Needing to beat 3-7 Western Michigan at home to clinch a bowl berth, the Hawkeyes lost, 28-19, to finish 6-6 and miss the postseason for the first time since 2000. Long-time program watchers say they've never heard a quieter Kinnick Stadium.

Where did it all go wrong? How did Iowa's "happily ever after" fairytale morph into a Stephen King novel? There is no easy answer. There never is when you're dealing with the meltdown of a program.

It wasn't that long ago when Iowa was a national darling, ready to annually battle Ohio State and Michigan for Big Ten supremacy. The national championship? Sure, why not dream really big? Iowa was dominating. From 2002-04, the Hawkeyes went 20-4 in Big Ten play, winning conference titles in 2002 and 2004. Ferentz also took Iowa where it never had gone before: four January bowls in a row from 2001-04, highlighted by a trip to the Orange Bowl after the 2002 season.

Many things have gone wrong during Iowa's three-year swoon. Among them: turnovers. The Hawkeyes are an aggregate minus-4 in turnover margin from 2005-07. But the lack of a steady rushing attack has been an even bigger culprit. Iowa has gotten weaker in the rushing department each of the last three years. Interestingly, the Hawkeyes were able to overcome having the Big Ten's worst ground game in 2004 (72.6 ypg, 116th in the nation) to still win the league crown. A look at where they have ranked in recent seasons:
Year YPG Big Ten Nation
2005 174.7 7th 35th
2006 143.5 7th 51st
2007 126.3 10th 92nd
And Ferentz has been rewarded handsomely, becoming the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten with a reported $3,030,000 salary that puts him in the stratosphere with guys like USC's Pete Carroll, LSU's Les Miles, Alabama's Nick Saban, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Florida's Urban Meyer. Not bad for a coach who wasn't even the school's first choice to replace Hayden Fry after the 1998 season. (It was Iowa alum, Bob Stoops.)

Now, three scant seasons later, no coach not named "Charlie Weis" faces more pressure to deliver than Ferentz.

If you're looking for a nadir, go back and circle October 14, 2006. On that day, the No. 15 Hawkeyes rolled into Bloomington, Ind., and then rolled over. Iowa lost to the 3-3 Hoosiers, 31-28. The Hawkeyes proceeded to lose four of their next five games to finish 2006 on a 1-6 skid. The program hasn't been ranked since—nor has it been the same.

"We finished up 1-5 in the '06 season and started out 2-4 this past season, and you throw in a loss to a very talented Texas team somewhere in-between there," says Ferentz. "If you want to (look) at the 12-game period or the 13-game period including the bowl, I think it is fair to say that our production was less than we had hoped."

Ask anyone strolling down Dubuque Street in Iowa City, and they'll have a theory, a reason, for why Iowa is in this funk.

Ferentz has taken too many risky recruits.
There is no leadership among the players.
Players don't fear the coaches.
The staff has grown stale.

The list goes on. And they all are true, to some degree. The Iowa coaching staff is held in high regard by its peers. Many see it as a strong, value-oriented crew led by one of the game's quintessential good guys in Ferentz. Turnover? It has been sparse in Ferentz's nine-plus years with only six coaches leaving (Chuck Long, Bret Bielema, Pat Flaherty, Joe Philbin, Ron Aiken and Carl Jackson).

And defense rarely - if ever - has been an issue under standout coordinator Norm Parker. But the offense?

"I think changes need to be made on the offensive side of the ball," says a BCS-school coordinator who has faced the Hawkeyes in recent years. "I haven't been that impressed with them on offense. And it's a highly paid staff that doesn't want to leave. I think Ferentz has surrounded himself with a lot of buddies on that staff, and that's sometimes not a good thing."

Still, the bottom line is this: There's too much positive evidence in Ferentz's past to suggest he or his staff have lost it. But there is reason to believe they haven't done all they can to prepare their recruits for the college lifestyle.

"You have heard me make this observation, you look at all the time and money the pros get and you look at the mistakes that are made," says Ferentz. "It happens in college recruiting everywhere in every sport. That is just the nature of the beast. It has gotten tougher because the exposures to players is less than it has ever been with players committing earlier than they ever have.

"The earlier a player commits, the less information you have. The other aspect is the litigious nature of our society - and people are less likely to be forthcoming with information in the recruiting process. That is one of the realities that we deal with, and it is a challenge. Then again, there are a lot of challenges and I am not sitting here complaining about it. But it is a reality."

Ferentz is taking action to make sure his current and future players are better prepared for the fabulous - and sometimes dangerous - freedom that comes with college. The school will hire a life skills coach before the season starts. Ferentz likes to call the position "a player development coach."

While many worry about the direction of Iowa's program, thoughts have drifted to who would be the next Hawkeye coach if Kirk Ferentz departs. Here's a quick look at possibilities.

Bob Stoops, Oklahoma. It may be a long shot to get him out of Norman, but it's a call the Iowa A.D. has to make. Iowa wanted him back in 1999, but things didn't work out. But maybe he's about had his fill of Oklahoma, wants a new challenge and would like to return to his alma mater.

Jim Leavitt, South Florida. He served on Hayden Fry's staff in 1989 and has made USF a national program. A few years ago, the Alabama job could have been his. Leavitt, a Missouri grad, also worked on staffs at Dubuque and Morningside while building a successful career.

Mark Farley, Northern Iowa. The Iowa native has made the Panthers a power since taking over as head coach in 2001, posting a 63-25 record and winning at least a share of four Gateway titles. He also led his team to an appearance in the I-AA national title game in 2005. UNI went 11-0 in the regular season last fall. This guy is one of the hottest commodities in the I-AA ranks.
"We're not looking at this position as a panacea," says Ferentz. "Our goals are really to help … our players, particularly our younger players. I think that's been a constant that a lot of the bad decisions have been made by players in their first and second years on campus.

"So our goal with the position is going to be better supplement the coaching staff, better help our players with the transition, just another person for them to have to meet with and visit with, perhaps offer a little bit more accountability for our young people. The overall goal is to help educate them a little bit more to the environment that they walk into."

The rest is up to the players, who need to do their part. Ferentz's best teams were anchored by veteran leaders who commanded the respect of their peers. Guys like Chad Greenway, Bob Sanders, Sean Considine, Fred Barr, Robert Gallery and Colin Cole, among others. Those types of personalities have been missing.

While a slip in special teams play has been a big culprit in Iowa's recent struggles, shoddy offensive line play has been and even bigger issue. That unit holds the key more than any other to Iowa reclaiming glory. The line has been hampered by youth and injury during the program's swoon. But players like Bryan Bulaga, Rob Bruggeman and Dan Doering - among others - offer hope of this one-time point-of-pride again being dominant.

However, it hurt when tackle Dace Richardson's career recently ended because of injury. More bad news: David Barrent, a West Des Moines product who is the top recruit in Iowa and ranked the No. 7 offensive tackle prospect in the nation by Rivals.com, recently decommitted from the Hawkeyes and pledged to Michigan State. Iowa will lose nine offensive linemen in the next two years, so failing to land an in-state gem like Barrent hurts.

Ferentz soldiers on. He swears he loves it in Iowa City - and there's no reason to doubt him. There have been opportunities to leave, with a 2003 flirtation with the Jacksonville Jaguars being the closest Ferentz has come to departing. That loyalty to Iowa has built Ferentz a strong power base and bought him time to get things straightened out. And he deserves that opportunity.

His Hawkeyes have been tabbed by most to finish in the middle of the Big Ten, but Iowa could surprise. The Hawkeyes don't play Ohio State or Michigan for the second season in a row, though that didn't prove to be a benefit in 2007. Still, there's hope and belief that Iowa will get back on the bowl track - and then some - this fall.

Keep an eye on Iowa State's visit on Sept. 13. That's the game to watch. The Hawkeyes should be 2-0 entering the contest, but Ferentz has a 3-6 record vs. the Cyclones. With the next game at rising Pittsburgh, a loss to Iowa State could send Iowa in a downward spiral it may have trouble recovering from before the calendar turns to October.

"Anytime you go through turbulence as we have … for change to happen, people have to think smarter and we need more proactive behavior from players on our football team," Ferentz said. "Again, I am not offering up excuses. We were a young immature football team on the football field last year and I think it showed in many instances - and I think that is part of the problem why we struggled off the field."

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

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