Kirk Ferentz Becomes Iowa’s All-Time Winningest Football Coach: My 10 Favorite Victories

When I was a senior in high school in 1999, I remember being so excited that Bobby Stoops was about to become Hayden Fry’s replacement as the head coach of THE University of Iowa football program.

It seemed inevitable. Stoops was a former Hawkeye defensive back and assistant coach. He once said while he was the defensive coordinator at Florida that replacing Fry was his dream job.

He was the most highly touted young coach in the country at the time. He could have gotten any job he wanted, but everyone knew he was coming home to Iowa City. Or, so we thought.

Iowa’s athletic director at the time, Bob Bowlsby, apparently wasn’t as impressed with Stoops as virtually everyone else around the country. For some odd reason, instead of just handing Bobby the job, he went on a nationwide search for a coach, which isn’t a terrible idea but when you’re a program like Iowa and a coach everyone else wants is interested, you give him the job.

But for reasons unknown, Bowlsby was most interested in Northern Iowa coach Terry Allen, who pretty much everyone else knew would never be able to recruit at the Big Ten level. Fortunately, he was talked out of making that mistake, but his decision to continue the search instead of just handing the job to Stoops proved costly.

An Oklahoma program that had struggled during most of the 1990s stepped in and offered Bobby the job while Iowa was fiddling around with other coaches. It was impossible for him to turn down that golden opportunity.

Stoops went on to become the all-time winningest coach in school history and won a national title, dominating the Big-12 Conference for 18 years. He’ll go down as one of the best college football coaches ever. How he would have done at Iowa, we’ll never know. For all we know, he would have left for an NFL job after five seasons.

What we do know is that despite Bowlsby fumbling the hiring process, he ended up with a pretty damn good football coach that stayed loyal to the university for 20 years and counting.

Kirk Ferentz, a former NFL offensive line coach, returned to Iowa City after an eight-year stint as an assistant in the 1980s. On Saturday, he won his 144th career game at Iowa, becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach, surpassing his mentor Hayden Fry.

I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly ecstatic with Ferentz’ hire in 1999. I hadn’t even heard of the guy as I was just a young kid in the 80s when he was a Fry assistant.

I wasn’t sure if he could recruit well enough to rebuild the Iowa program. Coach Fry left the cupboard bare. When Iowa opened the 1999 season against Nebraska, there was virtually no talent on the Hawkeyes sideline. The Huskers, the top program in the nation at the time, won 42-7 after outscoring an over-matched Iowa team 35-0 in the second half.

The black and gold went 1-10 that season and many wondered how long Ferentz would last given how difficult it would be for him to completely rebuild the roster without the necessary recruiting ties. Stoops was the guy most felt had the ability, given his national reputation, to recruit at a high enough level to turn the program around.

I didn’t feel Ferentz would ever be able to bring in the top-notch recruits needed to win in the Big Ten. I was partially right. Kirk’s never been much of a recruiter. But what I didn’t realize was that Iowa didn’t need a recruiter as much as they needed a player developer.

No coach in the country has developed talent as well as Ferentz. No one. Not Nick Saban. Not Urban Meyer. Not Bob Stoops. Those guys were blessed with mostly developed talent coming out of high school. Their rosters were full of four and five-star recruits.

Iowa doesn’t get those players. They have to find hardworking kids that aren’t as athletic as the players at Oklahoma.

I can think of so many unheralded recruits Ferentz got that turned into All-Americans, NFL stars, and solid contributors in college.

Bob Sanders had few college offers. But no one out-worked that guy. He’s now in Iowa’s Hall of Fame, was an All-American, and an NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Dallas Clark was a walk-on linebacker with no Division 1 scholarship offers. In 2002, he won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end and retired as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in NFL history.

Marvin McNutt was a former high school quarterback with few college scholarship offers. He graduated in 2011 as one of the best receivers in school history.

Chad Greenway was a two-star recruit coming out of South Dakota. At Iowa, he was an All-American and one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten this century. In the NFL, he was an All-Pro linebacker and a fan favorite in Minnesota.

Brad Banks was the 2002 Heisman Trophy runner-up and led Iowa to an unbeaten conference season. Major college programs weren’t exactly clamoring for his services.

Tyler Sash, Desmond King, Abdul Hodge, Bryan Bulaga, Riley Reiff, Brandon Scherff, Marshal Yanda, Amari Spievey, Josh Jackson, George Kittle, Scott Chandler…these are guys who went from barely even recruited to the NFL due to hard work and guidance from coach Ferentz and his staff.

Top 10 Kirk Ferentz Wins at Iowa

Warren Holloway Iowa LSU 2005
Warren Holloway scores on the final play of the 2005 CapitalOne Bowl on a 56-yard pass from Drew Tate to defeat LSU 30-25. (Image: Daily Iowan)

With Ferentz getting his 144th and record-setting victory on Saturday against Northern Illinois, I thought it would be fun to look back at my 10 favorite wins during his 20-year tenure.

10. 2003 vs Michigan (30-27): Hawkeye rallied from 14-point deficit and held off quarterback John Navarre’s attempt to score on the final drive of the game.

9. 2009 at Michigan State (15-13): Ricky Stanzi hit Marvin McNutt for a touchdown to win on the final play of the game, keeping Iowa’s unbeaten season and national title hopes alive.

8. 2016 vs Michigan (14-13): Keith Duncan kicks a 33-yard field goal as time expired to beat 3rd ranked and unbeaten Michigan, all but destroying the Wolverines’ national championship dreams. The win salvaged an otherwise disappointing season for the Hawkeyes.

7.2009 at Penn State (21-10): Iowa wasn’t getting any love from the sports media after a near-loss to UNI to begin the season but the Hawks were 4-0 entering the game against the 4th ranked Nittany Lions. A memorable punt block for a touchdown by Adrian Clayborn helped Iowa pull off the upset and silence the haters.

6.2000 vs Northwestern (27-17): Iowa was just 3-18 under Ferentz heading into the game against a ranked Wildcats team. After this game, I knew the program was on the verge of something big.

5. 2004 vs Wisconsin (30-7): Word got around to the fans in Iowa City that Michigan had lost to Ohio State, meaning a victory by Iowa would give the Hawkeyes a share of the Big Ten title. Iowa proceeded to lay a severe beat down on the rival Badgers.

4. 2010 Orange Bowl vs Georgia Tech (24-14): Ferentz finally scored his first BCS bowl victory against a solid Georgia Tech team. Iowa’s defense manhandled Tech’s triple option offense for most of the game.

3. 2008 vs Penn State (24-23): Daniel Murray booted a 31-yard field goal in the final second as Iowa ruined unbeaten Penn State’s national title dreams. The Hawkeyes were a disappointing 5-4 heading into the game but went on to win their next 14 games, including this epic victory against the Nittany Lions.

2. 2002 at Michigan (34-9): This was the game that Iowa showed the college football world they could compete with anyone. The Hawkeyes hammered a ranked Michigan team in the Big House, one that program hadn’t seen in decades.

1. 2005 CapitalOne Bowl vs LSU (30-25): LSU, playing its final game with Nick Saban as head coach, rallied from a 12-point deficit behind quarterback JaMarcus Russell in the 4th quarter to take a 25-24 lead with under a minute remaining. With the clock running down to its final second, Drew Tate dropped back to pass and heaved one 56 yards down the field to senior Warren Holloway for a game winning touchdown, the most exciting ending to a game I’ve ever witnessed in person.