Around the country, the status of college football coaches grows increasingly perilous.
Florida fired Jim McElwain this week, and it seems that more Southeastern Conference coaches are on the hot seat than aren’t. Coaching stability is an oxymoron. In the Big Ten, 10 of the league’s 14 coaches were hired in 2014 or later.
Then there’s Kirk Ferentz and Iowa, whom the Buckeyes play on Saturday in Iowa City. It’s as if the Hawkeyes live in an alternate universe — Ferentz is in his 19th season, the longest current run among FBS coaches.
The next-longest tenured coach is Gary Patterson, who was hired at TCU in 2000. Mark Dantonio, in his 11th season at Michigan State, is second among Big Ten coaches.
The Iowa fan base might grumble about a down cycle, but cooler heads see the benefit of staying the course. It does help Ferentz that his contract has an onerous buyout clause that paves the way for him to coach through the 2025 season.
Even Ferentz, 62, marvels at his longevity.
“If you followed our first year (1999), I’m not sure anybody envisioned me being here for the second year,” he said. “We were 1-10 our first season.”
Soon enough, Ferentz got the Hawkeyes on track. His 2002 team was co-Big Ten champion with the Ohio State team that won the BCS national championship. Since then, the Hawkeyes have usually been solid, occasionally been great and rarely been bad.
“Growing up in Pittsburgh, it feels very similar to what the Steelers have,” Ferentz said of Iowa’s philosophy. “It just seems to me pretty logical. In sports — at least in football — if you look at teams that have success in the pros and the collegiate level, stability usually goes with that.
“With that, you have disappointment and we’ve certainly had that over the last 19 years. But you learn not to panic and try to analyze things and look for solutions rather than make people walk the plank. … I feel very fortunate to be in a place where we enjoy rare stability.”
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer coached against Ferentz’s Hawkeyes in the 2006 Outback Bowl in his first year at Florida. He has long been an admirer of Ferentz and Iowa’s program.
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“I have so much respect for Iowa,” Meyer said. “I think they play football the right way, and they always have.”
Iowa is particularly dangerous at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes upset undefeated Michigan 14-13 last season. This year, Penn State needed a last-play touchdown pass for a 21-19 victory.
A game against Iowa can feel like a trip to the dentist. The Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) play rugged defense, yielding only 17.4 points per game. Both linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson are among 12 semifinalists for the Bednarik Award. On offense, they play deliberately in hopes of frustrating and ultimately wearing down opponents.
This will be Meyer’s first trip to Kinnick Stadium since he was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes in the 1980s. Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) hasn’t played Iowa since 2013, when the visiting Hawkeyes dominated the first half before the Buckeyes rallied for a 34-24 victory.
“With Iowa, it’s definitely a toughness game,” Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa said. “They’re a bunch of big, tough guys, country dudes. It’ll be fun.”
Ohio State is a 18-point favorite in part because the Hawkeyes, already inexperienced at several positions, have been hit by injuries. They will be starting freshmen at both offensive tackle spots.
“We don’t have guys stacked up on the shelves,” Ferentz said. “That has just never been the nature of our program. We have to develop our guys, and we’re in a little bit of a developmental mode. But that being said, it’s November now and it’s not our first week out. We’ll just take it a game at a time, a play at a time really, and see if we can carve out a couple yards.”
On paper, Ohio State matches up favorably with the Hawkeyes. Iowa is averaging only 3.6 yards per rush, and the Buckeyes all but shut down Heisman Trophy front-runner Saquon Barkley of Penn State last week. The Hawkeyes run a pro-style offense, which, in theory, should allow Ohio State’s pass rush to get to quarterback Nate Stanley.
But that Hawkeyes’ defense and the Kinnick crowd could make things interesting.
“They’re tough guys,” Meyer said. “They’re very well-coached. They play as good a fundamental football as we will go against. There should be no surprises. This is going to be a really rugged game.”