Preemptive strike here.
At some point, Kirk Ferentz and his three sons are going to be some sort of big story. It’s just too perfect.
Dad consults with No. 1 son, Brian, on the inner workings of Iowa’s offensive line. The point person with that group is the center James Ferentz, a three-year starter and son No. 2. They may or may not bump into Steven, no No. 3, Kirk and Mary Ferentz’s youngest and a walk-on tight end with the Hawkeyes this fall.
So, let’s do this story. It ended up being an interview with dad No. one and only, but it’s at least something before the rest of the world figures out that the college football version of “My Three Sons” is happening in Iowa City.
Here’s the Q&A. We go everywhere from Kirk and Mary’s first date to family planning to the commute to the football complex (no, they don’t car pool) and finally to thoughts of how long Kirk Ferentz wants to keep this run going at Iowa.
We set the scene with a ninth-grade football player who meets the new kid, who has an eighth grade sister who happens to catch the ninth-grader’s eye.
[This is part I of a 40-minute interview with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, covering mostly family topics past and present. Check the bottom of the post for video from Gazette photographer Brian Ray. Parts II and III will be available Monday and Tuesday, respectively.]
CRG: Everyone knows you have five kids. Why five? Was it just life?
KF: I can assure you that wasn’t planned, like most things in my life. It wasn’t planned at all. My wife and I have different stories on that. After our first baby, as I recall, she wanted immediately to have another one. She groused and grumped all the way through the pregnancy. She claims that’s not true, but anyway . . . We enjoy having kids. We enjoy family. It’s been great having kids, a great experience. I don’t think either of us could see how it was going to turn out. It’s not like we had a master plan.
The one thing I will tell you is we were pretty sure four was the number and then it was just a matter of chance that No. 5 came along. So, that was . . . unplanned. Probably the best thing that ever happened to us. We were thrilled.
CRG: I’m not sure of the entire story, but was Mary your high school sweetheart?
KF: Her brother Kevin [Hart, a former Penn State football player] and I started playing football together in ninth grade. First time I met him was in ninth grade. I distinctly remember going over to his house, in think it was in the fall, I didn’t know him or his family, a couple of kids went over, one of those deals, and I remember meeting Mary, who was in eighth grade at that time.
Pretty much, for the next four years, she was always Kevin’s younger sister. They have a big family, so it didn’t mean much. But for whatever reason in May of 1973, I decided to ask her out on a date. I wasn’t the most social guy in high school. I was kind of driven by sports. I went on a date here and there, but never got serious. To this day, I can’t tell you why I asked her out to a movie, nor could she tell you why she accepted.
We went to a movie and that was it. I was head over heels.
CRG: It’s funny how that works. No one can tell you exactly “the moment.”
KF: I had been infatuated with girls before, for the record. I didn’t see that coming. It’s funny when you think you’re really in love with someone, but it worked out. However many years later, we’re still talking most of the time.
CRG (photographer Brian Ray): What was the movie?
KF: You’ll never guess. We went to see something popular or what have you, it was in downtown Pittsburgh, but it was sold out. So we ended up seeing a movie called “The Mack.” You’re going to have to look that one up in the archives. I don’t think it got any awards. It made the night even funnier.
CRG: Was the first movie you wanted to see “Jaws”?
KF: It might’ve been. The ’70s was the best decade for movies, ever.
CRG: The early days, who did it work with coaching? You were at Worcester (Mass.) Academy [prep school where Kirk Ferentz started his career] and the level of engagement there is one thing. At Pitt, there’s another level and you’re there for 20 hours or whatever. And then you get the break at Iowa and that’s off the charts. How did it work early on?
KF: Couple of things: She grew up in a football-oriented family. Her dad [Gerry] played collegiately, coached a little bit and then was an official in the NFL for a decade. Obviously, with her brothers being involved, she grew up around it. That’s still no preparation for the coaching life.
When I finished at Connecticut, I stayed as a student assistant for a year. I still had to student teach and I put that off until the spring. In the fall, I spent basically every waking hour at the football office or with her, but more at the football office for obvious reasons. So, she got a little exposure to that at that point, I guess. The schedule at Worcester isn’t like any job that I’ve had since.
It all seemed to work. That’s kind of what I’ve always liked. She already knew what I wanted to do [be a coach] before I started dating her.
CRG: So, it wasn’t a surprise, as in hi, I’ve got to go?
KF: Yes, but there’s still no preparation for what’s ahead. We’ve had a great partnership. That’s been the key thing. Anyone married in general, but if you have a demanding schedule, boy, that’s an imperative.
We’ll probably get to this in the interview, but at the end of the day, we have five, I think, pretty nice kids. I think she gets 98 percent of the credit. Maybe 99, maybe 100. She’s really been the one consistent factor.
CRG: Point person, really. That sounds impersonal but you need someone to negotiate, drive, homework.
KF: Hardest job in the world and, I think, the most important.
And we were lucky, too. That’s another reason I’ve been appreciative of working here. In ’83, when Brian was born, she was doing very well professionally.
CRG: What did she do?
KF: Interestingly enough, when I was at Worcester, she managed a clothing store in Boston. The second year at Worcester, she was
selling kitchen cabinets. So, she was a female in a man’s world selling kitchen cabinets. It made sense, she knew how kitchens worked. Most of the builders didn’t understand, but it worked. Then, she transferred in that job at Pittsburgh and was in medical sales with Johnson and Johnson when we moved here. That was a pretty good place. Ironically, she ended up selling birth control pills, baby formula, stuff like that and a big part of her business was right here at the university.
That was entertaining when she walked into a doctor’s office eight-months pregnant — and she got big with all of our kids — and so she’s walking into see doctors selling birth control devices, that was good, entertaining.
Once we had Brian, she was going to go back to work, that was the original plan. She’s been a stay-at-home mom ever since.
CRG: All of your kids were born here?
KF: Four out of five. Steve was the one who was meant to be. He’s been good all the way through. That’s an interesting story.
Two of the pregnancies were interesting. Kelly was born in late January, when I was on a recruiting trip. This was before cell phones.
I had coach [Hayden] Fry with me, so naturally, that was going to be the day. When we got to the third house, John Palmer’s mom, Delores, I walked in the house and she was all excited. There were no cell phones back then, so I laid the numbers out. And she said, you’re wife called. Maybe that’s why we got John to come here? [John Palmer played wide receiver for Iowa from 1987-89.]
Could probably use that trick now and it wouldn’t work.
It wasn’t critical, but things were starting to happen. I dropped coach Fry off at the airport at 11:30 that night. I got in a car and drove up here. And then Kelly didn’t come until two days later. It was one of those deals where they kicked Mary out of the hospital and said it was a false alarm.
And then Steve was in-season. We did pretty well on the other three, but he wasn’t planned. It was the first weekend in December in 1993. I was a little bit more than uncomfortable figuring out how I was going to ask Bill Belichick for a little paternity leave. I didn’t think that was going to fly. It was my first year in the NFL and I thought I was going to get fired everyday. But it turned out perfectly. Mary started to go into labor on Saturday morning. The hospital was literally five minutes from our football facility. I dropped her off like at 5:30 a.m. I did the meetings and walk through. Came back in the afternoon and Steve was born that afternoon.
Worked out perfectly. Made the meetings that night. We beat New Orleans the next day and I got a game ball. Heckuva weekend. My man Steve was cooperating right from the beginning.
CRG: Born into football, almost literally.
KF: He turned out OK.
CRG: Gerry Hart [Mary's father], his son played at Penn State and I believe there’s at least one grandchild who played at Penn State?
KF: Yes, he was there for a cup of coffee.
CRG: And now you’re three sons, does he just kind of walk around . . .
KF: Not really. He’s proud of all of his and grand kids. He’s proud of them all, just as we are.
It’s funny how rarely I get asked about our girls. I think people forget we have girls. I always chuckle when people say, how about your daughters, what are they doing? We’re parents. I’m not a coach and Mary’s not a coach’s wife at home and we’ve never looked at our kids that way.
Again, she’s done a great job, first and foremost, letting our boys know, and with all of our kids, they do what they want to do. [By the way, James will likely chase the NFL and has said he would like to go into coaching.]
Both of us have been fearful they would go down this path thinking they had to. Boy, I tell you, we never wanted that. My wife can tell you better than I can. The only thing worse would be if your kids were quarterbacks. The coach’s kid at quarterback, that’s got to be the worst fate in the world. What a recipe for disaster. I think if our kids were quarterbacks, they wouldn’t have come here. I don’t think we could’ve done that. It’s just not fair. It’d be like have two head coaches. It’s OK for one guy to take an earful, I’m getting paid, but kids don’t need that.
CRG: So, offensive line was a pretty safe landing and a natural.
KF: Genetically, it worked out. There’s some size in Mary’s family. The males on that side are pretty big. They got the size from that side and they got my speed. And my speed is OK if you have size. It worked out. It was a good combination.
CRG: How does football play in the family dynamic? I know that’s a question that could probably take days, but I imagine it’s a world that has its own orbit in your house. Everybody knows and everyone probably falls into place. Now, it’s easier, being empty nesters now, I believe?
KF: Close, another month.
CG: But back in the day with young children and the girls so young . . .
KF: The kids were playing football or wrestling and up until ninth grade in baseball or basketball. That was kind of the dividing line for all three of the boys. The girls kind of phased out athletics earlier. They weren’t real active in high school, maybe the first couple of years. But all of the kids had their own interests and their own friends. It’s not like we were just focused on the football part of it.
I try not to bring my job home. It comes home. There’s a lot of discussion, at times. Mary has been a great person for me to bounce ideas off of.
CRG: I know she knows football.
KF: Too much. She knows too much about what I do. She has some opinions on things and we joke about that, but I really value her opinions. They’re usually pretty much right on.
CRG: If nothing else, it’s a totally different set of eyes, ones that you’ve known for nearly your entire lifetime. Who sees things a lot of the ways you do, but from an entirely different angle.
KF: I’ll tell you what, at home, it’s unfiltered. I don’t get that “head coach behavior” at home. I get it a lot of places, I don’t get it there.
Why five kids?
How did you meet Mary?
On being parents first.
Point person at home.