So, who’s the best Iowa OL between Brian and James? Kirk Ferentz goes there in this portion of the interview.
That’s enough foreshadowing on that topic.
We talked a little about James’ rough start at Iowa, which measured against the nearly finished product he is today (three-year starter, leadership committee, probable captain) is a mere blip
The spacing between the boys? Pure luck. Imagine three Division I football players who were two years apart? Brian, 29, was always older and bigger than James (23) and James was always had that on Steven (18). Imagine the beating their drywall could’ve potentially taken.
Finally, the topic of Brian’s departure from New England came up. That was a much more delicate process than a two-week notice.
[This is part II 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.]
CRG: Brian had Division I offers. I think Kansas State was in on him, because Bill Snyder [K-State coach who coached with Ferentz at Iowa in the '80s] probably knew that would work.
KF: Northern Illinois was the only school that recruited him actively. He really enjoyed it there and had a good visit.
CRG: He makes the leap of faith and goes to Iowa on scholarship. He seemed as though he was built for it. He knew there would be a level of scrutiny. He had the knee issue ["issue," it was staph infection that nearly cost him a leg] and fought through it and helped win a Big Ten title. He seemed as though he was built for it. Dad’s coach, he knows O-line, I’m going to do it anyway. Would you agree?
KF: I would and that wasn’t intentional or by design. Couple of things on that: The football part of it, when I was watching him in high school, I guess, it struck me. I really never coached my kids. I never took them out in the backyard and showed them footwork or stances and all that kind of stuff. But I remember the first time I saw him and thought he had a little aptitude for it was in Cleveland, when he would come to camp and hang around a little bit. Same thing in Baltimore. Clearly, there was something, osmosis or whatever he picked up, he had a little sense for doing things. I think the only thing I ever did with him that would even be remotely like coaching was went out to the backyard with him and had him snap a ball to me. Some guys can just kind of snap the ball and some can’t do it so well. It has to be learned. He had an aptitude. I filed that away and that was about it. He didn’t play center in high school [Gilman School in Baltimore and Iowa City High].
When it was time to go to college, he came here to camp. I remember Ron Aiken [former Iowa D-line coach now with the Arizona Cardinals] distinctly saying that he’s a Division I player. That meant something to me. I don’t know if I’ve met any dads who can look at their kids objectively. When Ron said that, that had some credence with me and then Reese [Morgan, Iowa's former O-line and current D-line coach] followed up with the same thing. At that point, that’s when we decided to give him a scholarship. I was deferring to their opinions. I don’t think I got “head coach behavior” from Ron. He said it like he said it all the time.
CRG: Did James have the same amount of college interest?
KF: He didn’t, which is ironic in that he’s not tall. But I think Brian would be the first to tell you, James was the better high school player and he’s the better college player. I don’t mean that in a negative way toward Brian, but James can carry his own. [The height thing.] Yes, a lot of people make that mistake and, in his case, it was a mistake. He’s a fairly salty player out there.
CRG: He had some bumps early in his career, but if you look at the finished product . . . Then, young kids and there is going to be some breakage. He just happened to have your last name. That’s the hard part. But as it turned out, he probably grew, maybe in the same regard as Pat Angerer. [James had an underage possession ticket in '08 and a public intoxication in '09.]
KF: Not to minimize it, but it’s fairly typical of college kids and kids in that age group. Some grow out of it and some don’t. I refer to those as “college kid” issues. As long as we’re in this business, we’re going to deal with those. The thing about it, that’s the downside to having the last name that he has. It’s one of those deals. He knew that better than Brian did, because Brian was the first one who went down that path. I think Brian went in with his eyes fairly wide open. He could share that with his younger brother James. So, James knew coming in that that’s the downside of things. But back to the point my wife has made with all of our kids, there’s a downside to what your dad does, but there’s an upside, too. Getting to travel to bowl games, things they got to do as kids that a lot of other families don’t get to do. They give up a lot of things, but there are some rewards, too.
That’s certainly one of the downsides. James’ growing experience became a lot more public than John Smith’s. That’s part of the world
we live in.
CRG: Brian is now in coaching. He played in the NFL a year or year and a half [he made the Falcons practice squad and then was cut the next season].
KF: When they changed coaches, his career was done. They went from being a team like us [zone blocking] to being a big, lumbering type of team. That kind of knocked him out of the box.
CRG: Now, I know it’s hard to project. James is going to be your starting center, but can you see a similar path?
KF: He’ll have to overcome the height barrier again. For some people, that’s a stigma. We’ll see. That will limit his pool, but he’s a good football player. He still has to play his senior year, but I think it’s realistic to think he could be in someone’s camp or be drafted. I think that’s possible, depending what happens in the next 12 months. Nice thing about the NFL, it’s all about what you do. You’ve got to find the right spot. Brian, if he had a chance, he was in the right spot. They changed coaches and that was it. All that being said, he would tell you he’s a ‘tweener. All of our kids have been tweeners coming in at the college level, so same story.
CRG: Do you see James as a graduate assistant here? He seems less vocal than Brian.
KF: He is, and we’ll see.
CRG: Brian seemed like the type of player who led in a huddle. I think James has your attention with the pace he sets.
KF: You’d be surprised. There’s a little more going on than you might think. James is fairly active. Just like Brian, I think it’s important, especially in these guys’ cases . . . I think when Brian left here it was 22 years with me. James will be the same story. It’s good to get out in the world and hear other things, hear different voices, see different people. I don’t know that James will go into coaching, but I would recommend seeing other things. Learn some other things. Meet some other people.
CRG: Who did you recruit Steven away from?
KF: He pretty much knew he wanted to come here all along.
CRG: Did he check out some walk-on opportunities?
KF: I tried to get him interested in looking at some other campuses, some I-AAs. I tried to, just because I like taking college trips and looking at other campuses as a coach. He really had no interest. He had no interest in Division III programs. He’s been fixed on this. We wanted to make sure, as with all the kids, that he was doing it for the right reasons. And I think he is. I think he knows what he’s doing.
CRG: Tight end right now?
CRG: Fantastic spacing on the boys, too. I imagine there wasn’t . . .
KF: Well, there was a master plan.
CRG: I did an interview with the Roths a few years ago [this is the link]. I went out there. I think his older brother was a year or two older than Matt. So, you can imagine the drywall took a beating until Matt got to be a monster. Your guys probably had some sibling rivalry, but I don’t think they probably . . . Brian was way bigger and then James was way bigger than Steven, it was great spacing.
KF: It was probably moreso between the two older boys. But James used to go over to the wrestling room at City High and work out a little bit [with Steve]. It’s been fun. It’s interesting, as you get older and your younger ones are coming along, you get an appreciation for . . . I can’t remember what age Brian was when I started having a back problem when we’d wrestle around. I think he was in 10th grade at that point and he could whip my tail pretty easy, so, oh jeez, I’ve got to watch that back. James, forget it. Steve is transforming into a young man from a kid. It’s fun to watch that.
CRG: Spacing was . . .
KF: Luck of the draw.
CRG: This is a funny question, but I hope it sets the stage: You guys aren’t all going to hop in the Suburban together and drive to work, are you?
KF: [Laughs.] No, that’s not going to happen. But it’s funny, Brian has been in our house pretty much every day since he got the job and while they’ve been transitioning. We have ridden to work several times together, so that’s all good stuff. You relish every moment. That’s all good stuff.
CRG: I know you don’t want to talk about it too much, but Brian . . . there was no competition there. There might’ve been some competition, but the Patriots, the players he had. How did it work? When did the yes come? What was it like?
KF: We had some really good candidates. That’s one of the good things about working here. When we have had transition, we’ve typically had good people to choose from and some of those people might not be considered great by the experts. Joe Philbin, he fit in that category. I still laugh about that. There are a lot of good coaches out there. They don’t have to be, quote, unquote, at the brand schools or whatever. We have a good pool. If something happened tomorrow where we changed again, we would have a good pool of folks.
That was part of my rationale with Reese. I though that group really needed a guy who could teach from A to Z, and I’ve seen Reese now for, what’s it been, 11 now 12 years, first hand. I kind of thought that was his package at West High and that’s been confirmed over 12 years here. He’s already done a great job with that group. If there’s one place I know we could go out and find someone who I have great faith and trust in, it’s the offensive line. There are a couple of people I know who would come here tomorrow if we made that available.
It just kind of dawned on me too, somewhere in January, Brian might have some options, too. It’s kind of like what Doc Samko told me about my wife. He was an old trainer at Worcester. He really liked Mary. Everyone likes Mary better than me. So, he says, when are you guys getting married? I said, I’m in no hurry. I wasn’t, life was good. He pointed out that you know, she might figure out one of these days that there are other guys. I thought, you senile, old . . . And then that night, I started thinking about it and thought he might be right.
Same thing with Brian. It’s possible he might’ve had other options come up and it started to dawn on me that maybe . . .
CRG: The coaching thing came up once and there was some opinion that Brian might take off with Bill O’Brien [he was the New England Patriots offensive coordinator and oversaw Brian, who coached tight ends, before taking the head coach job at Penn State].
KF: That’d be uncomfortable. I don’t know that it would’ve or it wouldn’t have.
The other obstacle was just talking to Bill [Belichick]. The two people I owe so much to right now . . . There are so many people, Joe Moore first and foremost just from everything else in my family. But then, you know, who would’ve hired me in 1981 would’ve hired me outside of Hayden Fry? The only guy in captivity. Then, 12 or 13 years later, Bill Belichick, same way. Who hires a guy from Maine? Explain that?
I can’t tell you how good he’s been for me professionally and what he’s done for me in terms of things he did to help make me a better coach and then doing what he did to make sure we’re doing things the right way.
The one thing I didn’t want to do was — because Brian was doing well in that organization . . .
CRG: You didn’t want to pull him out?
KF: I certainly didn’t want to burn a bridge. If that would’ve burned a bridge . . . The thing I was hoping for and banking on was that Bill’s dad was a coach. I’ve got to think, and I didn’t ask Bill this and we didn’t have that conversation, I just know what his dad meant to him professionally and if he would’ve had that opportunity, he would’ve loved that. So, I don’t want to speak for Bill, but I think that probably was a factor. We had a great conversation. We’ve had several on the topic. So, that worked out beautifully and then my only hope was to get him out of the building without ruffling feathers or anything like that. I think Bill fully understood and was enthusiastic about it.
On college football options for the boys.
On bumps in the road.
On having the boys around.
On sibling rivalry