I covered many things and wrote many columns and stories before this blog was born. Since I’m on vacation and out of America for the week (my Dobermans are staying at home with my house-sitter, a burly fellow who has wild mood swings and a nasty temper), I’m going to try keep the blog moving this week with pieces from the past that will be new to almost all of you.
Heck, I didn’t remember them much myself until I went into the archives.
This selection is from Oct. 23, 2004. Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa. … Iowa 6, Penn State 4. Little did anyone know at the time that the victory would be essential in the Hawkeyes grabbing a share of the Big Ten championship that season.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – “One thing I’ve learned, I already think I knew, I’m pretty damn fortunate. I’m one of the most fortunate people in the world. And I appreciate that, too. I don’t take it for granted, I assure you that.”
Those words came from Kirk Ferentz Saturday afternoon. They had nothing to do with his Iowa football team’s 6-4 victory over Penn State .
Earlier in the week, Ferentz considered his good fortune while he and his family gathered in suburban Pittsburgh. Shortly before the Hawkeyes landed in State College on Friday for a football game, their coach was a two-hour drive to the west, giving the eulogy at the funeral for his 84-year-old father, John Ferentz.
Ferentz, his wife, and their five children flew to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The coaching was left to a capable staff in Iowa City. Ferentz spent three days strictly being a son to his mother, and the father to his five children.
“We had a great three days as a family together,” he said.
The reason for the gathering wasn’t a happy one, of course. But it gave the coach an opportunity to reflect on where he came from and, more importantly, who he came from.
“You learn in coaching real fast that you better have role models and you better have teamwork,” Ferentz said. “And families are no different. My parents are just tremendous people.”
Kirk’s mother, Elsie Mae Ferentz, was John’s wife of 61 years. She used to be an English teacher. Her son jokes that if he uses incorrect grammar at one of his Tuesday press conferences, she’ll take the red pencil to it.
John Ferentz was a fund-raiser for an organization that predated United Way. He was a coach of youth baseball teams. He wasn’t nationally known like one of his sons. But he was a good dad and a good member of the community, one of those people who make the world go round.
Six years ago, I did a phone interview with Elsie Mae and John after Ferentz was hired as Iowa’s head coach. They seemed like grand people. My notebook was overflowing. Nobody gives better insights about people than their parents.
John gushed about how happy he was for Kirk to get the opportunity at Iowa, saying he had a real good feeling about how it would work out. I heard that voice in my head from time to time during the first two years of Ferentz’s tenure, tough years. Maybe it was just a dad talking, I thought, not a realist.
His dad knew. Parents know.
Six years later, you can’t find Hawkeye fans anywhere on the planet who aren’t grateful that Ferentz is in charge of their team. Saturday was yet another reason. When a team could be disciplined and motivated enough to gut out a road win after it prepared without its leader for much of the week, then its leader never really left.
Game balls could have been distributed to every Iowa defensive starter after their second straight stifling performance, but just one was given. The team gave it to its coach, who will forward it to his mother. No doubt, she’ll give it a place of prominence in John Ferentz’s home.
“He would have appreciated this, to get a win over these guys,” said Brian Ferentz, John’s grandson and Iowa’s starting right guard. “It was almost like he planned it. He hung around for Ohio State to see us beat them, and he made sure we were coming this way, anyway.”
During his eulogy, Ferentz joked that his dad hung on to see Iowa beat Ohio State because it was the last Big Ten team a Ferentz-led Iowa squad hadn’t beaten.
Ferentz phoned his father a few hours after the win over the Buckeyes.
“I’ve been told he wasn’t involved in the game and he didn’t really see it.” And yet …
“His trademark was `Sooey!’ every time we won. He gave a big `Sooey!’ (that night). The people in the apartment couldn’t imagine where it came from or how he knew, but he knew. He knew.
“That was the last conversation I had with him. I couldn’t have had a better one. He knew.”
The day after Ferentz delivered his father’s eulogy, he and son Brian shared something special, a win at Penn State.
The fact Brian Ferentz is even playing football is amazing. This was a young man who has had more surgeries than a person should have to endure in a life. He had a staph infection in his knee this year, something so serious that an amputation to the joint seemed a possibility. Today he is getting the job done on a Big Ten offensive line.
Friday, Kirk, Brian and the rest of their family except for Kirk’s daughter Joanne (“She had to fly home to take the ACT today,” Brian said. “I hope her score was a lot higher than ours.”) drove those two hours from Pittsburgh to State College.
The father and son talked football, talked about what to expect against Penn State. With conviction, Ferentz said his own dad would have been mad had the two not turned their focus to beating Penn State. Thanks largely to a team full of brainy coaches and devoted players, the Hawkeyes did just that.
Listen to Brian Ferentz, and you hear an articulate, intelligent young man who has fought off injuries and surgeries to keep doing what he loves. You think about where he comes from and, more importantly, who he comes from.
He has a mom who keeps as low a public profile as she possibly can and clearly takes care of business at home. He has a dad who lives in the public eye, but doesn’t let it define him.
“I’m proud of him,” Brian Ferentz said. “I’m proud of him all the time.
“I’m sure he’s proud of me. It’s a lot of fun to be part of this. It’s the big reason I came to school here, so that we could experience football together.”
Father and son were in their team’s chartered jet late Saturday afternoon. It was a plane filled with happiness.
Maybe the plane tipped its wing over Pittsburgh on its way home.