IOWA CITY — It was at the end of an interview during his sophomore season. The question was intended to bridge one thought to the next.
James Ferentz had just emerged as Iowa’s starting center, a position he’s held for the last three seasons. His brother, Brian, a former Hawkeye center himself, was climbing the assistant coach depth chart with the New England Patriots.
So, James, do you think Brian would ever come back to Iowa?
James Ferentz thought for a second and said his brother would probably want to cut his own path and that he could see him eventually going off with Patriots offensive coordinator . . . Bill O’Brien . . . who . . . yes, who took the Penn State job last winter, before Brian Ferentz left the Patriots to become Iowa’s offensive line coach.
“When I saw that coach O’Brien got hired at Penn State, my first thought was, ‘Wow, great hire for Penn State,’ ” James said.
He thought about it a little more.
“And then I wondered, ‘Would Brian follow him to Penn State?’ ” he said. “Obviously, we were fortunate to get Brian back on staff here. We didn’t have to go through that dilemma.”
You didn’t really think that, did you? Brian coaching against his father, Kirk Ferentz, the University of Iowa head coach for the last 13 seasons? No way.
“No, I didn’t think it would happen,” James said, “but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t creep through my head.”
Well, that sure would’ve been interesting, huh?
O’Brien was hired on Jan. 7 at Penn State, about a month before the Patriots fell to the Giants, 21-17, in Super Bowl XLII and a month and a half before Brian Ferentz was hired at Iowa. There was a little lead time for something to perhaps happen with O’Brien and the younger Ferentz.
“It just kind of dawned on me too, somewhere in January, Brian might have some options, too,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s kind of like what Doc Samko told me about my wife [Mary]. He was an old trainer at Worcester [Academy, the Massachusetts prep school where Ferentz launched his coaching career in 1978].
“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 . . .”
Strong bonds can be built among coaches. This is why you see some staffs go to schools as packages. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has been with his coordinators since the early ’90s. And yes, of course, that kind of bond was forged between O’Brien and Brian Ferentz.
“You know, I’m close with Brian,” O’Brien said this week. “Any time you work with someone 24/7 six months out of the year for four years and you go to a Super Bowl with a guy and you have a lot of respect for his football knowledge and all those things, yeah, there’s no question that that’s a great friendship there. I obviously have a lot of respect for his dad and what he’s done at the University of Iowa.”
This leads to the “are you going to do anything different, coach O’Brien, because you and Brian know each other” question. It makes sense, but you also have to realize the two spent four years working for Bill Belichick, an all-in proposition if there ever was one.
Belichick coaches coaches to coach. Let’s try that again. Kirk Ferentz, who worked under Belichick in Cleveland in the early 1990s, has called the Belichick experience a “graduate school” for coaches.
“You’re being coached or you’re encouraged to leave,” Kirk Ferentz said flatly. “You can’t help but learn when you’re there.”
In an interview this summer, Ferentz said, “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.”
So no, O’Brien and Brian Ferentz weren’t drawing up plays and planning a college superpower. They were coaching for Belichick.
“I was asked a question about being on coach Belichick’s staff [during media days at last year's Super Bowl] and my answer was simply, it’s our job as assistant coaches to make sure that the head coach’s vision reaches the players,” Brian said, “and I don’t view my job any differently here. That’s basically my job, and I’m going to do it.
“Sometimes it may be easy to disagree with the vision as a gut reaction, because I’m more familiar here with the head coach than coach Belichick, but my job description I don’t think has changed.”
The takeaway from time with Belichick, winner of three Super Bowls, is discipline, in everything, from practice to gameplan.
“I would tell you that the discipline of the teams,” O’Brien said. “Hopefully we’re not a very penalized team, we don’t get penalized a lot, hopefully we don’t turn it over a lot. The way we practice, we try to create a physical practice environment and situational football. We really try to work on that quite a bit.
“Again, I’m not going to speak for coach Ferentz on that. You’d have to ask him what he took from coach Belichick, but when you watch Iowa, you see a very tough, physical smart football team that doesn’t beat themselves.”
Brian Ferentz was never going to end up at Penn State, not coaching against his dad. Right? Kirk Ferentz was deliberate in his search last winter. He was, after all, replacing both coordinators and turning over all but two positions on a staff that hadn’t seen much movement in the previous 13 years.
“For me it was a no-brainer,” Brian said. “You can’t say no to your father. And for me, personally, it was hard to say no to Iowa. I know that sounds cheesy and corny, but it was, it really was. This is a special place. I believe that.”
So, no way Brian Ferentz at Penn State.
“That’d be uncomfortable,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I don’t know that it would’ve or it wouldn’t have.”
Kirk had a trump card he could’ve played if it would’ve come to that. There is a wife and a mom who has a vote.
“I think his [Brian's] loyalty is to the family,” James said. “I don’t think he would’ve put that stress on my mom.”