IOWA CITY — Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz navigated through some pointed questions about his struggling team for nearly 25 minutes on Tuesday.
He spoke calmly, broke into a gentle lecture about how the football works and kept everything at an arm’s length. The Hawkeyes (4-6, 2-4 Big Ten) face their first ranked opponent of the season when they visit No. 23 Michigan (7-3, 5-1) on Saturday.
The Wolverines are locked in a scoreboard watch opposite Nebraska (8-2, 5-1), which holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over UM for the Legends Division title and a berth opposite Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Iowa plays host to the Huskers in the season finale next Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
Ferentz’s day-to-day is crammed with trying to keep the Hawkeyes, who’ve lost four straight for the first time since 2007, from disintegrating in the final two weeks. One loss will knock them out of bowl eligibility for the first time since a 3-9 finish in 2000.
“Really, the only thing I can worry about right now or be concerned with is beating Michigan,” Ferentz said to a question about picking up the pieces again. “I’m getting them ready to play their best against Michigan. That’s really what I’m worried about right now, or focused on. That’s probably a better word choice.”
“You know, you worry about health, you worry about life‑and‑death circumstances, but we are focused on getting better, and that’s where our energy and attention is right now.”
While talking to reporters afterward, Ferentz was asked by an Associated Press reporter about former UI athletics department academic adviser Peter Gray, who resigned last week amid accusations of sexually harrassing students.
This is where calmness turned into agitation and then turn into anger.
Ferentz objected to the question, “It’s been out there that you had your players cut off contact with Pete Gray.” He had a problem with the “it’s been out there” part. He stopped in mid-sentence while answering another question and said, “I’m distracted by that ‘it’s out there,’ ” he said. “I mean . . . I’ve got to apologize, but that is so bad.”
The reporter cited a Monday post from Iowa City’s KCJJ radio on its website that Ferentz and UI men’s swimming coach Marc Long cut off access between Gray and their athletes shortly before Gray was allowed to resign for personal reasons.
Ferentz said Gray had worked in the past with members of the football team, but it had been a “significant while” since he did. At this point, UI sports information director Steve Roe stopped the questioning and said Ferentz couldn’t comment.
Ferentz seemed to have issue with the vagueness of the “it’s been out there” part of the question. He wanted to know specifics and called it “a [expletive] question.” Eventually, the reporter cited KCJJ. Ferentz then said, “You sit in here every week and you ask that [expletive] question?” Ferentz immediately apologized for the language.
Former Hawkeyes have reacted in the social media world about the Gray case. Ferentz was asked about that, too. He said he doesn’t use social media and had no idea what was out there.
Former Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, an all-American who played from 2007-10, tweeted, “Well, it’s about time, lol. I figured there was something wrong with that dude.”
Former Iowa O-lineman Dace Richardson said on Facebook, “This makes me sick . . . we all just shrugged it off.”
Ferentz showed combativeness in the postgame after the Hawkeyes’ 27-24 loss to Purdue last Saturday. These incidents are uncharacteristic for the coach, who’s in his 14th season in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes are in a downward spiral and one question set him off Tuesday. This isn’t a pattern as much as a flareup.
Center James Ferentz, Kirk’s son, was asked Tuesday how his dad was handling all of this.
“Good, I hope, I haven’t talked to him too much,” said James Ferentz, a senior. “It’s frustrating for everybody, but at the same time, we need to start making more improvement on the field. We need to put more effort in during the week. We’re all in this together.”
Coach Ferentz didn’t like what he saw in the first half last week against Purdue and let players know about it. A few in the postgame said that was as angry as they’ve ever seen their coach.
“He realizes the situation, like we all do,” quarterback James Vandenberg said. “We put ourselves in a bad spot.”