Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz is making the rounds on the annual I-Club circuit, and his message is a little different this year.
Ferentz never gives a whiff of complacency when speaking publicly, whether it’s coming off an 11-2 Orange Bowl season or an rock-bottom 4-8 campaign. But his message this year is a combination of positivity and a mea culpa to Iowa fans Tuesday night at the Thunder Hills Country Club in Peosta.
Before his speech, Ferentz answered questions about his quarterbacks, the divisional alignment and defense. When I asked him if last year felt differently knowing there was no bowl game in store, Ferentz said, “First of all, winter break took forever. I don’t think it’s typically five weeks, but it was this year. Five seemed like 15. So, a lot of games to watch, and you really didn’t feel like watching them. It was a little bit different that way.”
Ferentz spoke to a filled room for 15 minutes, and about half of which was dedicated to football. He called the Northwestern loss “representative” and how the team has responded this offseason to the 4-8 debacle. Although it would have been easy to spin the almosts — recover an onside kick against Central Michigan, make a fourth-and-3 against Purdue — he never did.
Here’s the football portion of his speech Tuesday night. The I-Club circuit ends this week.
“Just in a word last year was disappointing. It was disappointing for our fan base, more so disappointing for the players and coaches and everybody that works so hard on a day-to-day basis. We found ourselves, after that last game, in a meeting in the middle of the next week, and we knew we weren’t going to a bowl game. We weren’t going to get the opportunity to go to a state like Florida or Arizona, stay in a real nice hotel and get gifts and all that stuff that goes with bowl games. Most importantly was the chance to be together as a team for another month and really go out and compete against an outstanding team. And that’s what we were facing with back at the end of November.
“It was a little bit like ’07 in that regard but unlike ’07, we were 4-8 last year. There really was no way to sugar-coat things. When you’re 6-6, you can say, ‘A play here, a play there,’ but that really was never the case last year. We were 4-8 and the stark reality is we’ve got a lot of work to do. I think that’s really, kind of what we put our focus on.
“At one point we were 4-2 last year. The first two Big Ten games went well. Certainly a good win against Minnesota at home and a really good win against a tough Michigan State team on the road. And then after that, there really wasn’t much to be pleased about. If you look back at the old axiom about more games being lost than won, I think that really fit our team. If you look at our eight losses, two games were non-compete games where we never really gave ourselves any chance at all to get started to be competitive in those games. They got away from us, certainly early, and they were both against opponents that we’ve had success with in recent years.That’s one category.
“We had five other games that we lost by three points. In those five games, if you go back and probably take a play here, a play there, and what have you. But I think our most representative loss we had was to Northwestern (28-17). That ballgame was more than double digits, or at least double digits I should say. I think you go back and look at that game, it was two evenly matched teams, at least in my mind, two evenly matched teams. I think you could pick out six, seven, eight plays in there that could have made a difference, would have made a difference, but we didn’t get the job done. To me they’re a team, they went on and won 10 games last year. Their losses were very competitive and simply because they did a good job of their execution and then on the other side of the coin, we didn’t.
“To me that one was probably the most representative. We went on for four wins, they went to 10. Therein lies the difference. That really is the challenge I think that’s in front of our football team as we move forward.
“It’s a little bit interesting. We went through this after the ’07 season. And in 08-09, we came back and had really good years. I think about Bruce Nelson, one of our early walk-on players, a four-year starter for us. He was an honorary captain earlier this year. He said two things that really stuck out to me to our football team. He said the first thing is, ‘This is what I don’t miss,’ he was talking about practice. He said, ‘You know, I don’t miss that hard work, all the tough things that go into it.’ But he says, ‘Really, this is where the work gets done.’ The other thing he says is, ‘When you go through tough times and adversity, you find out who’s who and what’s what. Both internally and externally.’ I think his two points were a lot of wisdom in both of those things.
“What we’ve tried to do is focus on the work that has to be done. But I can’t say enough about the way our guys have responded. The guys have worked hard throughout the winter period, they did a good job over the break. It was an unusually long break and they came back in January ready to go. They continued to work really hard, including spring practice.
“As we stand here right now, the guys are on break. All of our students are on break right now. We finished up, I think, on a real good way this spring. We have a lot questions to be answered, obviously. The quarterback position is paramount, the receiver position, we’ve got room for people to step up. Defensive end. Those are probably the three things on our list right now. But a lot of other areas, too, that are going on. But I think the main thing is, the guys are working hard. Their attitude has been great, and we are growing and making improvements. So that’s where we stand right now. We still have got a very important period coming up right now with the strength and conditioning phase, which will lead us into the preseason, which is obviously critical for anybody.
“I think our points of emphasis aren’t going to change when the team gets back together. The first thing I told the guys was, ‘Hey, the past is the past.’ The second thing is we have to address the correctable things that we were in, very evident in the Northwestern game. Those are the things that we’ve got to get corrected, and we’ve got to get those remedied. The third thing, paramount for everybody, is to improve. I can just tell you I think our guys have done a good job of that thus far. Now the key is to keep our feet on the gas and continue to be improvement-driven.
“One of the great things about coaching in college and high school, our athletes can really improve dramatically. I’ve seen that, certainly in all our sports. I can tell you our two running backs right now, Damon Bullock last year at this time, not only was I wondering would he block, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t based on what I’d seen that spring. He’s a football player now I’ve got great faith and trust in. Last year in the spring we were wondering if (Mark) Weisman would block. We found out he would block. Since then, obviously, we found out he can run the ball, too. Both quality young guys. We’ve got a lot of good stories, I think, that have emerged on the football team already. Hopefully a lot more to come as we move forward.
“That’s where we’re at right now. We’re certainly eager to get the guys back on campus and get started again. That will be soon enough here in a couple of weeks. We’re looking forward to that.”