The Iowa Caucus: Coaches

Dec. 28, 2015, 12:12 a.m.

This is the final installment of The Stanford Daily’s seven-part preview series on the Iowa Hawkeyes, which will face Stanford in the 102nd Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Jan. 1, 2016. This piece will look at Iowa’s coaches. Previous parts can be read at the following links:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Passing game
Part 3: Running game
Part 4: Front seven
Part 5: Secondary
Part 6: Special teams

The low-down: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is tied with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops for the longest-serving head coach in college football. Seventeen years of this man’s life have been dedicated to managing the Hawkeyes, an era that has seen a few huge successes, a few giant failures and a whole lot more that’s somewhere in between. It takes a unique type of person to lead a program for this amount of time: confident enough not to move up in good times but stubborn enough not to jump ship in bad times. These attributes, above all, have really come to define Iowa’s style of play.

Ferentz’s assistants are comparably loyal to the program, collectively forming a staff that must have one of the lowest turnover rates in the country. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker started out as the defensive backs coach but has been with Ferentz since the beginning, while offensive coordinator Greg Davis (of the 2005 Texas national championship team) is comparatively a newbie in just his fourth season, but appears in it for the long haul. This group has focused on developing less-touted recruits to fit into its physical, run-first scheme, a plan that rarely attracts national attention but has led the team to some considerable success.

As long as these coaches’ tenures have been, it has proved at least somewhat possible for them to learn new tricks. After posting just a 26-25 record over the four seasons before this one, Ferentz commissioned a “think tank” within his coaching staff last winter to reevaluate the program’s play-calling and priorities. The results were quickly apparent, and the team’s increased willingness to take risks on fourth downs quickly became a fan favorite. When Iowa faked a field goal in its season opener against Illinois State, the crowd erupted with thunderous applause –- even though the attempt came up short of a first down.

Best call: The Hawkeyes’ staff has had a very good year as far as decisions go, but its single best has to be when it named C.J. Beathard starting quarterback in January over 2014 starter Jake Rudock, then doubled down by allowing Rudock to leave on a graduate transfer to Michigan. Though this defied the conventional wisdom of keeping options open and increasing competition, it allowed Beathard to grow into his role as offensive leader on the offseason and seemed to boost his confidence come September. As good of a season as Rudock has had in Ann Arbor, the Beathard-led Hawkeyes have achieved far more than they ever did in the Rudock era, vindicating their coaches’ decision as they went.

Best performance: Realistically, the 12-0 regular season is a testament to the strong performance by the coaching staff this year. Some of the Hawkeyes’ final scorelines may appear quite close, but honestly, there were very few moments when the team didn’t look firmly in control of its fate as the clock began to tick down. If you have to pick a single game, you’d have to look at the team’s 40-10 beatdown of Northwestern with its top two running backs injured. Even though Iowa’s backups had virtually no game experience, the team’s scheme had been appropriately adjusted and the players adequately prepared to soundly defeat one of the top programs in the country.

Worst performance: As much as Iowa’s players proved themselves in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State, the play-calling arguably left something to be desired. The Hawkeyes’ offense didn’t seem to have a plan B after running back Jordan Canzeri went down with an injury, seeming content to sit on a very narrow lead by sticking to a largely ineffective running game that netted them just 52 total yards. Ferentz and Davis also largely avoided setting up deep passing opportunities for Beathard even though the team’s only touchdown came on an 85-yarder to Tevaun Smith.

Perhaps its worst offense, however, was its failure inside the red zone, as the team came away with just two field goals on three opportunities inside the Michigan State 20. According to one Iowa fan I heard from, it looked as if “old Kirk” had returned to the field again.

Notable moments:  Nobody had the foresight to upload Iowa’s failed fake field goal attempt against Illinois State, but (un)fortunately for Hawkeyes fans, Iowa tried -– and failed –- again one week later against Iowa State. This one (skip to 9:37 below) was arguably a bit of a foolish decision, with just one second left in the half and the team needing a full 23 yards to reach the end zone, but it still shows that this coaching staff is willing to take risks if it thinks it will give the team an advantage.

Biggest questions: It’s hard to get too specific here based on how much football games can vary, but a big thing to look out for is who can successfully execute his ball control scheme better. Kirk Ferentz and David Shaw both place a high value on possession and field position, yet each is effectively of a zero-sum game where only one side can truly “win.” A related issue is who can adapt his scheme better, as both are unlikely to be able to execute theirs exactly how they might against a weaker (or less interested) opponent.

Matchup with Stanford: Murmurs have occasionally vibrated through the college football community about the old-school awesomeness that could exude from a David Shaw-Nick Saban bowl game. While the Ferentz-Shaw Rose Bowl might not have quite the same ring to it, expect the style of play to follow generally along those lines.

Though both coaches have grown a little bit more aggressive this year after disappointing last seasons, both inherently value more or less the same grind-it-out style of play more than almost everyone else in college football. It seems very likely that the team that wins in the trenches will come out on top in this game.

In terms of bowl game performance, Iowa’s staff may have a slight advantage in pedigree but the picture isn’t totally clear. Ferentz’s bowl record has dropped to 6-6 after the Hawkeyes lost their last three to teams rated considerably higher than them, but he’s been historically known for getting his guys to play quite well in the postseason and has recorded some pretty spectacular upsets over the course of his career. The sample size is much lower for David Shaw but, with Stanford just 1-2 in games the team (let’s face it) realistically could have won during his tenure, it seems that there may be room for improvement.


Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.

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