Ideally, fans shouldn’t think too much about what their athletic director is doing.
Athletic directors do a ton of behind the scenes work, from fundraising to making internal hires to glad-handing alumni to business development. But as long as they aren’t building an absolutely toxic culture, like Dave Brandon or Steve Patterson, most fans won’t hear anything about them.
As long as the athletic program has the resources to be competitive with its peers, the biggest thing fans see are coaching hires. And if you’re really doing things well, you don’t need to make a whole lot of those.
Many Ohio State fans dislike Gene Smith, especially for his clumsy handling of the end of the Jim Tressel saga and response to Tatgate. But compared to his AD peers, there’s not that much to complain about. Ohio State’s facilities are all shiny and new. You don’t hear complaints about a dysfunctional department, and most hires, from wrestling to lacrosse to women’s basketball, have worked out very well — to say nothing of the guy coaching the football team. When it comes to the big things, Ohio State’s administration has set high expectations, and has put the department in a position to succeed at those.
Not every Big Ten program can say that.
Last year, we saw institutional problems hold Minnesota, Illinois, and most famously Rutgers back. We may already see problems at Penn State, where a clumsy Joe Paterno tribute promotion gave their internal cultural clash another national platform.
But this biggest example of a Big Ten administration restricting athletic success? That award goes to Iowa.
Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz’s massive contract had already become a running Internet gag in college football circles. His $4 million a year salary was large, but given the massive jump in coaching salaries across the landscape, it was perhaps defensible. But Ferentz also got a massive buyout, making him essentially impossible to move on from. After the Hawkeyes struggled to a 4-8 record in 2012, for example, Iowa would have needed to pay $16 million to terminate him. Unsurprisingly they didn’t.
But the Hawkeyes have rebounded. They made the Rose Bowl last season, and have one of the better recruiting classes in recent memory for 2017, one that should finish in the top half of the Big Ten. Ferentz is popular again.
So, even though that current contract still ran through 2020, Iowa decided to give him a raise and another contract extension. And then, for reasons that aren’t clear, they gave him an even more enormous buyout:
Here's the new buyout. I think it's weirder. pic.twitter.com/Z8XNPfOoIW— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) September 6, 2016
Iowa’s had a nice run recently, but let’s not pretend that they’ve been world beaters. Since 2011, the Hawkeyes have beaten seven teams that won at least eight games, with three of them happening last year (Pitt, Wisconsin and Northwestern). Last season was the first time they finished in the AP Poll since 2009. They haven’t won a bowl game since 2010.
Kirk Ferentz is a good football coach. He’s led Iowa to five Top 10 AP Poll finishes, a Rose Bowl berth, multiple Orange Bowls, and the program’s best three-year run since the 1980s. He’s brought stability to a program in a world where most non-elite programs are rife with instability.
It’s fine, and completely understandable, that Iowa wanted to give another extension, especially to reassure potential recruits that Ferentz planned on sticking around. But Ferentz is also an older coach, one that doesn’t run a flashy, enticing offense, and one that doesn’t recruit many blue-chip athletes. The risk of him leaving for another college job, and probably even an NFL job, is nearly zero.
Why handcuff yourselves to him for another decade when you don’t have to, especially since 7-5, not 10-2, is closer to your average expected annual return?
It’s safe and reliable. And that seems like a very Big Ten thing to do. But it isn’t the right one.
A lot can happen when you need to hire a football coach. Sometimes you swing and miss and your program is embarrassed. Sometimes you create divisions and hurt feelings with your boosters and fans. Sometimes you hire a bad football coach, and then you need to go through the entire process again in three or four years.
Iowa has, by and large, avoided that process. If Ferentz works through his entire contract — which will put him into his 70s) — he’ll be one of the longest tenured coaches in history. Iowa hasn’t had a coach not named Ferentz or Hayden Fry since 1978. Some of that has been great for Iowa. Some of that has been a result of them simply punting on making a decision, which is also pretty Iowa.
This contract shows that Iowa is satisfied not having to worry about making an uncomfortable choice with a program staple, even if returns falter. It shows Iowa is fine scheduling terrible out-of-conference opponents, hoping the Big Ten divisional games break their way, beating a mediocre Northwestern or Minnesota, and going 9-3. It shows they don’t even want to try to be better than they already are.
That’s a shame. Iowa may not have an advantageous geographic location, but they have a ton of other pluses. They’re a great school with a large, passionate fanbase. Their program makes a ton of money, and the new Big Ten TV deal will make sure they’ll have plenty more. They have very good facilities, and a proud history. With a great coach, they could easily be as successful over the course of a decade as a Wisconsin, if not more.
But that decision has already been made for them. They’re not alone in that overly cautious decision-making. But that lack of ambition and imagination will hamstring their athletic department.
Ohio State has many faults, but few administrative decisions, either with contracts, hires, or with the fans, have added an artificial celling to their success.
For that, fans should be grateful. That’s not a birthright. With a few of the wrong hires, it can happen anywhere, including at blue blood programs.
Ohio State fans haven’t had to worry about what their AD is doing in recent years. That’s a good thing. Much of the rest of this conference unfortunately can’t say the same.