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Column: Iowa is a cautionary tale of the dangers of nepotism and cronyism

And a good argument for new blood. 

Purdue v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

They say you shouldn’t go into business with your friends. Why? Because when things go south or the business hits a rough patch, the relationship can turn sour and a beautiful friendship is ruined. This brings us to an enigma that’s been unraveling in Iowa City this season.

The Iowa athletic department is not stupid. The powers that be know that Iowa could just as easily be the one- or two- or three-win Illinois, Nebraska, or Rutgers teams we’ve seen in the Big Ten in the past. Rather than play toward the extremes, they recognized that a coach who consistently goes 8-4, occasionally makes the Big Ten Championship, and regularly puts out NFL talent is worth the occasional mediocre season. See Bo Pelini and Nebraska for what happens when 9-3 isn’t good enough because the Huskers still haven’t recovered.

You don’t get to be the longest-tenured coach in college football by ruffling feathers. In many ways, Kirk Ferentz is the Tim Duncan of Big Ten coaches: He’s always making the same face and never gets flustered or into trouble. Even allegations of racist misconduct within his program seemed to fall away when they got to the head coach.

But nobody’s perfect. Unfortunately for Kirk, what could be his fatal flaw has become so salient this season that everyone is noticing. And he’s keeping it all in the family.

Iowa has never exactly been prolific on offense. Their claim to fame has been NFL offensive linemen and tight ends and quarterbacks who are game managers rather than explosive passers. Outside these position groups, the Hawkeyes are much more renowned for their defenses which regularly stifle even talented offenses.

This year’s Iowa is on a whole different level. The Hawkeyes are allowing under 10 points per game, which is good for third in the FBS and second in the Big Ten (yes, there are a lot of good scoring defenses in the conference).

On the other side of the ball, Iowa is scoring just 14.7 points per game. That mark is the worst in the conference and 127th nationally.

Ohio State, meanwhile, boasts the nation’s top-scoring offense. Something will have to give come Saturday, but given the Buckeyes’ defense isn’t nearly as atrocious as Iowa’s offense, we can imagine how things should play out.

Admittedly, especially from an outside perspective, it was kind of funny when Iowa’s offense didn’t score an offensive touchdown against South Dakota State and the team managed to win on account of a field goal and two safeties. Now, things aren’t so laughable. A team that should have come together offensively hasn’t found its footing and is an embarrassment in the conference.

This brings us back to Kirk’s Achilles heel: his son, Brian Ferentz—who also happens to be his offensive coordinator.

Brian played college ball under his dad from 2002-05. He spent a little more than a year on NFL practice squads before starting his coaching career under Bill Belichick in New England. Of note, Belichick and the elder Ferentz coached together in Cleveland in the 1990s. (Brian) Ferentz spent four seasons with the Patriots before moving back to Iowa City in 2012.

Initially, his role as offensive line coach made sense, though there were probably better-qualified candidates out there. Then he moved up the offensive coaching ranks to take over as offensive coordinator in 2017. Since then, Iowa hasn’t finished better than 40th in the FBS in scoring offense (and really, 2020 doesn’t count):

  • 2017: 28.2 points per game (No. 66)
  • 2018: 31.2 points per game (No. 44)
  • 2019: 25.8 points per game (No. 88)
  • 2020: 31.8 points per game (No. 40)
  • 2021: 23.4 points per game (No. 99)

Like Michael Scott hiring his nephew as Dunder Mifflin’s intern, Kirk seems to have a blind spot for his son’s deficiencies as an offensive coordinator; deficiencies which have become apparent even on a national level this year.

The trouble is that things are not improving—they’re only getting worse. In some ways, they’re getting worse in ways that impact the entire team. Iowa is 113th in the FBS in time of possession and 124th in third-down conversions. That means that the offense cannot stay on the field and that the defense is on the field far more than it should be.

Eventually, the defense gets tired. We’ve already seen the impact: Iowa allowed 13 points through its three-game non-conference schedule. They’ve allowed 46 through three games of conference play. Granted, one of the teams it faced was Michigan which has a much better offense than the other five teams put together, but nonetheless, there has been a dropoff that can very easily be credited toward the anemic offense.

So what does this have to do with the defensive-minded Kirk? It would be fine if Kirk owned up to his child’s mistakes and did what any head coach would do to an underperforming offensive coordinator and fire him. Unfortunately, this is the hill that Kirk has chosen to die on.

Lucky for Ohio State. And seriously, I am not complaining at all about the offense Ohio State will be facing come Saturday.

On a broader scale, while Iowa and Ohio State are two very different programs, we can learn from this situation, because we came closer than you might think to living it. Urban Meyer had a strong habit of hiring his friends (cronyism in this case rather than outright nepotism). He even hired Chris Doyle in Jacksonville after the strength and conditioning coach was fired from Iowa for the aforementioned racism allegations. Meyer’s coaching selections are one well-publicized aspect of what brought him down in Jacksonville.

One of the benefits of the younger coaching staffs we’ve seen rise in recent seasons is there is less of this anchoring on blood being thicker than water. Kerry Coombs is out at Ohio State because he was not performing like he needed to. Jim Knowles and Ryan Day have no connection, nor do Day and Brian Hartline or really anyone else currently on the Ohio State staff.

In fact, Hartline is probably the most “crony-ish” of the coaches currently on Day’s staff given his Ohio State connections, but he’s one of the hottest, top-performing assistants in the country right now. What this arrangement means is that coaches are hired and fired on merit and that mediocrity doesn’t stick around.

That’s not to say coaches should never hire well-qualified folks they’ve worked with in the past, but when things are not working out, it’s better to fail early than let things get awkward. While it’s doubtful Kirk and Brian’s relationship would fall to pieces if the son were no longer with the program, it’s a helpful lesson of caution against trusting a relationship instead of qualifications and performance.