With the University of Iowa and Northwestern University both 5-0 and jousting atop the standings, you could argue that the Big 10 West is one of the most compelling divisions in college football. I would vehemently disagree with you, because the on-field product is about as exciting as a jaunt through the Home Depot fertilizer aisle. I would, however, concede one thing: for the first time in years, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz appears to be sentient.
As of late, Ferentz has been the Nobel Prize-winning physicist napping his way through tenure, or the chef whose four-star restaurant has fallen on hard times because he couldn't be bothered to tweak the menu. He is the second-longest-tenured and the ninth-highest-paid coach in college football despite a purgatorial 73-54 record (41-39 in conference) over his past ten full seasons.
Ferentz grew fat and happy on the prairie because the farmers in Iowa just kept feeding him corn. In 2010, Iowa signed him to a 10-year contract extension that routinely flits between hilarity and disaster, depending on how few yards his long-scuffling offense metes out in a particular week. He made his bones off the three-year stretch that directly preceded this decade asunder, stringing together consecutive 10-win seasons and an 11-win campaign that ended in an Orange Bowl loss. Iowa had achieved only three double-digit win seasons in its entire history beforehand, each coming by the hand of Ferentz's bombastic mentor, Hayden Fry.
So after the Hawkeyes squeaked back into, and ultimately won, the Orange Bowl in 2009, the administration eagerly tossed Ferentz his plush deal, mostly because they had no other recourse. Yes, the length was outlandish and sure, an accompanying annual raise locked them into paying Ferentz a premium, but one does not just happen onto coaching geniuses at Iowa, of all places. Simply keeping hold of the one they had would be perceived as a victory tantamount to any bowl win. "I've said publicly, and privately to Kirk, that it would be my goal to have him retire at Iowa," athletic director Gary Barta said in a statement at the time. "This contract is a statement supporting that commitment."
The next five years were a case study how sentiment can snuff out good business, but now, abruptly, Ferentz woke up. Following a 2014 season in which the Hawkeyes lost their third consecutive bowl game, he conceded that he needed to watch more game film. Sixty years old and complacent, he devoted the offseason to go "out researching football with people." He modified the training schedule, switching practices to the morning and cutting out Thursday sessions altogether. Suffocatingly conservative, Ferentz nonetheless benched his perfectly useful two-year starter at quarterback, Jake Rudock—who then transferred to Michigan—for C.J. Beathard, a livewire junior who entered the year with just two more career touchdowns than interceptions. The same coach who once wrote sonnets to the I formation now rolls out fake field goals and rugby punts and audibles into four-receiver sets.
So far, it's working. It's a stretch to call these Hawkeyes formidable: this is the same outfit that took most of an afternoon to outlast a dreadful Iowa State team, and didn't defeat Wisconsin so much as stood by as the Badgers ran themselves into a doorframe enough times to topple over. While Iowa is a ways from coronation, this season nevertheless marks a revival of some kind. The 5-0 start is only the second of the Ferentz era, and the first since 2009. Their newly minted place in the AP poll is the program's first ranking since 2010. Beathard has been among the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference, with 10 total touchdowns and a 64 percent completion mark, while tailback Jordan Canzeri is averaging five yards a carry. The defense has yet to concede a rushing touchdown.
Ferentz is somehow the hero in this story, an inspiration in spite of himself, smashing through the very obstacles he allowed to be erected. Iowa became great because Ferentz wrested them from mediocrity. Then, under the same leader, they grew stagnant. They are hungry again because Ferentz is hungry, too; they are dangerous because he stopped coaching safe. Do not regard any of this as a victory. Rather, it's penance, a grossly overcompensated employee finally making restitution for years of substandard work. He's still miles away from being worthy of top-ten money, and given the resources on hand, it's dubious he'll ever truly earn his paycheck.
Yet there is something heartwarming about a once-jaded sixty-something making a renewed effort. One only has to look at Mike Leach's Jimmy Buffet-tinged Eeyore act at Washington State, or Steve Spurrier's leathered flippancy at South Carolina, or Norm Chow's perennial staycation during recruiting season at Hawaii to realize that older coaches often burn out with little remorse. Ferentz was never that nakedly apathetic, of course, but this is still a coach who openly copped to not watching enough film. Nothing he does from here on out can undo that, but at least he received the requisite system shock before it was too late. He could have coasted to another seven wins, goading his boss to execute one of the cushiest buyout clauses in coaching. Instead, he's skirting along unfamiliar terrain in the autumn of his career, learning and forgetting and adapting to his surroundings as needed. It is a rare thing for any coach to make an about-face and concede that this was the time to "step back and say, 'We know what we want to do, but is that the best way to do it?'...You have to give your guys a realistic chance." That Ferentz did so at an age that encourages recalcitrance is remarkable.
His stiffest test will come next Saturday, when the Hawkeyes travel to Northwestern for the tilt that could decide this division. Heading into the year, no one really envisioned that Iowa would be here. If everything splinters apart, well, it would seem about right. It's hard to expect anything less from a unit so predisposed to underachievement. But the Hawkeyes will go into the game prepared to win, which is a testament to Kirk Ferentz, inadvertent inspiration that he is.