IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kirk Ferentz never thought he’d get the job in the first place.
But he came to town anyway, sitting down with Iowa football Coach Hayden Fry in the summer of 1981 to interview for the job of offensive line coach.
Ferentz had spent the 1980 season as a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh, when the Panthers were 11-1 and finished second to Georgia in the final Associated Press poll. He figured the interview would be good experience, if nothing else. But Fry threw Ferentz a curveball and hired him.
On Oct. 3, 1981, Ferentz got his first taste of Big Ten football when the Hawkeyes won at Northwestern, 64-0. He can speak volumes about Big Ten football now, but it’s been an acquired taste.
“Pittsburghers are kind of provincial in their thinking, and the only thing I knew about the Big Ten was Ohio State and Michigan,” Ferentz said of 1981. “And quite frankly, I wasn’t all that interested in that game. I can’t tell you why. Just kind of a small-world thinker, I guess. Maybe I haven’t changed a lot in however many years it’s been now.”
Ferentz is preparing for his 33rd Big Ten opener on Saturday at Rutgers - nine as the Hawkeyes’ offensive line coach, 24 as the head coach.
“That’s a long time,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “I’m sure he’s plenty excited.
Thirty-three Big Ten openers?
“I can’t imagine,” linebacker Jack Campbell said..
A lot has changed since Fry brought Ferentz to Iowa City and handed him the keys to the offensive line.
“The Big Ten didn’t mean much to me,” Ferentz said. “It was Pitt and Penn State. By the time I got out of high school until I was at Pitt, those were the two teams in the east.”
The Big Ten?
“This was all new to me,” Ferentz said. “And it was a blur, too, I don’t mind telling you.”
His crash course to all things Big Ten was fast and furious.
“A lot of things I figured out real fast, and most of them by bad experiences,” Ferentz said.
The 1981 season is fondly remembered in these parts. Iowa ended a streak of 19 consecutive non-winning seasons by going 8-4, sharing the Big Ten title with Ohio State and going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1958 season. But Ferentz remembers a 12-10 loss to Minnesota in Iowa City that season..
And when Iowa returned to the Rose Bowl after winning the Big Ten title in 1985, Ferentz remembers a 22-13 loss at Ohio State when the Hawkeyes were rated No. 1 in the country.
“We lost to Ohio State,” Ferentz said. “ Minnesota, we lost a trophy game there. So those were some memories that kind of stick with you.”
He quickly learned the intensity behind the Ohio State-Michigan game that he had once treated with indifference.
“I figured out real quick that being in a conference, which Pitt was not, I think there’s a huge advantage to being in conference play,” Ferentz said. “It makes everything so much more different, just more intense.”
Ferentz is a four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year (2002, 2004, 2009, 2015). He heads to Rutgers as the fourth-winning coach in Big Ten play with 110 victories, trailing only Woody Hayes of Ohio State (153), Bo Schembechler of Michigan (143) and Amos Alonzo Stagg of Chicago (115). Ferentz is college football’s longest tenured active head coach.
“Going on year 24 as a head coach and his 33rd Big Ten opener, it’s incredible stuff,” offensive tackle Mason Richman said. “I only hope, when I go into coaching, that I can coach that long.”
The arrival of each Big Ten season is the time to turn the page and tackle the nitty-gritty that is conference play.
“We have four goals, and the last one is to win the Big Ten West,” Petras said. “Every game is critical, every game is important. But our end goal every season is to win the Big Ten. This is when it really counts for that goal specifically.”
The playersin the Big Ten are bigger and more athletic, across the board, then some non-conference teams on the schedule.
“Not to knock those guys, because they’re all talented players,” Campbell said. “But in Big Ten play there are some bigger bodies, and some more physical people.”
Ferentz might not have realized that when he joined the program in 1981. But 33 Big Ten openers have changed his perspective.
“We’re back in Big Ten play,” he said.