It seems like Kirk Ferentz always had a plan. Recruit the right players for his system -- not necessarily the best, but the overlooked ones -- focus on defense and a sustainable pro-style offense. Don't get flashy. Beat teams in all three aspects of the game, and let those different parts work together to form a complete whole.
It didn't always work out. Discounting the first two years on the job, Iowa under Ferentz has as many seasons of six or less wins as ten or more (three of each, but that is the price of the formula. When you aren't able to recruit at a top ten level, you have less margin for error when things don't work out. Alabama can cycle through options at corner because it is stocked with four star talent. Swing and miss in Iowa City and back up plans are thin.
That has been the Tao of Ferentz, and given the problems he inherited and the first two seasons in charge -- four wins combined those years -- one would have to say that Iowa has been a pretty good success story, albeit one without the type of success we as consumers of sport crave.
College football, a class based system of haves and have-nots, derives a lot of drama from stories of up and comers and falls from grace. Boise State, a team that should have always been a doormat from a patsy conference, beat the odds and clawed its way into what looks like a position as a perennial top-25 program. People cheered. Michigan, Texas, Alabama, etc. have all had rough stretches where it seemed that those once proud programs would never recover. And people cheered even louder.
All the while, Iowa under Kirk Ferentz has been slow and steady rise and fall. A better than average Big Ten program capable of riding a couple breaks to a great season (a BCS bowl and a share of the conference title) before waning into a .500-ish unit. Then back again. The breakthrough never came, but for a long time, neither did the out and out bust.
This time something is different. Gone are the coordinators that helped draw the blueprint in Iowa City. Ken O'Keefe is coaching wide receivers in Miami and Norm Parker is retired. Now, it is up to Ferentz to succeed with a new staff. Year one under that staff went as year one's sometimes do when a team replaces two coordinators: poorly. It was the bust that Ferentz had staved off for so long.
Past results don't indicate future returns, and the cycles of Iowa under Kirk Ferentz don't guarantee or hold the team to anything. Can Iowa keep developing NFL talent at a rate far exceeding expectations? Does the changing landscape of the Big Ten hold promise for the future or doom the Hawkeyes to second class status along with the rest of the newly minted Big Ten West? When will AIRBHG take up residence somewhere else?
Last year in this space I wrote about Kirk Ferentz and the salary he has been given. How upon first look he seems to be grossly overpaid, but when one considered just how well Iowa groomed its players for success at the next level -- and how that often translated into results on the field -- that nearly four million a year didn't seem so off-base. It isn't easy to build a consistent winner off the beaten path. Ask Michigan State (6-6 last year) and Wisconsin (7-5 in the regular season). It takes both an incredible amount of skill, and a little luck. Last year Iowa seemed to have neither.
The Hawkeyes have been to two BCS bowls, won more Big Ten titles in the last decade than everyone but Ohio State and Wisconsin, and have four top ten finishes.
All of that was before the backslide. In college football there is no resting on your laurels. Winning is quickly forgotten and losing seasons hang like pianos and anvils strung up over desert roads in Wile E. Coyote cartoons.
Iowa has been, if not always great, then good enough to get along for more than a decade, and Ferentz has been quick enough to get out of the way when things come crashing down. But it's a long road to the closing credits, and only the quickest and most adept at handling the challenges make it to the end of the picture.
If Ferentz can't turn things around quickly with his new staff, it may be an early curtain call.