clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

MnB B1G Preview: Iowa, talent development, and getting your money's worth

Winning ain't easy.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Winning ain't easy. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Getty Images

(If you don't already check SBN's Iowa blog regularly, you should A) be ashamed of yourself and B) start doing it now. Black Heart Gold Pants is one of the funniest, fervent, and well-written blogs on the whole SBN network.)

A major aspect of winning at the college football level is forced adaptation. Professional rosters aren't governed by the same static rules of college eligibility. Instead of the growth of freshmen into seniors, the NFL has to deal with expiring contracts , trades, and a new pool of players being injected into the league every April. It seems more chaotic -- what recourse does a team have if its star player decides he wants to take his talents elsewhere? Thus it is a wonder that pro football teams can establish any consistency over the long run.

But as we start to look at the advantages inherent in the pro game -- the ability to sign key players to long term contracts that exceed the length of college eligibility, the fact that most players are known quantities vs. developmental prospects, and the ability to quickly address needs via trades and free agency -- all that chaos becomes more measured and ordered. There is reason to the apparent madness, and the roster turnover is a natural flow between teams that still allows for rosters to stay fairly even. There are always problems such as "there aren't enough franchise quarterbacks to go around," but these are football problems that aren't unique to the NFL. Just look at the heated recruitment of some of the highest rated quarterback prospects for an example.

On the surface, college football seems more ordered. Coaches in most cases get players for four or five years and only rarely have to worry about roster turnover in the form of transfers, academic casualties, and career ending injuries; all of which are exceptions rather than the rule. It would seem that college coaches have it easy. Multiple years to develop players in a system and little worry about those players chasing a big paycheck elsewhere.

However, the slow turnover of a college roster becomes a burden in some cases, especially when considered against the fact that college coaches don't have the opportunity to sign players with an established reputations and a fully matured game (unless you're Bret Bielema -- Zing). NCAA football is -- outside of its increasing status as a cash cow for schools, bowl execs, and TV companies -- still largely a developmental league for the pro ranks when it comes to the real nitty-gritty of on field performance. College coaches find promising high school talent still years away from physical and emotional maturity, and then they mold that talent into high level draft prospects. The great coaches are paid exorbitant sums of money because this isn't a simple task. You have to identify the best players, get them interested in your school, develop their skills, and do it on a large enough scale to field winning teams and feed the cycle. If you fail at one step along the way you become burdened with a player who is either not as talented as you thought or won't develop as far as you thought. The dreaded "bust", that will hang over a coach's head for four years (unless you're Nick Saban -- Zing). Say what you want about the rapidly growth of college coaching salaries, but it all depends on what the market will bear, and winning big and consistently in the college game is a rare skill that is based in large part on building a program that can identify and then mold talent into championship caliber players.

Every summer someone publishes a list of the highest coaching salaries in the country, and every summer that leads to the same question: who in the hell decided to pay Kirk Ferentz 3.875 million a year at Iowa?

Iowa isn't a national power, and doesn't carry the same weight as the heavy hitters in the conference when it comes to prestige and TV draw. As far as Big Ten teams go Iowa is in the middle class when it comes to revenue and expenditures. In the last ten years the Hawkeyes have won two shared conference titles, and gone to two BCS bowls. This level of success hovers right around programs like Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan...the list goes on (basically everyone but Ohio State on the top and Indiana on the bottom). In that time Iowa also has had two six win seasons and two seven win seasons -- not exactly the benchmark of a three-and-a-half million dollar a year coach. What exactly is Iowa paying for?

Iowa's football history isn't all that different than most of the rest of the conference. There were pre-WWII successes (a 20 game win streak under coach Howard Jones in the early 20's), the larger than life players (Nile Kinnick won the school's only Heisman trophy in 1939), and the debatable but claimed anyway national title (1958). And, in the way these stories seem to go, there was a long slide into irrelevance -- the Hawkeyes went 20 years without a winning record in the 60s and 70s.

It was the end of this period of irrelevance -- ushered in by the arrival of coach Hayden Fry in 1979 -- that marked the birth of the modern Iowa football program. The state of Iowa isn't a major football powerhouse. It doesn't have the dedicated football culture of the Midwest's gem, Ohio; a culture that can sustain high level college football almost singlehandedly (if you don't believe me look at the quality of prospects that come out of Ohio every year vs. that of Florida, California, and Texas). There isn't a major population center like Chicago or, less relevant to our discussion today, Detroit. Iowa is big on one thing: corn. Corn feeds football players, but it doesn't multiply them. The talent pool is small. This means that any success that Iowa has is organically developed within the program to a greater degree than the heavy hitters, and is more predicated on A) not missing on the players it finds and B) making the most out of the players the big guys overlook. Few things better exemplify this than the turnaround engineered by Hayden Fry in the late 70s.

Fry took over at Iowa after a long stretch of \utter hopelessness. Iowa failed to break through with a winning record under four different coaches after Forest Evashevski led the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten championship in 1960 and then transitioned to a role as athletic director. Fry, a Texas football product who had coached at SMU and North Texas State, immediately began to change the culture of the program. He brought in his own coaching staff including both coordinators from North Texas State, and revamped the offense to focus more on the passing attack. Fry's first two years were largely the same as the preceding two decades, but in year three -- with some of the same players that were on the roster from the previous staff -- Hayden Fry was able to capture a share of the Big Ten title with an 8-3 record before going to the Rose Bowl.

Hayden Fry's success was tied directly to his ability to develop talent and get the most out of a roster that was still only nominally his. By year three a coach has, at best given redshirt rules, brought in half the roster himself. Not only was he able to turn the modest recruiting landscape presented to Iowa into a string of solid teams (14 bowl trips in 22 seasons, three Big Ten titles) but the list of eventual head coaches who spent time on his staff or played for him is a who's who of success: Bob Stoops, Bill Snyder, Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema, Bo Pelini, and Fry's eventual replacement, Kirk Ferentz.

Fry's success at molding a wave of successful future head coaches is yet more proof, past the victories, of the real benchmark of Iowa's success: molding leaders and building the kind of accountability that feeds off itself:

As a coach, Fry took he unusual step of tapping certain players to serve as player-coaches for their position groups. The idea, he said, was that they would develop leadership skills that could benefit the team on Saturdays. "A few of those guys hopped on their motorcycles and left," Fry said. "The ones who stayed became my coaches, because those are the guys who players will listen to, not an old coach like me."

Fry's teams at Iowa weren't successful because he had access to the best recruits or the most money for athletics, they were successful because Fry was adept at identifying and nurturing talented players and coaches. He got the most out of what he was given, and he won consistently because of it.

Which leads us back to Ferentz, the 3.875 million dollar man.

Ferentz has seen his share of success at Iowa, but despite twice looking ready to break through to the national elite, Iowa has hit a backslide to the middle of the conference standings. However, at a point measuring strictly wins and losses with Kirk Ferentz is ignoring the bigger picture. That he is able to succeed more often than not given the circumstances speaks to his abilities. But is it worth 3.875 million?

Exhibit A in the case for Ferentz comes from a very likely source, Black Heart Gold Pants (and if you haven't yet read this, you need to stop and do so now). About a year ago a member of the site compiled a study to track which programs are the best at developing high school talent into draft picks. What came out was a strong piece of evidence in favor of coach Ferentz.

Now, as recognized above, not all college football programs are on the same level when it comes to bringing in talent. If you coach at USC and you have a pulse you will routinely pull in better rated classes than someone at, say, Colorado. Not only is USC situated in one of the most talent rich states in the country, but it is the flagship football program, the school that kids across the country dream of playing for. Colorado, to stay with our comparison, is the flagship program in its state as well, but the state of Colorado doesn't produce BCS caliber athletes on the level that California does, and the school doesn't have the kind of national cache to attract cream of the crop talent from all over.

But, you could still make an argument that Colorado is better at developing the talent it gets (it isn't, but we are in analogy-land, so bear with me), and that argument would be independent of the talent level that comes to campus. The idea is simple: compare results to expectations. The methodology:

The Development Ratio is a simple way to measure the effect of a program on player development: take the number of recruits a program turned into draft picks and divide that by the number that an average BCS program would have produced from the same recruiting classes. For instance, let's say some college program brought in 20 4-star recruits, and 80 3-star recruits, and that 15 of them were drafted. The average BCS program, by the numbers above, would have had 10 of those recruits drafted. So our example program has a development ratio of 15/10 = 150%, very good!

If you have paid any attention today the numbers shouldn't surprise you. USC leads the way with a developmental ratio of 184 percent. Given the recruiting classes the school brought in,USC should have produced 26 draft picks. The Trojans produced 48; no surprise given the level of success USC has had over the past decade under Pete Carroll. Next on the list is Ohio State with a developmental ratio of 183 percent. Just under 20 draft picks were expected given the recruiting classes and 36 draft picks were produced. Such was life under Jim Tressel.

The third program on the list? Lowly Iowa. The Hawkeyes were expected to produce nearly half the draft picks of the top two (just 13), which follows when you consider the recruiting landscape presented to each school. USC and Ohio State are the number one programs within talent rich states, and two of the most successful programs on a national level in the last decade. Iowa is a regional program that flirted with the national elite twice, won a couple Big Ten titles, and has to go outside its state borders for a lot of talent. Despite this, Iowa's developmental ratio was 169 percent, or 22 draft picks given an expectation of 13. Even more impressive is that during the years studied (2002 to 2011) Iowa produced six first round picks.

What does the flip side of the coin look like? Take a look up the road at Iowa's fellow in-state BCS conference football school: Iowa State. The Cyclones had a similar expectation when it came to the draft (12.6 players to Iowa's 13.0), but utterly failed to produce anything close to acceptable results with a developmental ratio of 39 percent (five players drafted).

In the end, player development is still just one slice of the pie when it comes to head coaching success at the BCS level, but given the challenges that college programs face when it comes to finding the right talent for the program and then weathering the unexpected (which, given the presence of AIRBHG, one could make a convincing argument that Iowa has had an even worse time than most schools when it comes to the bizarre flame-outs that can hamper a team's chances) it is hard not to look at Kirk Ferentz with a bit of awe. The man has taken what is at best a mediocre set of circumstances and, more often than not, turned that into success on a greater level than anyone has any right to expect from him.

Nearly four million dollars may seem like a lot for the coach of Iowa who has seen his teams regress from the top of the conference two separate times. Failing to reach the lofty heights of BCS championship appearances and strings of conference titles that his similarly paid peers at powerhouse schools have accomplished. But given how much more those other coaches have access to, and how bad things could be (/nods in Iowa State's direction), 3.875 million doesn't seem so bad.

If Kirk Ferentz can get Iowa back into Big Ten championship contention soon while still producing talent at the high level that has marked his coaching stint thus far, that pay check might even start to look like a bargain.