Hayden Fry, Kirk Ferentz Have Provided Unusual Longevity, Stability

September 26, 2020

Written by Rick Brown

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Ed Podolak tells a story that says plenty about the value of longevity in the coaching profession.

Hayden Fry had just coached his Iowa football team to one of his two victories at Penn State. 

Podolak, who works as the radio analyst for Iowa football alongside Gary Dolphin, ran into Penn State Coach Joe Paterno after the game.

“Paterno said to me, “I have no idea how he did it,’ ” Podolak recalled. “I can recruit more kids out of a cab than he can with a jet. And he came in here and beat us.”

During his 20-year run as head coach, a program record at the time, Fry’s teams won three Big Ten titles, played in three Rose Bowls and 14 bowl games overall. He left as the program’s winningest coach after the 1998 season with a record of 143-89-6.

Kirk Ferentz, an offensive line coach for Fry from 1981 to 1989, succeeded his former boss at Iowa. He enters his record 22nd season as the winningest coach with a record of 162-104-0, including three Big Ten titles, two Orange Bowls and a Rose Bowl.

Fry and Ferentz have given the program the kind of longevity and stability rarely seen in college football. Ferentz is tied for fourth in the Big Ten in total victories. Fry is sixth. Ferentz is also fourth in conference victories with 97, trailing only Amos Alonzo Stagg of Chicago (115), Bo Schembechler of Michigan (143) and Woody Hayes of Ohio State (153). Fry is fifth with 96.

When Iowa hosts Michigan State on Nov. 7th in Kinnick Stadium, Mel Tucker will be the 48th different Big Ten head coach that Ferentz has faced. That doesn’t count a handful of interim coaches his teams played against. Fry faced 42 different head coaches during his two decades.

Two men, 42 seasons. But once upon a time, Iowa changed football coaches with regularity. 

In the 42 seasons before Fry’s arrival from North Texas, Iowa had 11 coaching changes. Forest Evashevski was there for nine seasons. Dr. Eddie Anderson coached eight seasons in two tours of duty (1939-1942, 1946-1949). No one else lasted more than five seasons. 

Clem Crowe (1945) stuck around for one season.  Irl Tubbs (1937-38), Slip Madigan (1943-44) and Leonard Raffensperger (1950-51) never saw a third season.

Fry and Ferentz, the longest-tenured active head coach in NCAA Division I football,   have combined for 305 victories at Iowa. The other two dozen Iowa coaches won 355 games.

Fry inherited a streak of 17 consecutive non-winning seasons when he took over in 1979. Bump Elliott, Iowa’s esteemed athletic director who hired Fry, admitted after he retired that his future rested on the shoulders of his third football hire. The first two, Frank Lauterbur and Bob Commings, didn’t take Iowa to the promised land.

Lauterbur left Toledo after going 12-0 in 1970 and 11-0 in 1969. Both those teams led the nation in total defense. The 23 straight victories looked great to victory-starved Iowa fans. 

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Elliott gave Lauterbur a five-year contract. Oregon State Coach Dee Andros, who had been mentioned as a possible candidate at Iowa, gave the hire his thumbs up.

“It’s tough to win 23 games anywhere,” Andros said.

But tough described Lauterbur’s three seasons at Iowa. He managed just four victories in three seasons. That included his third perfect record in five seasons – an 0-11 mark in 1973. Lauterbur’s teams also went 1-10 in 1971 and 3-7-1 in 1972.

“There’s a lot of fine young men playing football here,” Lauterbur said after a 15-6 loss at home to Michigan State put the wraps on that infamous 0-11 season. “I hope they have a lot of success in the future.”

Elliott was in the market for his second football coach. And interest in the job was lukewarm at best. But one man, a high school coach, wanted it in the worst way.

Bob Commings had been a feisty, tenacious and undersized three-year letterman for Evashevski at Iowa. He played offensive guard and linebacker in the single-platoon days, standing 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighing 173 pounds.

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Commings, 40, was coaching at Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio, when Lauterbur was fired. Commings had gone 44-5-1 in five seasons. 

Commings campaigned for the job with unabashed enthusiasm. When Elliott called and offered the job, Commings’ salary or length of contract weren’t even discussed.

“If they had told me I had to pick corn in the off-season to get the job, I’d have done it,” Commings said.

A daunting schedule awaited the new coach. Iowa’s first four games in 1974 were at Michigan, UCLA, Penn State and at USC.

 When asked what his biggest challenge would be, Commings said, “The Northwestern game. After we win those first four games it may be hard to get the players up for Northwestern.”

After a game effort in a 24-7 loss at Michigan, Commings returned to the stadium he played in when Iowa hosted UCLA. Iowa pulled off a 21-10 stunner over Dick Vermeil’s Bruins. Commings gave his team a nickname – The Chosen Children. But the magic didn’t last. 

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Penn State dominated the Hawkeyes, 27-0, then came a 41-3 loss at USC. Iowa finished 3-8 after a season-ending 60-21 loss at Michigan State.

Two Commings teams toyed with winning records, going 5-6 in 1976 and 1977. The 1977 season saw the renewal of the Iowa-Iowa State series.

Weeks of hype led up the game. Iowa State was coached by Earle Bruce, who also had been at Massillon earlier in his career and would later get the job at Ohio State.

Bruce had his team come out of the locker room before the start of the game wearing jerseys that read “Beat Iowa.” The Hawkeyes got the last laugh, posting a 12-10 upset.

Commings was fired after a 2-9 season in 1978. And Elliott got it right on his third attempt when he hired Fry.

Now, 42 seasons later, Fry and Ferentz are etched into Iowa history. Instead of a streak of non-winning seasons, that history that will be remembered for Top 25 finishes, Big Ten titles, and bowl games galore. Not to mention 29 winning seasons.

Almost as remarkable as the Fry-Ferentz streak is the fact that Iowa has had just three athletic directors during that time: Elliott, Bob Bowlsby (who hired Ferentz) and Gary Barta.

“Illinois is in a situation similar to ours,” Podolak said. “We’re not near a major airport, though Illinois recruits from bigger schools than we do. How many coaches and athletic directors have they been through (since 1979)?

Here’s your answer, Ed: eight football coaches, and six athletic directors.


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