Leadership Lessons From Kirk Ferentz

It was the cold, blustery winter of 2014.

We just got handled by Tennessee in our bowl game and the University of Iowa football season came skidding to a disappointing 7-6 finish. It felt like every big game we needed to win, we didn’t. The future was bleak. Our mindset as a Hawkeye community was poor (my version of speaking for every Hawkeye fan).

Words I’d use to label our 2014 play were: boring, slow, close to the vest, predictable, tight and unimaginative. Not fun words when describing your football team (or anything in life for that matter).

Coming into this year, I looked at our schedule and said, we’re maybe…8-4. Even the national pundits would tell you this isn’t a GREAT year for Iowa football looking at our schedule (no matter how you want to argue it now).

I thought this was it for Captain Kirk. Goodbye Kirk Ferentz…we’ve had fun.

I loved this guy, but we’d gotten stale. My support was wearing thin. This past August, in my mind, it was likely time for a last straw…or resort to a change in leadership. Little did I know, it wouldn’t be a new face in Iowa City. Instead, it would be a rebirth of a terrific career.

Some will argue the change came from desperation. Others will say it is the result of wise leadership. I could argue both, but does it really matter? Action happened. That’s the key. It is ALWAYS the key. Take action. History is marked and defined with leadership and victory being molded in times of desperation.

Below is a list of life lessons I’ve learned from Kirk’s experience and the 2015 season that I’ll never forget.

  1. Ruthless Self Audit: After the underwhelming 2014 season, the Captain sat down with his staff in January 2015 and got brutally honest.  They spent time specifically outlining what they were, what they were not, and where they needed to go. All facets of their team (insert business for correlation) were evaluated for any angle for improvements. Looking in the mirror isn’t easy. No one says it will be. However, looking in the mirror and being honest is 100% necessary.
  2. See What’s in Front of You: In January, the staff named C.J. Beathard the starting QB for the upcoming 2015 season. Bouncing the two-year starter Jake Rudock. One of the first words you could use to describe coach Ferentz is “loyal”, but this move had to be made and he knew it. The offense is more explosive. C.J. can drive the ball down the field and the team needed a jolt of energy. He got it.
  3. Never Forget What Got You There: I’ve had friends argue nothing changed. To an extent they’re right. We still run the ball first. We play sound defense. We’re a team first, not “me” first unit. It’s who we’ve always been including trips to two Orange Bowls, wins against: LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia Tech. But I think this is really key. We didn’t change everything. We made minor adjustments and tweaks to “better” the process.
  4. Don’t be Afraid to Dream Big: Coming off a 7-6 season the thought wasn’t simply to “get better”, although that is a common theme of the program and my blog. They wanted more. They were wiling to earn more as a unit and did so by thinking big. (Side note – I would’ve never guessed they would be sitting at 10-0, but who the hell did?)
  5. Common Thread: The entire team read and took ownership of the principles in the book, The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success and Happiness I encourage you to read it. Two things stand out to me between this year and last. Mind you, I’m not an analyst, but play along. Number one: explosive plays. Last year, we were last or near the bottom of the B1G Conference. This year, we’re at the top. Number two: turnovers. Always turnovers. This year, we’re taking the ball away. While last year, we were giving it away like candy on Halloween.
  6. Listen to the Troops: The kids (I call 20-year-old, 250 lb. ripped athletes) wanted to try an alternative uniform. Something sexy.  Something bold. Two things you wouldn’t find in the list of “top 20 words to describe Kirk Ferentz”. But the staff spoke up. They asked the coach to get out of his comfort zone. Last weekend, we experienced the new “Blackout” uniforms. P.S. – I thought they were average at best, and if I would’ve been invited to the design meeting we would’ve really crushed it with the good folks at Nike. Maybe next time. No charge!

If these things don’t speak to change, I don’t know what does.

I once read a story about one of the best facial plastic surgeons in the world.

What do you think of when you think of facial plastics? Peeling someone’s face off? Me too! Yikes. However, this doctor would do no more than 6-8 “minor” adjustments and would only move facial tissue mere millimeters to “unlock the beauty” the patient was seeking. The result from all of his patients post-surgery is a resounding “turn back the clock” feeling of 10+ years. How is this possible? Shouldn’t my face be frozen?

The key to this surgeon’s success isn’t radical reconstruction. He won’t do that and has never believed in it. The key is making minor tweaks, but making them flawlessly.

I’m sorry for thinking it was the end coach, or for feeling like you were on your way out. Thank you for being willing to accept and implement change (even if it’s been minor). I know I won’t want to change when I’m a 60-year-old man. It will serve as a lesson to me, and I hope to all reading this. I’m also aware we won’t win forever.  But right now we’re 10-0.

Even in the toughest of times, when victory seems unattainable, positive changes can be made.


Pick-up this shirt at RAYGUN shirts.



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