A 14-year head coach in a major conference goes 4-8 with a senior-heavy team, including losses to an in-state rival, a top conference foe, and a team projected at the bottom of the MAC. His offense, run by a much-maligned coordinator who was previously fired at Texas, was one of the nation's worst, averaging just 19.3 points per game. The defense, the bedrock of his previous success, lacked a pass rush, was dependent on overhyped linebackers, and featured a handful of walk-ons.
The coach has taken the program to a pair of BCS bowl games and presided over the greatest three-year stretch in team history, but has not won a conference title since 2004 and has won 10 or more games just once in his last eight seasons. He presided over the collapse of a top 15 team just three years ago, losing his last three regular season games en route to a 7-5 finish just two months after signing the most lucrative coaching contract in college football. Since entering that contract, the coach is 19-19 overall, 10-14 in conference play and 2-7 against the program's primary rivals. Before last season, the coach hired his son as an assistant. He is now firing longtime assistants like Robespierre, despite previously telling the press that he's "comfortable" with where the program currently sits.
This is Kirk Ferentz, and this sounds like someone who is about to get fired. The 2013 SB Nation hot seat poll certainly reflects it: Ferentz is given a 59 percent chance of being fired if Iowa goes 6-6. This is incorrect.
The reasons why Ferentz is a made man at Iowa are complicated. They are financial and historical and personal to the figures involved, and they give Ferentz complete job security irrespective of his team's performance in 2013.
1. The track record
Everything related to Ferentz's current job status stems back to the 2009 season. In 2009, Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes won their first nine games, rising as high as fourth in the BCS standings (and first in the computer rankings), making the cover of Sports Illustrated, and setting a program record for consecutive wins (13) going back to a 2008 upset of then-No. 3 Penn State. After two losses suffered when quarterback Ricky Stanzi was injured, Iowa recovered for a victory over the rival Minnesota Golden Gophers, then won the Orange Bowl. It was the first Iowa win at a BCS-level bowl since 1959. It was the feel-good era of Iowa football, and an improbable second act for a coaching staff that had presided over three consecutive double-digit win seasons from 2002 to 2004 but had reverted to the mean over the next three seasons.
That 2009 season holds a remarkable place in the minds of the Iowa fanbase, and the 2010 Orange Bowl victory is the trump card for every fan who defends Ferentz against his critics. In 2004, Larry Coker won the Orange Bowl; in 2006, he was fired. In 2008, Mark Mangino won the Orange Bowl at Kansas, and was fired by the end of the 2009 season after going 5-7 and 1-7 in conference play. Frank Beamer is still employed, but most other Orange Bowl coaches get a remarkably short honeymoon after an Orange Bowl win. That's simply not the case at Iowa.
2. The contract
The exception that explains the Iowa situation is found in an Orange Bowl loser: Jim Grobe at Wake Forest. Grobe took his 2006 team to an improbable ACC Championship and 11-2 finish. After an Orange Bowl loss, Grobe -- who was a dark horse for the vacancy at Michigan -- signed a lucrative 10-year contract extension, essentially making him Wake Forest's coach for the rest of his career. Grobe has not won more than five games in the last four seasons, but his contract makes his termination virtually impossible.
The same goes for Ferentz, who agreed to a 10-year extension in 2010 that pays him between $3.5 and $4 million per season through the 2020 season. At the time, the contract was a fait accompli; Ferentz had mastered the art of parlaying success into NFL rumors, and those rumors into raises at Iowa. Every fan assumed that the amazing success of the 2009 team would bring the NFL suitors back to Ferentz's door, and Kirk did little to stop that belief. This contract was supposed to finally put those rumors to rest:
"I've said publicly, and privately to Kirk, that it would be my goal to have him retire at Iowa. This contract is a statement supporting that commitment," said Gary Barta, the UI's director of athletics, who also noted that Ferentz's experience at the UI also includes eight years in the 1980's as a member of Fry's coaching staff.
"Kirk's ‘fit' at Iowa and his desire to live and work here is as strong as any I've seen. The continuity and leadership he brings as our head coach and the same among his staff of assistant coaches provides us a great foundation and important stability," Barta added.
If Barta meant to lock Ferentz in for life, he found an interesting way to do it. Ferentz's 10-year, $41 million contract gave the coach a 75 percent buyout clause should he be terminated by the school but no buyout should he leave. Essentially, rather than making it prohibitively expensive for Ferentz to leave Iowa, he gave Ferentz complete job security and all the riches in the world and hoped it would be enough to stop his wandering eyes.
Four years into the 10-year contract, the Ferentz buyout is the albatross around the neck of Iowa football. If Iowa fired Kirk Ferentz today, the athletic department would owe him over $18 million over the next six years, payable in $220,000 monthly installments. Kirk Ferentz, even after being fired, would be the state of Iowa's highest-paid employee, and the combined amount of the annual buyout payments and the presumed salary for a new coach would exceed $5 million per year and cripple an already-tight athletic department budget. Nick Saban, Les Miles, and Urban Meyer, who have won five of the last six national championships, have signed contracts worth less than Ferentz's since then.
3. The athletic director
Iowa is one of the most profitable athletics programs in the country; between the millions of dollars it receives in Big Ten television money, ticket sales, and donations, Iowa athletics manages to clear upwards of $80 million a year in revenues. The vast majority of that money comes from football, and the drastic increase in those amounts in the last five years is the work of Gary Barta, Iowa's athletic director. Since assuming control of the athletic department in 2006, Barta has focused on building facilities and making as much money from those facilities as possible. He has reseated both the football and basketball arenas, foregoing seniority and requiring donations from fans. That reseating resulted in nearly $15 million a year in additional revenue for seat licenses.
As good as he has been at making money, Barta's track record at choosing coaches is spotty. His first high-profile hire, basketball coach Todd Lickliter, was a complete bust and was fired by Barta after three seasons of losses and, more importantly, dwindling attendance (his successor, Fran McCaffery, has done significantly better). With Barta's focus on money and general aversion to coaching searches, replacing the coach who keeps Kinnick Stadium full doesn't make much sense. And Kinnick Stadium has remained full, despite Iowa's recent struggles. Aside from some student section tickets that were made available for Iowa's Black Friday game against Nebraska (where the students were home for the holiday), Iowa fans have filled the stadium every Saturday, throwing another $4.5 million into the department's coffers.
Even with all of that money, Barta's love of facility development has left the department cash-starved. Debt service, not salaries, is Iowa's biggest expense as they pay off expansions of the football and basketball stadiums, a new football practice facility, a new golf practice facility, and a boat house. Lickliter's firing, requiring a paltry $2.4 million dollar buyout over three seasons, was a further hit. Iowa athletics ran in the red last year despite a massive revenue stream. If money for a Ferentz buyout was needed, it would have to come from outside donors.
4. The donor class
Iowa might pay its head coach like Alabama or LSU, but its donors are not the same kind of animal. Iowa donors have long memories of Frank Lauterbur and the dead era of Iowa football in the 1960s and 1970s, and are seemingly willing to accept seven-win seasons with occasional Big Ten title runs. They like Ferentz, who has successfully cultivated relationships with the biggest names, knowing that they are the key to his continued employment, and are steadfastly loyal to the program and university. These donors are the key to the equation, and they're largely content despite Iowa's recent woes.
In the end, like everything else in college football, this is all about money. Iowa could return to prominence next season; as is written every season, Ferentz is at his best when under the radar. But even if Iowa doesn't rise from its 4-8 chasm, there is little reason to believe that Iowa's power players will want action against Ferentz or, even if they did, that they could make that happen.
As long as the athletic director remains disinterested in taking action, the donors remain happy, and the fans keep filing into Kinnick Stadium every Saturday at $60 per seat, Kirk Ferentz is locked in at Iowa regardless of his performance.