For years, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz had been the go-to example of a coach who'd underperformed his large contract. He had a massive buyout -- $17 million after a 4-8 record in 2012 -- that made him all but unfireable for years.
And now, after a surprisingly successful 2015, Iowa has doubled down:
Coming off the heels of a 12-2 football season that saw Iowa reach the Rose Bowl, the very coach whose contract was criticized head-to-toe by everyone with a keyboard, has ... well ... gotten a shiny new contract that will surely be ridiculed, for it is even more preposterous than the piece of paper that preceded it.
Ferentz had four years left on his previous agreement with the school, which paid him about $4 million a year. Now, he'll be making $4.5 million a year through 2025, or whenever he decides to retire and hand the reigns to his son Brian, whom this contract more or less names as the next coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes football team. The new contract allows Kirk to leave Iowa on his own terms, which is as sure a sign as any of having the athletic director in your pocket.
1. This contract was a terrible business decision.
It has all the hallmarks:
- It smacks of buying an overvalued asset. In 2015, Ferentz won more than eight games for the first time since 2009, so he got an extension.
- It rewards someone with limited leverage. Where is Ferentz going to go at age 61, considering he’s been at Iowa since 1999? Who's trying to hire him away?
- The rationale is silly on its face. AD Gary Barta allegedly gave the extension because recruiting rivals were using the fact that Ferentz had only four years left on his existing contract. Leaving aside the fact that a four-year deal covers almost an entire recruiting cycle, Iowa’s recruiting even with a coach in an impregnable position because of a massive buyout was crap. The Hawkeyes’ ranks in the Big Ten in the 247Sports Composite in the last four years: 9, 12, 12, 12. Iowa has succeeded despite its lackluster recruiting, which makes giving Ferentz the keys to Fort Knox for recruiting reasons evidence of a predetermined decision, at best.
- It is based on lousy data. Use any reputable computer ranking, and 2015 Iowa was a team whose record flattered it. The Hawkeyes were 38th in F/+, 25th in the Sagarin Predictor, and 24th in SRS. People with skin in the game (i.e. professional gamblers and line-setters) use similar rating systems. They do not make decisions based on record. Some athletic directors have come around to the idea that a team’s strength is not determined just by looking at wins and losses; Greg McGarity at Georgia, for example, was smart enough to look at Georgia’s 9-3 last year and realize that it was a soft 9-3. Barta appears to be unable to look beyond having won 12 games.
2. If you want continuity, this isn't even necessarily the best way to do it.
Let’s assume Iowa’s lack of in-state talent is such a limiting factor that the Hawkeyes should commit totally to Ferentz. There’s another team -- one in Iowa’s division that faces the same limitations in terms of talent acquisition -- that demonstrates keeping the same coach forever doesn’t need to be the solution.
Wisconsin is 13th nationally in winning percentage since Ferentz took over in Iowa City, 23 places above the Hawkeyes. Like Iowa, Wisconsin faces recruiting hurdles. Over the past five years, the states of Iowa and Wisconsin have only produced five blue-chip recruits each. However, Wisconsin has had four coaches during the Ferentz era: Barry Alvarez, Bret Bielema, Gary Andersen, and Paul Chryst.
Alvarez gets mocked for meddling in the football program and for not paying market rates for assistants, but Wisconsin has maintained a fairly consistent product, both in style and quality, since Alvarez became the athletic director. That product is generally better than the offer in Iowa City. (In contrast, Nebraska, a program that has challenges similar to those at Iowa and Wisconsin, has lurched between systems, much to its own detriment.)
At a minimum, Wisconsin coaches feel a pressure from their athletic director to perform. How much pressure is Ferentz going to feel after getting a contract that gives him enormous leverage for the next nine years?
3. This contract just feels offensive.
Granted, there’s no reason for me to get mad at Iowa for giving Kirk Ferentz that contract. It’s not my money.— Ryan Nanni (@celebrityhottub) September 7, 2016
Short answer: because it reminds us that college sports administrators have more money than they know what to do with, so they have to spend it on something.
Since Ferentz started at Iowa, the Hawkeyes are 36th nationally in winning percentage. A Ferentz defender would say, "There’s very little talent in the state, so Kirk’s results are reasonable under the circumstances." Take a look at some of the teams above Iowa on that list, none of whom just rewarded its coach with lifetime tenure for winning three out of every five games:
- Georgia Tech: a team in a talent-rich state, but one that is limited by a smaller fan base and academic restrictions;
- Cincinnati: another team with a smaller fan base that has bounced around from conference to conference, trying to find a home;
- Kansas State: Bill Snyder makes about two-thirds of what Ferentz makes, which can be used for those of you in college economics courses to illustrate that markets don’t always produce rational outcomes.
Fans generally have to bear the crosses of their leagues’ excesses. NFL fans have to deal with the fact that their franchises hold cities hostage for new stadiums, despite operating in a business where it is almost impossible to lose money. Major League Baseball generates a massive sample over 162 games and then discards that to award a champion over a nearly random tournament in October. A significant portion of NBA teams tank in the hopes that they are lucky in the lottery. In European soccer, the same teams generally win their leagues every year, mostly because they have the most revenue.
College football fans have to deal with the fact that the players who play our favorite sport, commit a crazy amount of time for their teams, often sustain long-term physical damage, have very little leverage, and are not paid for their efforts, except in scrip from the company store. It’s uncomfortable, even before a coach who has led his team to the 36th-best winning percentage over his tenure is rewarded with a contract that makes him untouchable through age 70.