College football is a window into America. In some ways, it’s an ugly view. The sport thrives on the strength of an unpaid and largely nonwhite labor force, with fans buying tickets and media companies paying billions of dollars that get funneled toward lavish practice facilities and salaries for mostly white coaches and administrators. In other senses, the sport exemplifies cool things about American community. Take the football team at the University of Iowa. The state has no major professional teams, so the Hawkeyes are the biggest game in town, something their fans will frequently remind alums of rival Iowa State about. Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City is packed week in and week out. The fans are loud. The civic event goes beyond the stadium’s walls when, after the first quarter, all 70,000 people in the building—and I mean all of them, usually including opposing players and coaches—turn toward the children’s hospital that overlooks the field and wave to the kids in the windows. Iowa is a public school, and Iowa football belongs to Iowans. Since 2000, the team has had seven double-digit–win seasons and just one losing regular season.
Kirk Ferentz is the coach responsible for those wins. Much like Hayden Fry, whom Ferentz succeeded in 1999, Ferentz has done a lot with a little. Iowa does not produce much high-end high school football talent, putting the Hawkeyes at a geographic disadvantage even within the Big Ten Conference, the (increasingly non-) Midwestern league it’s played in for more than a century. Ferentz has defied gravity, and that has come with privileges. But lately, those privileges have made Iowa one of the sport’s most unwatchable teams. Ferentz, with help from his bosses, has turned a public resource into a job program for his own immediate family. It’s a story about a father giving a son every chance to succeed, but it’s also a maddening tale of a public university allowing it to happen at the expense of everyone who cares about Iowa football.
The story revolves around Brian Ferentz, who is Kirk’s son and a wildly unsuccessful offensive coordinator. Brian has run Iowa’s offense since 2017, and the results have never exceeded mediocrity and have recently barreled into Earth’s core. In six games this season, Iowa is 127th of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring offense and 130th in yards per play. The team is 3-3 and has scored 7, 14, and 6 points in those three losses, the most recent a 9-6 defeat by Illinois on Saturday.* (The 14 was all garbage time scoring in a blowout against Michigan.)
It’s an enormous waste, because Iowa is elite at the other two phases of football. The defense, coordinated by longtime Ferentz hand Phil Parker, is first in SP+ (an efficiency stat by ESPN’s Bill Connelly), third in scoring, and third in yards per play, continuing a dominant trend of the previous few years. The special teams, led by former Ferentz letterman LeVar Woods, is ninth in SP+. (The Hawkeyes’ punter, Tory Taylor, makes it a sport unto itself to pin the opposing team inside its 10-yard line, something he’s done a nation-leading 13 times.) Against Iowa State, the Hawkeyes managed to lose despite the defense giving up 10 points and the special teams blocking two punts. If Iowa had even a bad offense instead of one of the most gruesome creations in football, it would surely be at least 4-2 and probably better. Instead, they have the coach’s son, whose offensive unit ensures that excellence elsewhere results in mediocrity and frustration.
Nepotism is a systemic, pervasive problem in coaching. In theory it is easy to root out—just don’t let people hire their family members—but assessing specific cases is not always easy, especially when the coach’s son turns out to be a really good coach himself. The Iowa story is different. It stands apart for the shamelessness with which Kirk Ferentz and his nominal boss, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, put it into motion, and how long they’ve let it continue despite bad results.
In 2012, Iowa brought on Brian to be the team’s offensive line coach. To that point, Brian had been a quality control coach for the New England Patriots, coached by Kirk’s dear friend, Bill Belichick. He had also spent one year coaching tight ends there. But he’d never been a line coach, and Kirk brought him on for that role. Or did he? Barta, the AD, said he had hired Brian. In his introductory press conference, Brian contradicted that, saying that Kirk had come to him: “You can’t say no to your father,” he explained. To comply with school nepotism policies, Brian nominally reports to Barta, an astonishing structure that would, if followed, mean the head coach of Iowa does not have oversight of the guy running Iowa’s offense. The promotion to coordinator came in 2017 and sounded, in Iowa’s telling, like a joint decision by Kirk and Barta. It was not insane on football terms, as Iowa had produced good offensive lines under the Ferentzes. But it was ethically questionable, and since then, no Iowa offense has reached a level one would describe as “good.”
Barta, an athletic director who has had a mixed relationship with ethics and compliance, is still Brian Ferentz’s direct boss, at least on paper. In his dutiful performance of that role, he is poised to allow Brian to remain in charge of arguably the country’s worst offense for at least the rest of this season. Barta says he is “confident” that Iowa will “continue” to make “progress” on offense, and that he makes observations during the season and evaluations afterward. The women’s volleyball coach Barta fired midseason just last year would consider this wait-and-see approach a surprising change in policy.
The only way this doesn’t represent an institutional breakdown is if the institution is designed to serve one family instead of Iowa’s players, fans, and non-blood-relative staff. It’s bad for the players, who lose games they don’t have to lose. It’s bad for the fans, who give the program their time, energy, and money. And it’s a disgrace for the coaching industry, which is full of candidates with real qualifications who deserve the chance to coordinate a Big Ten offense. On Saturday, the Ferentzes’ offense was outclassed against an Illinois defense led by Ryan Walters, a rising-star coordinator who is not the offspring of head coach Bret Bielema. It’s worth noting that Walters is Black, the Ferentzes are not, and one effect of coaching nepotism is that it keeps coaching circles white.
An aggravating factor here is that both Ferentzes are subjects of a lawsuit brought by former Iowa players who say they faced systemic racism and discrimination during their years in the program. (The Ferentzes and Iowa are aggressively defending against that suit, while Barta is no longer a defendant.) One player has alleged that Brian told him in front of the coaching staff that “only a dumb-ass Black player would do it like that.” Decorated Iowa tailback Akrum Wadley said that Brian asked him whether he was going to rob a liquor store, and another time asked if he was going to rob a gas station. Kirk Ferentz was responsible for the entire program in these years, though I suppose not for Brian Ferentz’s behavior, given that the coordinator reported to the athletic director.
It doesn’t require a detailed fact pattern to figure out that Brian Ferentz shouldn’t lead Iowa’s offense. Just about everyone who doesn’t have decision-making power has reached that conclusion. There is a Change.org petition, of course. There are Iowa students chanting “Fire Brian!” at games. (It is not a good sign if the student body knows the name of the offensive coordinator well enough to chant it.) So far, what accountability looks like for Brian is that he was given a smaller percentage raise than Iowa’s other assistants this past offseason, to a mere $900,000.
On some level, this is another way that college football opens a window into the American way of life. Brian Ferentz is not the first person to get and hold a job under dubious pretenses while his dad runs the organization. If one thinks of Iowa football as a family business, then it might not even look weird. But Iowa’s football team is more like a publicly traded company—one whose owners are the thousands of people who have built it up and the thousands more who care about it as the flagship athletic program of the flagship university of an entire state. If those shareholders voted, they would tell the board of directors to install a new coordinator.
But this story isn’t just about Brian. It’s also about the head coach and father he doesn’t report to, and about what happens when leadership meets a conflict of interest. Kirk Ferentz makes $7 million this year, the result of cascading contract extensions that the school has bestowed upon him despite there being no indication that he has ever been close to leaving for another job. That kind of money should at least buy a commitment that every decision he makes will be in the best interest of the team he runs. If the head coach doesn’t do that, then what does he do?
Correction, Oct. 10, 2022: This article originally misstated that Iowa lost to Illinois at home. That game was on the road.