By Todd Brommelkamp/KGYM Radio
IOWA CITY – For a while Saturday the Kinnick Stadium scoreboard read Iowa 24, NIU 0.
That would have been too perfect of an ending to a story 20 years in the making though.
Kirk Ferentz notched his first career win as Iowa’s head coach against Northern Illinois during the 1999 season. Students rushed the field. It proved to be the only win of the year.
Fast forward to 2018 and he earned career victory No. 144 against the Huskies. Students, what remained of them after a 33-7 blowout, cheered as he passed by and headed to the locker room but otherwise remained put.
Milestone book ends with a lot of history (and better games) between them.
No Iowa football coach has won as many contests as Ferentz, a man few wanted for the job when it became available for the first time in two decades in 1998.
The legend who first hired Ferentz as an inexperienced offensive line coach in 1981, watched him depart for Maine after the 1988 season and who welcomed Ferentz as his successor with open arms was not well enough to travel to Iowa for the game, so Hayden Fry could not see his record fall in person.
A crowd of 67,510 did witness history though. They saw Iowa slog its way through one half of play – the Hawks led 3-0 at the half – before hitting the accelerator over the final 30 minutes to dispatch a team that won eight games a year ago and is projected to win its division in the Mid-American Conference.
“They got after our butt,” Huskies coach Rod Carey said.
Saturday’s win, like so many that came before it, was not pretty. It was, essentially, the perfect way for Ferentz to take sole possession of Fry’s record. A flawless, flashy 55-0 whitewashing would have seemed as out of place as Jake and Elwood Blues performing at Bob’s Country Bunker.
“Coach Ferentz always talks about playing team football,” junior quarterback Nathan Stanley said. “If the offense is struggling, we know the defense will have our back and vice versa.”
Stanley finished Saturday’s game having completed 11 of his 23 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown, a 1-yard pass to tight end Noah Fant in the second quarter that would stand as the game-winning score.
The second-year starter did not look sharp. That put him in the company of most of his teammates. There were a few notable performers. Kristian Welch led Iowa’s defense with 11 tackles and Toren Young looked like a man hell bent on wrenching some carries away from Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent in a crowded backfield.
“My job is to play when my number is called and when it’s not it’s to support and coach the other guys,” he said. “We are running back-by-committee and it’s situations decisions and best fit for that play called.”
Enough about the game though. It was a means to an end. This is and was about Ferentz.
“We respect the opportunity we have to play for such a high character guy who really cares about his players and who we are as people,” said defensive lineman Parker Hesse. “The team will remember this win forever.”
As time expired, Ferentz embraced his offensive coordinator on the Iowa sideline. Brian Ferentz played in many of his father’s 144 victories. It was an emotional moment for a man who does his best to wear a poker face at all times.
There were tears Saturday. They were broadcast to a national audience and those in Ferentz’s postgame press conference saw his eyes swell as he answered the final question posed to him. He re-told a story he shared several times in the weeks leading up to breaking Fry’s record of how he watched that 1998 news conference during which Fry announced his retirement.
“It really struck me,” he said. “That was something I’ll never forget, because you never envision your dad dying, I don’t think any of us ever envisioned Coach Fry retiring.
“So it’s just not something you think about. I’m pleased. I know he wanted it to stay in the family so I’m thrilled that we can keep it going.”
Ferentz broke from the podium and headed for the exit, likely hoping to find cover before those tears began rolling down his weathered cheeks. A few reporters, breaking with long standing but occasionally ignored protocol, offered handshakes and congratulations.
Then Iowa’s all-time wins leader slipped out of the room as humble and as quietly as he had entered it.