If You Can't Join Them, Beat Them

Sept. 26, 2009

Editor’s Note: The following article first appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of the Official Sports Report (OSR) for the University of Iowa. OSR is a daily e-newsletter exclusively about the Iowa Hawkeyes. Click HERE to learn more.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — You know the phrase, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” In the case of Kirk Ferentz, a more appropriate declaration would be, “If you can’t join them, beat them.”

Ferentz, now in his 11th season as head football coach at the University of Iowa, told a press conference crowd Sept. 22 that he grew up a Penn State follower, where he envisioned attending college.

“My goal was to go there,” Ferentz said. “I was a fan. You had to be, because in Pennsylvania, that was just kind of the deal and they were playing great football back then, too. They beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl (30-6 in 1972) and had some great teams — Orange Bowl (1969, ’70, ’74) — right on through.”

Ferentz was born in 1955, and attended Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. From 1964-72, the University of Pittsburgh was a struggling football program, with its best record being 5-5 in 1970. During the pre-Johnny Majors era at Pitt, the Keystone State belonged to the Nittany Lions.

“(Penn State) didn’t recruit me, can you imagine that?” Ferentz joked. “They didn’t need a short, slow linebacker. I can’t believe it.”

So Ferentz enrolled at the University of Connecticut, where he graduated in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in English education. He was a football captain and an academic all-Yankee Conference linebacker for the Huskies.

As head coach at Iowa, Ferentz has compiled a record of 73-53, including a 6-2 mark against Penn State. The Hawkeyes won five consecutive times in the series from 2000-04. Last season, Iowa used a 31-yard field goal by Daniel Murray in the closing seconds to win 24-23 in Kinnick Stadium. Ferentz is 3-1 in games at University Park.

“(Penn State) has been a model program for a long time in my mind,” Ferentz said. “I grew up in that part of the country. At that time they were the program in the state of Pennsylvania, and really the program in the East.”

Even though Ferentz didn’t attend Penn State, he married into a family rich with Penn State ties. His wife’s (Mary) brother, Kevin Hart, was a linebacker who lettered for the Nittany Lions in 1976. Ferentz’ father-in-law, Gerry Hart, played football with Penn State head coach Joe Paterno at Brooklyn Prep. A nephew, quarterback Mike Hart, was a team member earlier this decade.

“I was definitely the black sheep of our family at that point,” Ferentz said. “They tolerated me for a year — the year I was graduate assistant at Pitt (1980) — because at that time that was a really bitter rivalry.”

Penn State holds an 11-10 edge in the all-time series with Iowa, but the Hawkeyes have won 6-of-10 in Beaver Stadium. This evening, Ferentz will go for his seventh win in nine tries against Paterno, a coach he deeply respects.

“Coach Paterno has not only been great for college football, but great for college sports,” Ferentz said. “To me, everything about him is good. That’s probably why everybody in Pennsylvania wanted to go there.”

Only seven programs that have played Penn State at least twice since 1966 can boast a winning record: Ohio State (12-8), Michigan (10-4), Alabama (8-4), Wisconsin (7-6), Nebraska (4-3), Oklahoma (2-0) and UCLA (2-1). Although Iowa is 9-11 all-time against Paterno, Ferentz has a 75.0 winning percentage against Penn State.

As a younger Ferentz realized, not everyone from Pennsylvania could join the Nittany Lions. But sometimes, even if you can’t join them, you can still beat them.