INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Dantonio and Kirk Ferentz go way back.
Exactly how far back was chronicled in somewhat amusing fashion during the Friday press conferences ahead of Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
According to the coaches, they first met while recruiting in Florida in 1989. Dantonio was lost, so he followed Ferentz around in his rental car. Ferentz enjoyed some grouper sandwiches.
Let’s let them tell the story.
“When I was at Youngstown State way back in the 80s, they sent me to Florida to recruit,” Dantonio said. “I got in my rental car. I didn't know where I was going. No cell phones or GPS back then. I drove around behind the guy from Iowa, which was Kirk. I think we did that for almost two days. I got to know him at that point in time.”
“I got introduced to grouper sandwiches. That would have been the spring of 1989,” Ferentz said. “First time I recruited down in Tampa, Mark was actually at Youngstown State, a program at that time and I continue to have great respect for. He was there with Clarence Brooks, assistant at Syracuse. The budget was tight. I think Mark was living in the room with Clarence and riding in the car to save money. … First time we really got to know each other. He was coaching I believe with coach (Jim) Tressel at that time at Youngstown.
“Funny how the world turns around sometimes. However many years later this is, here we are in Indianapolis. No grouper sandwiches this weekend, though.”
Funny, indeed. Dantonio and Ferentz will collide as opposing head coaches on Saturday night, more than 25 years after first meeting as assistants. Back then, there was no Big Ten Championship Game and there was no College Football Playoff, but those are the spoils the Spartans and Hawkeyes will be playing for in Indy. The winner gets a league championship and a trip to the sport’s final four. The loser, quite simply, won’t.
But stepping back from the immediate and looking at the big pictures of both programs, Saturday’s night championship tilt will be a terrific piece of evidence of what these coaches have done to take their respective programs to their present levels of success.
Dantonio has done a terrific job turning the Spartans into one of college football’s powers, and for the few who still haven’t realized it, a win Saturday night would finally cement it in the minds of all of the sport’s observers. He’s won at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons, a Big Ten record. He’s taken the Spartans to bowl games in each of the last eight seasons, winning the last four. He’s got a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl championship and a Cotton Bowl win under his belt in the past two seasons alone and could be competing for a national championship if Michigan State wins Saturday.
In other words, pretty good.
“He's done a wonderful job building that program, giving it consistency. They do all the little things right. That's why they're so good and have been for so long,” Ferentz said. “For us to have a chance to face them, it's going to be a big challenge for us, but we're really excited about that.”
“It speaks to our program's stability,” Dantonio said of reaching the Big Ten title game for the third time in five seasons. “It's more a program statement I think in terms of our lasting success rather than one here and done, not being back. That's what I was speaking to. The people that came here as true freshmen saw people play like Keshawn Martin, Kirk Cousins, Le'Veon Bell, people like that. Now they're in that position to make a name for themselves. You say Shilique Calhoun, Jack Allen, Connor Cook at this point in time. I think it's a program statement in general. But we've been here before, but this is still goal No. 1 for us.”
There might be a danger in so much success, a change in attitude, perhaps, to one that expects wins that doesn’t feel they need to be earned.
Though his players' constant talk of a chip on their shoulder should dispel any of those fears, Dantonio was asked if a trip to the Playoff would mean Michigan State losing its blue-collar mentality and transforming into another college football blue blood.
"I hope not. I hope we stay grounded in who we are as a program and continue to just stride and do a little bit better than we've always done and always try and move a little bit farther,” Dantonio said. “When you've gotten to a point, you want to move farther than that, I think that's a human spirit working. I think that's the competitiveness in you. Regardless of what you do for a living, or sport, I think you want to try and go just a little bit farther or repeat or do something like that, because I think that's human nature. I hope we keep the same attitude that we must overachieve. There's no question in my mind that we must all overachieve for us to be successful, regardless of our level of abilities.”
Dantonio’s program has become a national model, but it had to base itself off a model to reach this point. Dantonio talked about the influence of Tom Izzo’s basketball program and how its high level of success and hard-work habits influenced the Spartan football team.
But Dantonio mentioned another influence, too: Ferentz and Iowa.
“When I became a head football coach, I looked around at different programs — I said this throughout the week — I looked around at different programs and said, 'Who do we want to pattern our program after?' Iowa was probably the dominant one,” Dantonio said. “Had a staff that had great continuity, that would stay in place, excellent coaches, a program built on toughness, not a system. They didn't change, switch back on different things. They had a belief system from a football standpoint that was very structured, defensively, offensively, special teams. They were very, very successful. The man has won a lot of football games, has had success in this conference really throughout 17 years. So, I mean, that's a statement in itself to me.”
The trip Ferentz’s program — and the man personally — has taken in just a year’s time is quite remarkable.
Ferentz was under fire from fans and observers alike last season and into the offseason. A 7-6 finish was capped by an embarrassing blowout loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The past three seasons had just seen a .500 record of 19-19. And Ferentz’s presence, while hardly bad, was wearing on Iowa fans after 16 years, with a poll showing that just 40 percent of Iowa fans approved of the job he was doing.
But Ferentz didn’t go anywhere or fire anyone. Instead, he held a January press conference where he made a high-profile quarterback change and vowed to do things differently. “New Kirk” was born.
And all Iowa has done since is win all 12 games its played.
"It’s been 17 years at Iowa. If you coach long enough, I imagine you get (to the hot seat). If you hang around long enough, you're going to be on it,” Ferentz said. “That's the great thing about sports and college athletics, you just don't know. People don't know the story before it's written, as much as everybody would love to. That talk and rhetoric keeps the sport active and everybody interested.”
[MORE BIG TEN: What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes]
And the truth is that the vast majority of the Ferentz Era has been mighty successful.
In 17 seasons, Ferentz has led the Hawkeyes to 127 wins, 13 bowl games (this season’s will be No. 13) and two conference titles. A win Saturday night would not just mean conference championship No. 3 but a chance to play for a national championship.
Big picture, Ferentz has this program in a pretty good place.
"I think we live in a society right now where it's an immediate-gratification type thing where people want it done right now. They don't want to wait. When things start to slide, they want to make change,” Dantonio said. “I think the University of Iowa and its administration showed great character in the way that they've handled that. I'm not sure they ever missed a bowl game, but the standards were set so high. Obviously he's back, going strong.”
These might have not been the two teams that were projected to be playing in this game at the beginning of the season. Ohio State was coming off a national championship. Wisconsin was believed to be in control of the West. But these two programs certainly deserve to be in this position, these two coaches deserve it after where they’ve led their respective programs.
Twenty six years ago they were eating grouper sandwiches in Florida. Now they lead the Nos. 4 and 5 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings in a de facto national quarterfinal.
Funny how the world turns around sometimes.