So, it's that time of year again, Brian. Let us kneel by this bushel of corn and debate the merits of two men on Iowan sidelines. Ultimately, we're debating Paul Rhoads versus Kirk Ferentz, but let's start with the basics.
Ferentz is the guy whose name seems to come up every other offseason for an NFL opening, but yet, here he is well beyond the seven-year itch in Iowa City. How would you describe his place in the collective opinion of the Hawkeyes fan base?
Brian Bennett: Unless you're winning national titles every other year like Nick Saban, it's hard to coach somewhere for 14 years and not hear some grumbling. I don't think you could have found many Iowa fans who would have been upset with Ferentz in 2009, when the team started 10-0 and won the Orange Bowl. Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes have stalled a bit since then, going 7-5 in the last two regular seasons. There are some who want to see a more dazzling offense -- even though James Vandenberg threw for more than 3,000 yards last season -- or bigger-name coordinators. Iowa fans have high expectations for a guy who makes $3.8 million and is one of the top 10 best paid coaches in the country. But I think most reasonable Hawkeyes fans know, at least deep down, that they'd be hard pressed to land a better coach in Iowa City.
I know you're very high on Rhoads, and not just because he's highly quotable. He's masterminded some great upsets in his short tenure with the Cyclones. Still, he's got a 19-20 record. Should we be that excited about him?
David Ubben: It's unfair to look simply at his overall record and draw conclusions from there. Simply put: It's hard to win at Iowa State. Maybe harder than any other school in the Big 12, though Kansas State and Kansas have a strong argument. All you need to do is look at history.
Iowa State's been to 11 bowls in a little more than a century of college football. Rhoads has brought the Cyclones to bowl games in two of the past three seasons, and almost made it 3-for-3 if not for a missed throw on a windy day against Nebraska in 2010. Nobody knows the danger of crossing paths with Rhoads more than Nebraska. Find me another coach who could lose his starting quarterback, running back and a handful of linemen, but still go into Memorial Stadium and beat a Big 12 North (check your history books if y'all don't know what that is) champion like Nebraska for the first time in Lincoln in more than three decades. (I don't care how many turnovers Nebraska had in that game, by the way. Somebody had to force them, no?)
Rhoads is unbelievable. Coaching is all about getting the most out of what you have. Rhoads does that as well as anybody in the country. Gene Chizik won a national championship at Auburn ... and went 5-19 in two seasons in Ames before he did it. Rhoads took the same two-win team from Chizik and turned them into a seven-win team, winning the first bowl game for the school since 2004. Not many guys can do that.
You also have to consider the kinds of coaches Rhoads has brought on his staff. He's only been at Iowa State a little more than three years and Urban Meyer already jacked his offensive coordinator, Tom Herman. For the uninitiated among us, who are a few coaching names we'd recognize from Kirk Ferentz's coaching tree?
BB: Ferentz's coaching staff at Iowa has been so strongly-rooted that no new tree has needed to sprout. He had the same offensive and defensive coordinators for his first 13 years at Iowa before Norm Parker retired and Ken O'Keefe left for the NFL this past offseason. Many of his other assistants are also virtual Hawkeye lifers, like new defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who's in his 14th year with Ferentz. I guess you could point to his son, Brian, who was an offensive assistant with the New England Patriots before moving on to -- you guessed it -- Iowa this offseason.
Ferentz must be doing something right for all those coaches to want to stay on his staff for so long. Besides, wouldn't you rather have long-term stability with your coaches instead of assistants who can't wait to jump at the next opportunity? Continuity has been a hallmark of Ferentz's tenure, as has tremendous player development. NFL scouts know they must make a stop in Iowa City, because Hawkeyes players are so well-coached and prepared for the pro game. Iowa has had 18 players selected in the NFL draft in the past three years alone, which is pretty impressive. Can Rhoads make the same claim?
DU: He can't, but you could make the argument that it only makes Rhoads' accomplishments at Iowa State even more impressive. He's only had two players drafted since he arrived, highlighted by second-rounder Kelechi Osemele last year, a four-year starter along the offensive line for the Cyclones.
Bottom line: Iowa State is the school with less tradition in a state that doesn't have a ton of Division I talent. Rhoads has to go elsewhere, and most often for him, that means Texas. He's found some gems down there, including Jared Barnett, the guy who engineered last year's upset against No. 2 Oklahoma State--the best win in school history. Rhoads is a great developer of talent, but ultimately, the NFL loves its measureables. Iowa State doesn't churn out many players that wow you with their physical skills. Still, the wins come, and last year, his linebacker, A.J. Klein, shared Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. Klein and teammate Jake Knott may have NFL futures, and future Cyclones may as well, but Rhoads is still building. That NFL pipeline is still under construction.
The thing that ISU fans have to love most about Rhoads, though, is how much he's changed the perception of the school. It's similar to what Mike Leach established at Texas Tech. Teams fear Iowa State, and after last year's win over Oklahoma State, how could they not? Iowa State's anything but a gimme win these days. That alone is worth a lot.
What's Ferentz done for Iowa's perception across the Big Ten?
BB: Well, Iowa has almost always had a strong program, except for the lean years before Hayden Fry took over. Ferentz needed a couple of years to get things going but has built a program that seems to jump up and compete for the Big Ten title every few years. He's had four double-digit win seasons and has led the Hawkeyes to two BCS games, including the Orange Bowl victory in the 2009 season.
And remember that Ferentz has been dealing with some of the same recruiting restraints you mentioned with Rhoads. Iowa is not a populous state teeming with Division I prospects, and it's not always easy to convince the nation's best players to come to corn country. The school is now in the midst of a long-overdue facilities upgrade. Yet despite those handcuffs, Ferentz has made his team a regular contender against programs like Ohio State and Michigan that have far more resources. And everyone knows that playing Iowa is going to be a battle and that Ferentz's teams are going to hit them in the mouth. I'd say that's pretty good.
There's a reason why Ferentz makes so much money and why so many NFL teams have been interested in him. Can Rhoads ever lead Iowa State to serious Big 12 contention, and more importantly, can he guide the Cyclones to a win in Kinnick Stadium this weekend?
DU: That's sort of the big question in Ames. We've seen some upward mobility in the Big 12 of late with schools who had great coaches who stuck around for the long haul.
Last year, Oklahoma State provided the biggest example under Mike Gundy, winning its first Big 12 title in rather emphatic fashion over rival Oklahoma. Missouri reached No. 1 and played in two consecutive Big 12 title games under Gary Pinkel before checking out for the SEC before this season. Anybody think the SEC catches a whiff of Missouri's fragrance without Gary Pinkel? No way.
We're seeing it at Baylor now, which is building under Art Briles, despite losing a transcendent player in Robert Griffin III, who changed the face of the program in four years. Oklahoma State and Missouri haven't had one player make the kind of impact RG3 did, but they built piece by piece, recruiting better players at each position than the one's who graduated. That's how you have to do it. Iowa State's sort of moving in that direction, but they've still got a long way to go before we see them seriously contend for a Big 12 title.
Still, Rhoads seems like the guy who could get it done there if anyone can. He's got a great shot to walk into Iowa City and end a decade of losses for the Cyclones this weekend. It'll be close. I picked Iowa to win, but then again, I picked the Hawkeyes to win last year, too. This year's team is probably Rhoads' best, but he's also coaching in a Big 12 that's deeper than it's ever been. That's a problem for the folks in Ames.
How do you see this weekend in Iowa City playing out?
BB: I definitely think it will be close, because Iowa doesn't have a lot of margin for error right now. We saw that in the way the Hawkeyes escaped against Northern Illinois last week after trailing for most of the second half.
But the areas that looked like major problem spots going into the year -- defensive line and running back -- were much better than expected in the opener. Damon Bullock proved that Ferentz can just plug somebody in at running back (and, man, does he have experience at doing that) by running for 150 yards. The passing game under new coordinator and your former Big 12 guy Greg Davis didn't look so hot, but I expect that to improve with a senior quarterback like Vandenberg at the controls.
It won't be easy, but the Hawkeyes are good at home and they're hungry to fill their empty trophy cases after losing the Cy-Hawk last year in overtime. I think they'll find a way to get it done.