NORMAN, Okla. -- Bob Stoops met Kirk Ferentz at one of the worst programs in college football. Stoops was a junior safety. Ferentz, a 26-year-old offensive line coach.
But together, they helped turn that losing program into a winner.
It was 1981 and Iowa was coming off 20 straight years without a winning season. The school had been to only two bowl games in its history. But behind third-year coach Hayden Fry, a talented coaching staff with up-and-comers like Ferentz, and hardnosed overachieving players like Stoops, the Hawkeyes embarked on a magical season. Iowa came out of nowhere to beat sixth-ranked Nebraska, then sixth-ranked UCLA in the non-conference, before reeling off three straight wins to end the regular season, catapulting Iowa to a share of the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth.
"Bob was a junior, yet he was one of the leaders of the football team, no question about that," recalled Ferentz. "And not the biggest or fastest guys on the team. But certainly one of the smartest and toughest -- and that really is what epitomized that team. A tough, smart group."
On Dec. 30, Stoops and Ferentz will meet again, only this time from opposite sidelines, as Oklahoma and Iowa will face off in the Insight Bowl.
Stoops and Ferentz have remained close through the years since that memorable '81 season in Iowa City. As a graduate and volunteer assistant, Stoops coached with Ferentz at Iowa for several seasons before taking an assistant job with Kent State.
"He was very influential in my life," Stoops said. "He was a young coach when I was a player. And then as a graduate assistant trying to become a coach, he was very good to me, always. I related to him, because he was the youngest coach on the staff. His wife Mary was always great to me and my wife (Carol). He always has related well to his players. And I guess I related to him well as a young player myself and then even as a young coach."
Ferentz eventually became an offensive line coach in the NFL. Stoops went on to successful stints as a defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Florida.
"Nothing but good things have happened in his career since that time," said Ferentz, who recently visited Stoops to get a tour of Oklahoma's facilities. "He's a guy I've got tremendous respect for as a person and certainly as a football coach. Just done a phenomenal job his entire career."
Before the 1999 season, both interviewed to be Fry's successor at Iowa. But Stoops elected to go to Oklahoma, and days later, the Hawkeyes hired Ferentz.
"By the time I got out of that interview, Oklahoma had an offer there that I was excited about, and I felt really in my heart Iowa had their heart set on Kirk maybe as well," Stoops said. "And to be quite honest, I felt, I was at Iowa for 10 years, and I loved it. I still love it. Some of my dearest friends are from there. But it was, like, I've been there, done that. This is something new, exciting. And, let's face it, too, a great tradition and great leadership at Oklahoma. I thought this is what I needed to do."
It worked out for both coaches. Both programs, too. Two seasons later, Stoops led the Sooners to their seventh national championship. Four seasons later, Ferentz had the Hawkeyes in the Orange Bowl.
"I always follow the program. He's done an awesome job at Iowa," said Stoops, who will watch Hawkeyes games with his family in Norman whenever the Sooners have a week off. "There is a very close attachment there, and not only to the Iowa program, but to Kirk and Mary, especially, as people."
Such a close attachment in fact that after an Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl practice last year, Stoops attended the Insight Bowl featuring Iowa and Missouri and wore a Hawkeyes sweatshirt.
"It's been fun to watch them have such good years, as well," Stoops said. "I hate the fact that we're playing each other. But hey, it's a bowl game. I guess it'll be OK."
Jake Trotter covers University of Oklahoma football for SoonerNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submit questions to his mailbag and look for answers every Friday.