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Steady? Boring? Kirk Ferentz does it his way

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Kirk Ferentz quit golfing 20 years ago. He vacations every July in his backyard. He doesn't socialize much with coaching peers, avoids conventions at nearly all costs, bars his players from Twitter and not only admits that his Iowa Hawkeyes can't typically pursue elite talent in recruiting, but he promotes the notion.

Sound like a stick in the mud?

Ferentz, the 63-year-old dean of FBS head coaches, offers an uncommon combination of more than meets the eye. He perpetuates a habitual, deliberate approach, yet manages to relate to the modern student-athlete at Iowa.

"He's changed with the times," senior offensive lineman Keegan Render said.

The Hawkeyes say they see daily what outsiders miss.

Ferentz needs one victory to pass Hayden Fry for the most wins in Iowa history and to rank behind only Amos Alonzo Stagg, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno in the Big Ten coaching books.

The first opportunity for that 144th win arrives Sept. 1 at Kinnick Stadium. Whether Ferentz hits the milestone against Northern Illinois or later, it won't come with a moment of fanfare encouraged by the coach.

He would prefer to essentially ignore it.

Ferentz just can't see himself in the same category as Fry, for whom the road into campus off Interstate 80 is named and who first brought Ferentz to Iowa City as the offensive-line coach in 1981.

"In a lot of ways, I see myself just like I did in 1981," Ferentz said. "I just hope I'm more aware now, because I had no clue what was going on back then."

Ferentz left Iowa in 1989 to coach Maine and served stints as an NFL assistant in Cleveland and Baltimore before returning to Iowa in 1999 to succeed Fry.

Naysayers point to his 7.5 wins per season, nearly unmatched job security and a $4.7 million annual salary -- before tapping a sizable bank of potential incentives -- as evidence that Ferentz plays by a different set of rules at Iowa than exist at most Power 5 programs.

And perhaps he does, but consider that Ferentz largely created the conditions under which he thrives.

"Being a good guy," senior defensive end Parker Hesse said, "is something that never goes out of style."

A recent CBS Sports poll of coaches placed Ferentz among the most overrated coaches in the sport, but he also received mention as underrated.

Ferentz, in fact, said he "dumb-lucked into a lot of stuff" in his career, including this two-decade run at Iowa, fostered by good fortune and patience from an administration that has employed just three athletic directors since 1970.

No doubt the mindset at Iowa, where a switch to morning practices in 2015 and a few four-receiver sets sent shockwaves, has enabled Ferentz to persevere in down times.

But don't think that any old coach could do it.

"In no way is he just set in his ways," Hesse said. "Recruiting alone has changed dramatically, even since I was in high school. He keeps his finger on the pulse of trends around college football."

Ferentz budgets time for himself to simply think. They're little windows, he said, but important stuff comes out of them. Not long ago, he contemplated advice he'd heard for older generations looking to connect with the millennials who fill his roster.

"You have to explain why you're going to do something," Ferentz said, recounting the supposed wisdom. "That's the key to connecting."

Ferentz was dumbfounded. "That's new?"

He'd explained himself for decades, taking a page from the likes of Fry and Joe Moore, the renowned offensive-line guru who coached Ferentz in high school.

So maybe he came ahead of his time, strange as that might appear.

"I'm a coach," Ferentz said, shaking his head. "I copy [other coaches]."

A self-effacing attitude helps keep Ferentz fresh. His old-school practices force the Hawkeyes to stay grounded. It might not work outside of Iowa City, but that's not the point. It works for Iowa.

"The only way to have success at the very highest levels is [to have] everybody on the same page," Penn State coach James Franklin said last month at Big Ten media days. "Everybody's got to be pulling the rope in the same direction.

"And obviously Iowa's been doing that with Coach Ferentz for a long time, probably as good as anybody."

Ferentz, entering his 20th season in this chair, recently discussed in an interview with ESPN.com some of the methods to his apparent madness.

• For many years, Ferentz and his wife, Mary, vacationed every summer in Ocean City, New Jersey. Then in 2013, their daughter Joanne, third-oldest of the five Ferentz children, got married.

They held the ceremony at Kirk and Mary's home. And the coach's wife had a revelation. Let's just stay here, she told her husband. The following two summers, son James then daughter Kelly were married in the same spot. And now, without the weddings, the Ferentz staycation is tradition.

Kirk and Mary could escape to any tropical destination -- his contract provides 35 hours per year of private-jet time for personal use -- or unwind at a lake resort like others in his industry.

"In a lot of ways, I see myself just like I did in 1981. I just hope I'm more aware now, because I had no clue what was going on back then." Kirk Ferentz

"I travel enough," the coach said. "And the other thing is, we really like our house. We've got a pool. It's not quite as big as a lake. But it just kind of makes sense."

• Ferentz installed his strict Twitter ban not long after social media rose to prominence a decade ago. As soon as new Hawkeyes join the program, off goes Twitter. They can keep their accounts, but no tweeting (or retweeting) is allowed.

"Coming in as a freshman," tight end Noah Fant said, "I was like, 'That is just worst rule ever.' I did not understand. But as I got older and matured, I got it. You're avoiding so many potential problems."

As coaches and players elsewhere embrace Twitter, Ferentz won't relent. He asked team leadership if he's "missing the boat." They told him no. "We're not trying to be czars or anything like that," he said. "We're just trying to keep them from getting in a regrettable situation."

Fant still uses Twitter to follow friends and stay current. Others have dismissed the platform entirely.

"I don't miss it," Render said. "We all know what [Ferentz] is trying to do and respect his decision. Nobody's really complained. At least not around me."

• The Hawkeyes joke about Ferentz's ability to insert into conversations his seemingly obscure memories of former players, old games and moments -- even practices long ago forgotten by most. "He keeps a diary or takes great notes or something," Hesse said.

For instance, there he was, last month in Chicago, illustrating a point with an observation on Joel Hilgenberg, who played at Iowa in Ferentz's early years as an assistant, before many of his players' parents attended high school.

"Too much of that for our players probably isn't a good thing," Ferentz said. "But there's always something you can pull from history. And really, all I know about it is Iowa football history."

Fant, a preseason All-America pick this year, said he's sometimes inspired by Ferentz references to search for information on the old Hawkeyes.

"Usually," Fant said, "I learn something important."

• As his contemporaries battle for top-rated recruits, Ferentz stops just short of apologizing when the Hawkeyes land an out-of-state, elite prospect like defensive end A.J. Epenesa in 2017 or offensive lineman James Daniels two years earlier.

With Daniels, Iowa had a connection in that his brother played in Iowa City when the Hawkeyes signed James, an offensive lineman who left one year early this spring for the NFL. Similarly, Epenesa's father lettered at Iowa. Otherwise, Ferentz likely wouldn't have tried.

"As a player, I was small and slow," said Ferentz, a linebacker at UConn from 1974-76. "If it came down to competing in size and speed, I was going to lose. The reality is, most of those kids are going to go to the schools that we've all heard about since we were kids. The good news, there's plenty of guys to go around.

"But when they tell us it's Alabama, LSU, Ohio State ..."

Ferentz laughs before naming more traditional powers. "OK," he said, "I think we're [done], unless there's some reason why we might resonate with that kid."

Imagine that recruiting mantra, well, anywhere in the Power 5 outside of Iowa.

Clearly, this is a guy who's comfortable in his own skin.

"It's good fortune that I walked into a place in 1981 where we had a tremendous head coach, great staff and I had an opportunity to come back," Ferentz said. "This is so rare."

Rare, indeed. And soon to stand alone at Iowa in rare air.