By Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola
Sports Capital Journalism Program
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz remembered the phone call like it was yesterday.
Ferentz called Grambling State’s athletic department on the night of April 23, 1993. He was the Cleveland Browns offensive line coach at the time and was hoping someone, anyone would answer the phone and be able to provide information or find someone who could provide information on an NFL draft prospect with the draft two days away.
It was 6 p.m. on a Friday, and who should answer the phone but Grambling State head coach Eddie Robinson. Ferentz and Robinson spoke about offensive lineman Herman Arvie, who the Browns ended up selecting in the fifth round.
After the 40-minute conversation, Ferentz asked Robinson what he was doing in his office that late on a Friday night in the spring. Robinson responded he was going through the tape of last year’s spring game since he was calling the plays during the next day’s spring game.
“I can tell you, I’ve never heard of that, ever,” Ferentz said. “Since that point, same thing.”
Ferentz, 60, shared that story and other memories of Robinson during Friday’s Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year presentation in which he was honored as the 2015 award winner. The award is presented annually by the Football Writers Association of America and the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
In 2015, Ferentz took a Hawkeyes team that went 7-6 in 2014 and led them to the first 12-0 regular season record in school history. He also guided them to their first Rose Bowl since 1991. He’s the first honoree from the Big Ten since Ohio State’s Jim Tressel in 2002.
“Any time you go 12-0 or if you’re up in front of people after winning a coaching award, it’s all about your team,” Ferentz said. “And we did have a great group of players. To me, the great things about Iowa really were reflected in our team this year. Our team had a great work ethic, a positive attitude, they’re extremely resilient [and] they’re very tough minded. Beyond that, I think as much as anything they really embraced the concept of teamwork and the sense of community.”
As much as Ferentz vividly remembered his conversation with Robinson nearly 23 years ago, he had trouble placing precisely when he found out he’d be honored with the award. He knew it was a morning phone call “sometime in November,” but it was all a blur since he was caught up in the ongoing season.
Still, Ferentz said he recognized the magnitude of the award, especially since he knew Robinson and what Robinson stood for. He first met Robinson during a football clinic in St. Louis in the mid-1980s. That’s when he learned Robinson had a master’s degree from Iowa – a “neat fabric,” as Ferentz called it.
Ferentz also gained admiration for Robinson through talking with former Grambling State players about their college coach. He coached Arvie in Cleveland and worked with James “Shack” Harris, a pro personnel director during Ferentz’s days with the Baltimore Ravens in the late 1990s.
“The thing that came across really clearly from talking with both ‘Shack’ and Herman was just how coach Robinson did things and the love he had for his players, the methods that he believed in [and] the principles that he believed in,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz, in his 17th year at Iowa, now has his own bust of Robinson, something he didn’t expect he’d get on Friday but something he’ll cherish along with the stories and memories of Robinson.
“I didn’t even know I’d get one. Just saying I won was good enough for me,” Ferentz said. “That’ll go in a special place, probably somewhere in my office. But whenever I’m done coaching, that’s going home.”