In 2004, Kirk Ferentz and his family flew to Pennsylvania several days ahead of the Iowa football team he coached. The Hawkeyes were scheduled to play Penn State on Saturday, but Kirk had other matters to attend.
His father, John, passed away on Oct. 17 in Asbury Heights, Pa. The Ferentz family attended the funeral on Friday before meeting up with the team in State College. Kirk’s son, Brian, was an offensive lineman for the Hawkeyes. James was in high school, and Steve was just 10.
Kirk entered Beaver Stadium with a heavy heart for that game, but James said he was inspired by his father’s desire to coach. Iowa beat Penn State in unorthodox fashion, 6-4, and James saw how tightly knit his father’s Iowa football team was.
James looked to his mom, Mary, and said, “How could I go anywhere else?”
Some part of Ferentz’s family kept drawing them back to Iowa. James joined the team in 2008, and he’s been the starting center for three years. Brian returned to the program as the offensive line coach this season, and Steve is currently a freshman walk-on tight end.
Kirk said the four’s reunion has been entirely unplanned, but he enjoys every minute of being with his three sons.
“I think any dad would tell you any time you’re with your kids, it’s pretty special,” Kirk said. “Especially as a coach, you miss a lot of time with your kids. In some small way, it’s a little bit of a payback.”
James wasn’t always sold on playing football at Iowa. He watched Brian deal with the scrutiny that came with playing football for the university, and he couldn’t decide if he wanted that.
It was defensive line coach Reese Morgan who monitored James’ entire recruitment and swayed him to play for the Hawkeyes. Most recruits’ fathers play a huge role in their sons’ decisions, but in James’ case, Kirk “was very hands off.”
“I was kind of looking for my father’s input on what I should do and where I should go,” James said. “Looking back on it, I respect him for it. He wasn’t even involved in whether or not he would be offered a scholarship, from my understanding at least.”
As James settled into the life of an Iowa football player, and ultimately, a starter, he said he didn’t have a problem separating the line between coach and father with Kirk. He said his father has always been a natural authority figure to him.
Brothers, however, are not natural authority figures.
Brian joined the Iowa coaching staff this season as the offensive line coach — James’ coach. He came to Iowa from the New England Patriots, where as the tight ends coach, he oversaw the statistical eruption of Rob Gronkowski, and he worked closely with Bill O’Brien.
“Any time you work with someone 24/7, six months out of the year, for four years, and you go to a Super Bowl with a guy, and you have a lot of respect for his football knowledge and all those things,” O’Brien said. “Yeah, there's no question that that's a great friendship there.”
Brian was unavailable for comment this week, but James, Kirk and O’Brien all agree that Brian’s familiarity with Penn State’s head coach is insignificant due to the difference in personnel at the college football level.
Now, Brian is James’ boss, and the younger sibling said he has to have more of a filter.
When they were younger, James said he would antagonize Brian and get under his skin just for the brotherly fun of it.
“When he got here, there was a transition period in spring ball when I had to be very careful with the words I selected because, you know, things would come out quicker, without thinking,” James said. “It was an adjustment, but I think we’ve gotten a good understanding of each other and what we expect from each other.”
James added that Brian is the quickest to point out his mistakes, but Kirk countered that “James is a hell of a lot better than his brother.”
Of course, Kirk jokes. James said he, Brian and Kirk all have a great relationship on and off the football field.
“There’s been a lot of open communication, which I think is rare between your head coach, your line coach and then your center,” James said. “It’s a very unique position, but it’s been a lot of fun, and I think we’re getting better every week.”