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December 4, 2015

Kirk Ferentz

Indianapolis, Indiana

THE MODERATOR: We'll ask Coach Ferentz to make an opening statement and then go to your questions.
COACH FERENTZ: Good afternoon. Certainly an honor to be the head football coach at the University of Iowa and to bring the Hawkeyes to Indianapolis. We're thrilled to be here.
Really extremely proud of our football team. It comes down to it, there really is no secret to success. This team is 12‑0 this season mainly because we've had great leadership on and off the field. The players have had great respect for each other. They've been able to focus on what they need to do week after week. Just really proud of what they've done.
I think there's something that's led up to this game saying there's a lot of similarities between the two programs involved. Michigan State is certainly a strong program and a very, very tough opponent. We've got tremendous respect for their football team and their coaching staff. They've had a great season.
As we told our players all season long, really going back to last January, if everybody can pull together and do things together, you just never know what's going to happen. I think that's really kind of been the story of our season. Little things make a big difference in football, they make a big difference in life. This team certainly has embraced that.
We look forward to tomorrow night's game. Last thing I want to say is how much we appreciate the support of our fans across the nation.
I'll throw it out for questions.

Q. The Michigan State defense has certainly gone through a time of maturation and is playing better than earlier in the year. You're not going to tell us secrets. What are things sticking out to you for the success late in the season?
COACH FERENTZ: They had some injuries. Every team goes through that during the course of the season. Every team goes through that, particularly in the back end. The thing that's been pretty consistent is the play up front. They've got an outstanding defensive line, three seniors out of four. The guy that is not a senior is a tremendous talent, tremendous football player. They're really good up front. Their linebackers are playing aggressively like Michigan State linebackers always do.
To see a Michigan State team playing great defense is hardly a shock.

Q. What does it say about the Big Ten and Iowa and Michigan State that the conference is virtually assured of a playoff spot no matter who wins tomorrow?
COACH FERENTZ: Well, I think anybody that reaches this game, first of all, you don't get here by accident, you have to have an excellent football team. You have to play well throughout the whole season. I think that's been the tradition of this game for five years now. Certainly it fits both these teams. They've had a tremendous year. Some really marquee wins. Our guys have done it week in and week out.
You think in a game like this, whoever does come out will be in the playoffs. That's for the other people to decide that.

Q. Coach, you and Michigan State haven't played in a couple years, but seems like you've had some battle royals. Your program's personalities and the coaches' personalities reflect each other, not a lot of flash, just substance?
COACH FERENTZ: I was an assistant for nine years during the '80s, and we had some great games back then, coincidentally. Really crazy games, outstanding games. For what it's worth, that has continued on since Mark got to Michigan State in 2007. We've had some great ballgames, hotly contested, overtime contests, all that stuff.
He's done a wonderful job building that program, giving it consistency. They do all the little things right. That's why they're so good and have been for so long. For us to have a chance to face them, it's going to be a big challenge for us, but we're really excited about that.
There are definitely parallels. We both deem defense to be important. Maybe that's not a national trend right now. We have for a long time. I know Mark has as well, being a defensive‑minded coach. Our offenses are different. But in principle there are a lot of parallels for sure.

Q. You just briefly touched on this, so did Mark. There are two things kind of on the line tomorrow: the Big Ten championship trophy and then College Football Playoffs. How do you balance that mentality with your team?
COACH FERENTZ: Regarding the playoff thing, that came out three or four weeks ago. We told our players right away, a year ago when they had the first poll, three out of the first teams didn't make the playoffs, the national championship was 16 that week.
It's great for interest in the sport. I'm not knocking it by any stretch. But I think it's a lot of rhetoric. Really what happens is things get decided on the field. If you don't take care of business week after week, you're not going to be in a game like this first and foremost. Now that we've made it to this game, all that really counts is what happens tomorrow night during that 60 minutes.
We'll live with the consequences either way, whatever takes place. If you're involved in coaching, involved in competition, probably the best advice is just to try to focus on what it is that's right in front of you.

Q. Coach, you're undefeated, about to play in the Big Ten championship game. Is it kind of crazy to think at the beginning of the season some people had you on the hot seat?
COACH FERENTZ: I've been 17 years at Iowa. If you coach long enough, I imagine you get there. If you hang around long enough, you're going to be on it. That's the great thing about sports and college athletics, you just don't know. People don't know the story before it's written, as much as everybody would love to. That talk and rhetoric keeps the sport active and everybody interested.
To me the most interesting thing is what happens on the field. Fortunately that's up to the players and coaches to decide that and drive that. Our guys have done a wonderful job. It's been a magical season in some ways. I've never been on a football team that was 12‑0, yeah, baseball, yeah, but never football. I've been around championship‑level teams, outstanding football teams, but it's a really tough trick to do. That's a real credit to our players. They've done a great job of focusing weekly. Easier said than done. Hopefully we can do it one more week here and keep our eyes where they have to be.

Q. Just a minute ago Mark told a story about maybe the first time he met you, recruiting on the road, following you school to school. Do you remember that?
COACH FERENTZ: Absolutely. I got introduced to grouper sandwiches. That would have been the spring of 1989. First time I recruited down in Tampa, Mark was actually at Youngstown State, a program at that time and I continue to have great respect for. He was there with Clarence Brooks, assistant at Syracuse. The budget was tight. I think Mark was living in the room with Clarence and riding in the car to save money.
A year later I was coaching at that same level, up at Maine, University of Maine. First time we really got to know each other. He was coaching I believe with Coach Tressel at that time at Youngstown.
Funny how the world turns around sometimes. However many years later this is, here we are in Indianapolis. No grouper sandwiches this weekend, though (laughter).

Q. I believe it was the Northwestern game where C.J. was really banged up. How close were you to having somebody else out there quarterback? What all went into the decision? Did he have much input?
COACH FERENTZ: About him coming out?

Q. Playing at Northwestern.
COACH FERENTZ: It's a simple procedure like everywhere. The medical staff, they tell us who can play and who can't play. Coaches always have to make decisions on how effective a player can be.
First thing I'd say about C.J. is his degree of mental toughness and physical toughness, I don't know if I've been around a player that could surpass it. He's an amazing young guy. Very soft spoken, humble, unbelievable young man. His mental toughness is really extraordinary.
He played in that game. Had to come out. I don't know how much longer he could have come out when he did come out. I think really the surprise of the story to me is we had a bye week following. We thought he would be a little bit better moving forward. I'm always looking at the bad side as a coach, the pessimistic side, I pictured having him in the shotgun the entire month of November, kind of like that one game with Leftwich back at Marshall one time.
For whatever reason he has gotten better. I'm not saying he's 100% healthy right now, but he's a lot healthier than he was in Chicago. Seems like he's gotten better each and every week.
Real credit to him. He's a guy that wants to come off the field. Everything that he does is motivated to help the team, which is what you would hope your quarterback would be all about.

Q. You talked a minute ago about being on the hot seat in the off‑season.
COACH FERENTZ: Which year are we talking about, I'm sorry (laughter)?

Q. We've had a trend with a lot of other coaches losing their jobs that are going 9‑3, 8‑4. What do you think of this trend recently of coaches losing their job that are still doing fairly well?
COACH FERENTZ: Go back to what I said in my opening statement. I feel honored and privileged to be at Iowa. I grew up in Pittsburgh. Steeler fan, Chuck Noll is a person I held in high regard during my coaching career.
The Steelers since Chuck Noll went there in '69, they've had three head coaches since that time and I would argue if it is not the most successful organization in the NFL, certainly one of. What I point to is the leadership of the Steelers, the organization. They see the big picture. I think they understand the value and stability of having good people.
We don't live in a world that thinks like that anymore, that's clear, especially in the sporting world where everybody has opinions, observations to make.
So, A, I feel very fortunate to work at a place where stability is appreciated and encouraged. Secondly, one thing about doing something competitive, this is a very competitive conference, it always has been, more competitive now than it was 17 years ago when I came to Iowa. Not every season is going to go the way you want, not every game is going to go the way you want. To me it's more about finding solutions and trying to find what do we need to do to repair things or make them better instead of just making people walk the plank. That's what I believe.
I'm not trying to pass commentary on anybody else. Every situation when it comes to coaching changes, every situation is unique. I'm certainly not passing judgment on the people that make decisions. I'm glad I'm at a place where we have had strong leadership and have had for a long time.

Q. Health‑wise how are you guys? Is ben Niemann and Nate Meier ready to go?
COACH FERENTZ: Ben practiced midweek on. Nate practiced this morning. Just talked about a mentally tough guy in C.J. Beathard. Nate Meier is right there. He's going to play. So we'll see how effective he is, how long he goes, but he'll play. Same thing with Ben.

Q. Curious about your thoughts, Michigan State has three or four runningbacks that they can throw at you at any one time. Your thoughts on how to game plan against that.
COACH FERENTZ: Well, you can only play one on one, so you at least give the ball to one guy. Whoever the guy that is in there, we'll have to defend. All three of them are really good players. I won't speak for Mark, but I'm sure he's pleased with the development of that group. They lost an excellent player that's playing for the Bears. Left the door open for guys and I think they've all responded in a very positive way.

Q. Through successful seasons there's always challenges to keep teams that haven't been there grounded at times. What have you done this year to try to keep your team from going outside or thinking too big about itself? Is that the reason why you decided not to go through the walk‑through today?
COACH FERENTZ: Well, I'll start with the walk‑through part. That's just not what we do. We haven't done that for a long time. Been several years since we went to opposing stadiums. Really not that big a deal in our minds. We wanted to stay with our routines, do what we do, do what we've been successful with this year. That didn't really impact our thinking at all.
Regarding staying grounded, the team, that's one of the strengths of this football team. It's going to be a new challenge. 13th game. We haven't played in a 13th game this early fortunately. I guess there might be some bowl games in December, early December. But it's a big game.
But they've all been big for us. Every game has been of equal importance. I've said that many times. We believe that. Most importantly our players understand it. I think we have great leadership. I think the guys understand the value of doing things on a weekly basis and trying to keep their scope pretty narrow.
We try to handle this like an away game. It really is. It's our 13th game. The only difference is we got an extra day. We picked up a bonus day playing on Friday. But pretty much been business as normal this week.

Q. Kirk, this is Michigan State's third Big Ten championship and your first. Is that something that could give them an edge or is it insignificant?
COACH FERENTZ: They had a couple players play in the '13 game. I'm sure that's good for them. Overall the game is going to get decided by the '15 teams, theirs and ours. We flipped the calendar back in January, we've been focused on what's in front of us. When we look at them, they're a strong, outstanding football team, a veteran team getting great leadership at least what it looks like from what we can tell.
We know we're going to have to play at our absolute best whether it's here or anywhere. Really doesn't matter where the game is, it's about the game itself. That's our focus.

Q. Did you say you were on a baseball team that was 12‑0?
COACH FERENTZ: Yeah, don't hold me to that because I don't want to be one of those guys, a story. I played at a pretty good legion team. My last year in legion ball, we had a pretty good team. I think we did okay. I can't remember the record specifically. In baseball you play a lot of games. It doesn't count.

Q. Is there a story there? Can you give me something?
COACH FERENTZ: It was just a great team, a team I thoroughly enjoyed playing on (laughter).
I had an iota of ability in that sport. It was just a lot of fun. A really cohesive group. Maybe the reason I think it's one of the best teams I've ever been around quite frankly, and this team that we're with right now is the same thing. Every time I'm in a room with those guys, it just makes you feel better about life.
Yeah, it takes me back to whatever I was, 17 or 18 back then.

Q. Coach, you said earlier in the week that you didn't ever feel the Big Ten was in crisis mode. Do you think you and Michigan State playing for a spot in the playoffs on top of Ohio State making a run for the national title has enhanced the reputation of the Big Ten?
COACH FERENTZ: To win a national title, whether it was last year or 2002, that was good for the conference. I guess my point there is I think a lot of times perception overrides reality. I don't believe there's really a great difference between all the conferences, the five major conferences. There's good football played in all those conferences and there's some bad football played also.
I think you just have to be a little more specific. When you try to weigh and measure it, it's really difficult. I think the playoffs are one way to solve that. When you start talking about conferences, this conference has been strong for a long, long time. To me it represents all that's good about college athletics.
Our athletes graduate at a high rate. We have got a lot of tremendous young people that go on to do things besides play pro football, and we have guys that go on and play pro football pretty good. Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders back here. They'll be here this weekend. That's great. But what it's all about really to me. What makes me happy when I mention those two guys, it's what they're doing now. Raising families. Just being great citizens. That's a neat thing about college football, not only what happens on the field but the other part of the equation as well.

Q. Kirk, when you look at the day for tomorrow, it's obviously a later start than you've had all year. You had a couple night games as well. How do you get the guys prepared for that night game?
COACH FERENTZ: Really not a big deal. It's an hour five longer than the Minnesota game. If I tell our guys to tell our guys to think we're on central time, it's really five minutes later.
It's not that big a deal. Really isn't. We played in the Orange Bowl in '09, late kickoff, Penn State in '09. It's just about having a mental plan and sticking to that plan. Biggest thing is don't play the game during the day, which anytime you play a night game, there might be that urge to do that. You got to have a plan, a mental plan, and stick to it.

Q. We haven't talked to you since Tuesday. Your game manager got second team quarterback. Also curious how big of a factor will he need to play in this game?
COACH FERENTZ: Well, really has the two best quarterbacks in the conference according to the voting, and I wouldn't disagree. Two best conference quarterbacks playing in the game. It's really more than that. You have two really good teams. Typically on really good teams, you have good quarterbacks. I think that's the case with both of us.
They may feature their guy a little bit more, but I think is a team effort on their part. They run the ball well, throw the ball well. They have a strong offensive line. We hope we can do the same. Both are playing formidable defenses. It really gets back to the teams.
Really happy for C.J. certainly and have great respect for Connor Cook, he's a tremendous football player.

Q. Kirk, going back to this being Michigan State's third time here in five years. From afar, what has been your view of the Spartans' program the last five years?
COACH FERENTZ: I've watched the four games on the couch in front of the fireplace. Fun to watch. But it's more fun to be here, I can promise you that.
We competed against them as recently as 2013. A little bit of a hiatus the last two years. We see each other on film. I don't know what goes on around the country, but we know each other in the conference. Mark has just done a wonderful job. He's built a tremendous football program. I read I think the only coach in history to win 11 games, five out of six. Whatever it is, it's impressive. They've got good players. They're well‑coached. They show up and compete.

Q. You said something a couple minutes ago about off the field, making good citizens. Talk a little bit about the focus and commitment of this team. There's been no off‑the‑field drama this year. What kind of focus and commitment does that take from the coaching staff and the players?
COACH FERENTZ: Again, I talked about details being so important and little things making a big difference.
We're hardly unique, okay? Every coach does this, I'm sure. But we just try to educate our guys. If we're wasting time on little things that don't have anything to do with our football program or their education, certainly if it's affecting our citizenship, that's not a good thing.
Anything that's going to take us away from being successful, being productive and do something good, it's really a selfish act. I don't think there's any secret other than what I said earlier. I think our leadership has been really strong. It really emerged July and August on is when our team developed a personality. I think as we move forward, I think our team has really developed an understanding of how important those little details are and hopefully they'll carry that through them through their entire lives.

Q. I believe you mentioned earlier this week a practice game when you faced Pat Narduzzi and Pitt. Can you talk about that comparison and how helpful that is having faced a defense like MSU.
COACH FERENTZ: Not the right term. Probably better thing would be when I was in the NFL. When you play divisional teams. I have to tell you, when I got to the NFL, it was weird to play the same team twice, sometimes we played the Steelers three times, in the playoffs back in '94. It's a little bit interesting. Certainly we played Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, their defense, came right back. We didn't play Michigan State the last two years, but, boy, it was right there in front of us defensively. Some offensively, but not quite as much.
It was interesting that way. But, yeah, brought back to us just how challenging that scheme is. Schemes are important. What's more important are the players and how they execute the scheme. I think that's the real secret of Michigan State' success over the years.

Q. I know you said over the years that the recruiting stars aren't a thing for your staff, it's never been. How do you keep resolve there? The whole world was trying to tell you recruiting class was substandard but you guys don't budge.
COACH FERENTZ: It's like how did we get LeSean Daniels. Ohio State didn't offer. That was easy. We didn't have a choice.
It's funny, coincidental, I was thinking about this today coming over. Michigan State was my team coincidentally to scout back in the day before the Internet. We used to get newspapers delivered to the office. I'm going back to the '80s now. They were a team I drew. I was a fan of Coach Perles because of the Pittsburgh connection, certainly, and I'll never forget reading, I don't know if it's true, it was in the paper, so it has to be true, back after their championship year, I believe it was '87, if I remember correctly, 17 of their players weren't offered by a major conference. In other words, they were MAC‑type players or elsewhere.
Really impacted me because that was a great football team. We found out firsthand. They beat us in Kinnick that year, won the Rose Bowl, beat USC. They did it with a bunch of guys that weren't marquee players. If you look at Iowa in the '80s, it was much the same. If you look at Iowa back in the '80s, Dan Gable never worried about that. I remember reading about his philosophy, talking to him about that. Tom Brands is the same way. They're not caught up in that. They caught up more in what a player is going to be in college.
Part of it is circumstance. We can't always get in with all the four and five star recruits, we don't get a lot of first‑round draft picks at our place. That's kind of the reality. We have to do a better job of identifying the guys that aren't the obvious players. Tricky to do. Your batting percentage might not be that high. Common sense would tell you that. They just have the right individuals.
I just mentioned two guys, Dallas Clark and Bob Sanders, Dallas was a walk‑on playing linebacker when we got back there in '99. 5'8" at the time. 5'8" when he showed up at our place. 5'8" when he played for the Indianapolis Colts. If you get hung up on that stuff, you might miss out on some good stories.

Q. You're not in the habit of hiring coordinators very often. How did you decide that Greg was the guy to run your offense? How that he's been there for a cycle or so, what have you learned about how he does his business?
COACH FERENTZ: It's really interesting. 13 straight years with Norm Parker and Ken O'Keefe. Two outstanding coaches and men in our program. Now both Greg and Phil have done a fantastic job the last four years.
But Ken O'Keefe and Joe Philbin both recommended Greg very highly. They got to know him through the years. Joe worked with him at Tulane back in the '80s. Interesting enough, you have these Kodak moments you remember. I was doing a clinic out in New Jersey. I remember being in the Philly airport coming back from the clinic. I called Jim Caldwell to ask him if he knew of any young guys coming up in the NFL, maybe the next Bill O'Brien quite frankly is what I was trying to find. He mentioned a couple guys in the NFL, but he also said would you consider Greg Davis. I was really taken aback. Jim is an Iowa guy, Iowa grad, just a tremendous human being.
He explained to me their relationship. He had been down there clinicing the Texas staff several times. He described him as a tremendous teacher, very knowledgeable. That's what Greg is. When we brought Greg in for the interview, he met with our staff, it was really kind of a done deal. I'm not saying he's Norm Parker. Norm's Hazel Park, Michigan all the way. Greg is Texas all the way. Different in personalities, but I'll tell you, they are encyclopedias of football, and most importantly they're really good people.
We are really fortunate to have Greg on the staff. He's been outstanding.

Q. Coach Dantonio said he would check in with Pat Narduzzi to see how his game went with you in September. You have a former player on the Oregon staff that played against Michigan. You had a relationship with them dating back, I think Brian went to Oregon to check on practice habits, what have you. Did you go to Oregon, call Oregon, check in to see to get something on Michigan State this week?
COACH FERENTZ: Somebody on our staff may have. If they did, it didn't come up in a staff meeting. They may have. Guys communicate all the time. I'm thinking maybe I should have called Pat. He probably wouldn't have told me anything. I don't know. Missed an opportunity. Done a wonderful job at Pittsburgh, too, as you've seen.

Q. When you think about the history of Iowa football, this being the first time to be 12‑0. Do you ever have a pinch‑me moment?
COACH FERENTZ: Yeah, you know, I said it last Friday. I was actually a little speechless. I told the team, I don't know what to say in front of them after the Nebraska victory because I hadn't been there. Really it was another good win for us. It's just one of those years where each and every week the guys found a way to get it done, whether it was offense, defense, special teams. To me that's the beauty of football, truly is teamwork when it comes to that.
Yeah, no, I haven't. Mark is in the same boat right now. They've had a great year. You really don't have time to catch your breath, 'admire your work'. If you do, you're losing valuable time.
Both of us have equal time to get ready for this ballgame. That's kind of where our thoughts are. Kind of getting caught up in all the national talk. You start worrying about that stuff, start looking at maybe what you've accomplished, you're probably not going to do as well as you need to on the field.
We'll have time for that maybe in January, February, to sit back and think about it a little bit.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, thank you very much.

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