Kirk Ferentz knew early in his career at Upper St. Clair High School near Pittsburgh that he wanted to be a football coach, and he felt one of the best coaches to try to emulate was Joe Paterno.
So you can imagine how strange it was for him to attend his first Big Ten meeting as the new head coach at Iowa in 1999 and actually sit in the same room as his idol.
“You were just being in the room sort of on the same level, but hardly on the same level in some ways if you know what I mean,” Ferentz said earlier this week. “I don’t know what his age was then but what struck me was his passion, his enthusiasm, his energy to what it was he was doing. It was really inspirational.”
Ferentz said the memories of Paterno at his first Big Ten meeting was what he recalled first on Sunday after he heard of the coach’s death from lung cancer at the age of 85.
When it came time for him to be on the sideline opposite Paterno for the first time later in 1999, Ferentz said, “You just tried to block that part of it out.
“I’m not sure I ever envisioned myself being a head coach in the Big Ten,” he said. “To find yourself in a league with coach Paterno, that was quite a thrill.”
Apparently, Paterno's presence inspired Ferentz. His Hawkeyes were 8-3 against the Nittany Lions.
Ferentz said after his family moved from Michigan to Pittsburgh when he was in the third grade, he became a devotee of the show “TV Quarterbacks,” which was carried on PBS stations throughout Pennsylvania and featured Paterno talking about Penn State football.
“I watched that show fairly religiously,” he said. “I really wanted to go there but the only problem was, he didn’t win 409 games by recruiting small, slow guys.”
Ferentz also has a family connection to Penn State. His father-in-law, Jerry Hart, knew Paterno from their days growing up in Brooklyn. Hart’s son, Kevin, who was Ferentz’s best friend in high school and now is his brother-in-law, played for Paterno in 1976.
Asked about how college football will be without Paterno coaching or observing the sport, Ferentz replied, “I would suggest it will be very different.
“The thing I thought about Sunday was, I had the good fortune of coaching in the same conference as him now for the past 13 years,” he said. “I think he’s one of the greatest coaches of all-time in all sports in college – for that matter, probably all sports, period. But certainly, the impact to collegiate athletics is immeasurable.”