By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
FOXBORO (CBS) — Theirs, as James Ferentz understands all too well, is a family business that generally offers little job security.
It’s why he’s so appreciative of the exception that’s existed for 18 seasons — soon to be 19 — in his hometown of Iowa City, where his father Kirk Ferentz has overseen the University of Iowa’s football program since 1999. Once an understudy and later a successor to Hayden Fry, the elder Ferentz is the longest-tenured head coach in the nation.
“It’s been a unique situation there,” says James, who, like older brother Brian and younger brother Steve, played for his dad on the Hawkeyes’ offensive line. “You look at the state of college football, with coaches bouncing around, and the expectations. I think that’s what makes Iowa really special.”
Coaching at the major college level can be a profession full of empty promises of future employment. Almost always, almost anywhere in the power conferences, disgruntled boosters are willing to cut the check(s) to scrap a five-year plan by its third season. In Iowa City, though, Kirk Ferentz’s loyalty and longevity were rewarded with a deal paying him through 2026.
Meanwhile, James Ferentz resides for the moment in Foxboro, among the many NFL aspirants on what amounts to day-to-day arrangements. For the most part, they’ll be the ones we see in tonight’s exhibition finale between the Patriots and Giants. They’ll take the field to the possibility of making a roster or, at least, practice squad. All but a few will leave to a different reality.
This too, Ferentz knows well.
He left Iowa in 2013, as an undrafted center accorded mini-camp auditions in Chicago and Miami. Ferentz remained unsigned until the ensuing spring. He joined Houston and eventually earned a spot on the practice squad for all of 2014. But the following September, Ferentz was among the Texans’ final preseason cuts.
Fortunately, he’d shown enough promise to warrant a waiver claim by Denver, which needed a backup to Matt Paradis. Ferentz proceeded to play in 21 games for the Broncos, including a single snap in their 2015 AFC Championship win over the Patriots. He was also in uniform for Denver’s Super Bowl 50 rout of the Panthers.
But last May, the Broncos let Ferentz go. About a week later, the Patriots dialed him. Although they had just given incumbent center David Andrews a new contract and returned 2016 draft choice Ted Karras as an interior reserve, Ferentz reported to Foxboro.
“They were the only ones that called and when you’re on the street and looking for a job, you’re grateful for the opportunity to come out here and compete,” he said before last Friday’s visit to Detroit.
Ferentz played 29 offensive snaps — exactly as many as Jimmy Garoppolo — plus a handful on special teams against the Lions. He was solid, in particular, on the Patriots’ final two drives, featuring a dose of inside runs by D.J. Foster and leading to a pair of field goals for a 30-28 win.
“We’ve been getting plenty of reps, plenty of chances to get out there to compete,” says Ferentz, who’s logged roughly 140 total plays in three games this preseason. “That’s the biggest thing this time of year, if you can just get on the field. I’ve had opportunities with the second and third group to get out there and try to show what I’m capable of.”
Often those reps have placed Ferentz alongside rookie Cole Croston, a fellow Hawkeye who likewise went undrafted only to wind up in New England.
More than three decades ago, Croston’s father, Dave, was recruited to Iowa by a young offensive line coach named Kirk Ferentz. Under Ferentz’s tutelage, Dave Croston developed as an All-America tackle into a third-round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers in 1987.
Croston was one of 11 future NFL linemen that Ferentz mentored at Iowa before leaving for Orono, Maine, to become head coach of the Black Bears. The move marked a return to New England, where Ferentz had played collegiately (UConn) and coached in the high school ranks (Worcester Academy). After three seasons and a dozen wins, Ferentz joined Bill Belichick’s Cleveland staff as offensive line coach.
When the Browns departed for Baltimore after the fall of 1995, Ferentz went with them, separating from Belichick professionally while remaining close personally. Thirteen years later, Belichick hired Ferentz’s oldest son Brian to be a scouting assistant for the Patriots.
Brian soon shifted from scout to coach, spending the last half of his four-season stint in Foxboro working with tight ends. At the age of 27 in 2010, Brian’s position group featured Alge Crumpler — who was six years older — and the rookie duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — who were only six years younger.
Following Super Bowl XLVI, Brian went home and — just as his dad once did — became Iowa’s offensive line coach. In a new job working for his old man, he found himself coaching his kid brother, who once considered himself more of a Division II wrestling prospect than future Big Ten center, and a 225-pound freshman walk-on trying to follow in his own father’s footsteps.
“We’ve come full circle,” says Cole Croston, well after he grew into a tackle’s body to wear Dave’s No. 64 for the Hawkeyes and a few days before trying to impress upon the Pats that he can also play guard against the Giants. “I was thinking about it the other day.
“James is a good four-to-five years older than me. My first year was his last year (at Iowa), so I was on the team with him and got to see the way he did things at Iowa. He was a true leader and captain, a great guy to look up to. Then a couple of weeks ago, I’m lining up at guard and he’s at center. It’s a really cool experience. My first year at Iowa, I was like, ‘What if I got to play next to that guy?’ And here I am in New England and I’m playing next to that guy.”
As he spoke, Croston stood amid the field of folding chairs that cluttered an end of the Patriots’ locker room where newcomers double-up. Some six spots away, Ferentz sat before his crowded stall, minutes before Tuesday’s practice.
Although it’s unlikely that both will wind up side-by-side on the season-opening, 53-man roster, Croston and Ferentz are certainly candidates to stick around Gillette Stadium; perhaps as part of the practice squad.
In Ferentz, who has accrued two years of NFL service, the Pats know what they have. He’s tough, smart and reliable. Croston is a developmental type, seemingly capable of adding to the gains he made in college and becoming a utility lineman; as a swing tackle with inside versatility.
And like Ferentz, he gets the difference between Iowa City and Foxboro.
“It’s been a very humbling experience,” Croston admitted. “You come in here and you’re humbled by all these professional athletes, veterans who’ve done it day-in, day-out for years. I’m learning things from these guys. I’m picking up on what they do, daily habits, how to stay in the NFL. The more I can learn from these guys the better player it will make me.”
Croston says he can’t afford to be concerned about the cutdown to come, even as the days of 90 men to a side in August have dwindled to mere hours and minutes.
“You can’t think about a week down the road,” he said. “Just think about what you can control. And what you can control is just going out there and practicing to the best of your ability, going into meetings and being attentive and learning what the coaches are trying to tell you. If you’re able to put them out on the field, things should work out.
“I’m thinking about doing what I need to do on every specific play. From my perspective, everything will work out in the long run. I can’t be out there worried about tomorrow, what’s going to happen a week from now or where I’m going to be. Because then I’m not able to focus on doing my job out there.”
Ideally, Croston could stay right where he is, though preferably with a locker all to himself. Until last spring, he never experienced much time on the East Coast. Now as September nears, he’s come to appreciate New England summers.
“I do enjoy it out here,” Croston said, smiling. “It’s not as humid as Iowa, that’s for sure. I haven’t been here for a winter yet, but we’ll see what that’s like.”
First, of course, he has to make it to fall.
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.