When Hayden Fry took over as head coach of the University of Iowa football team in the '70s, he had a plan for turning the previously unsuccessful program around to be a contender in the Big Ten. Not only did Fry completely change the image of the Hawkeyes to be a proud, tough, hard-working unit, but he also knew how to handle Iowa not getting the biggest, most talented recruits.
Other schools had a much richer legacy, making them more attractive to the nation’s star talent. So he developed a system for taking local guys with certain characteristics and fundamentals that fit a simple run-game based, play-action playbook and worked them out hard to build better players. He had to grow them into successful players, since he couldn’t get pre-built guys off the street.
Coach Kirk Ferentz followed and perfected this philosophy, hiring one of the best athletic trainers in the country (Chris Doyle) and maintaining an overall successful and respected program. But even in Ferentz’s early tenure, he was not able to get the 4-star and 5-star recruits programs like Ohio State and Michigan acquired.
Recently, this trend is gradually changing. Iowa is beginning to get a few 4-star recruits (Rivals), such as Austin Blythe (OL), Ray Hamilton (TE), Jordan Walsh (OL) and Jaleel Johnson (DT). Why? Iowa still hasn’t won a national title in the modern era and hasn’t won a Big Ten title in a long time.
Here are some theories as to why Iowa is gaining ground on the recruiting trail.
Pat Angerer(LB), second-round draftee had successful NFL rookie season
Year after year, even when Iowa’s record is not stellar (as in 2010 when it went 8-5), Iowa regularly sends five or more players to the NFL. This accounted for roughly 25 percent of the senior class last year, and a higher percentage in years with fewer seniors.
HawkeyeNation reported currently a total of 12 Iowa defensive linemen in the NFL. Those are pretty good odds for players working to get to the next level. Many of those players were not ranked higher than 2-star recruits when they left high school. They were MADE into NFL players.
With those odds, quality players would be foolish not to at least look at Iowa as a possible place to play in college.
Iowa vs. Missouri in 2011 Insight Bowl
The philosophy at Iowa has been to develop a limited number of plays so players can avoid confusion and commit the playbook to “muscle-memory” more easily. The plays Iowa executes are consistent with those implemented in the NFL. The fundamentals needed for Iowa’s plays allow guys to develop core skills required at the next level. Quarterbacks learn the play action and how to maneuver in the pocket under center. Many schools have gone to more of a spread offense, which is cited again and again as a concern when trying out for the NFL.
Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
Kirk Ferentz is a highly respected coach among NCAA and NFL coaches alike. He’s won Big Ten Coach of the Year three times in his 12 years at Iowa. He recently signed to extend his contract as head coach until 2015. While it’s not binding, he has stated on several occasions the desire to stay with Iowa until he retires.
The burning question remaining is: When will that be? He’s almost 56, so 2015 might be a likely time frame. But if he’s healthy and still enjoys his job, he could opt to stay a few more years. Players doing the math know if they want to play for Ferentz, this is probably the time to join the Iowa program.
Marcus Coker has evangelized to former DeMatha teammates
Many of the recruits recently joining the Hawkeyes have done so due to teammates singing the praises of the Iowa program, convincing them to join. This is particularly seen in newer recruiting regions, such as DeMatha in Maryland, quite different from Iowa geographically, where little is known about Iowa.
Listening to trusted classmates can overcome doubts and fears of the unknown and moving so far away from home. Now recruiting from places like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even a kicker from down-under, more and more recruiting opportunities are opening up for Iowa.
Since many games are nationally televised, there are more chances to see the Hawkeyes in action. These factors invite good players across the nation to take a closer look at those guys with the black and gold “Steelers” uniforms.
Coach Kirk Ferentz maintains a loyal coaching staff
Next to Penn State, Iowa has the longest tenure of coaching staff in the Big Ten.
Despite Iowa having its share of turmoil in the 2010 season, losing players for “personal reasons," academic probation and arrests, Ferentz and his coaching staff remain above reproach themselves and quickly pluck the bad apples from the bunch to not spoil the entire program.
When other schools are plagued by scandals or concerns with staff turnovers, Iowa may gain some recruits who might have overlooked Iowa in less trying times. The “Rhabdo” incident last year has not seemed to have a big effect on recruiting for 2012, most people believing it was a freak incident. They believe the staff is committed to watch this more closely so it never happens again.
Iowa LB James Morris vs. Michigan State in 2010
The future of the Hawkeyes for the next several years appears to be rather bright. Better players are looking at and committing to Iowa every year. Hopefully these guys will be inspired to help their coach win another title, even a championship, before he retires. Whether they are home-grown, molded winners or star recruits out of the gate, Iowa’s system continues to evolve and grow to yearly produce NFL-caliber players. Players and fans alike can be happy that the Iowa football program continues earning respect with each new generation of Hawkeyes.