Rose Bowl revival: Expert says Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is heading toward his best recruiting class in 6 years
Californians want to be wowed; New Yorkers need to be impressed. Iowans? Iowans demand trust.
Especially when it comes to the things they care about most: Family. Faith. Tax dollars. The Hawkeyes. Not necessarily in that order.
Welcome to 2016, The Year Kirk Ferentz Got His Groove Back.
“I think the trust level has restabilized,” Brandon Huffman, national director for recruiting with Scout, told Landof10.com. “I think the in-state kids are looking at Iowa like they always have, (but) they’re having to deal with a really aggressive approach by (new coach) Matt Campbell at Iowa State.
“I think you have the fact, 18 years later, he’s still playing in Rose Bowls. It shows that it hasn’t passed him by, even though there might have been echoes and whispers that it might have.”
The truth is in the numbers — and unlike a year ago at this time, the numbers are off the charts. Iowa’s 2017 recruiting class ranks 22nd overall by 247sports as of Wednesday afternoon, which shows the delayed positives from last fall’s run to the Rose Bowl.
If that sounds like a healthy jump, that’s because it is: Ferentz’s 2016 class ranked 49th; 2015, 60th; 2014, 59th; 2013, 58th. If that ’17 class stays in the top 30, it would be the highest rank by a Ferentz class since 2011. With Iowa’s win in the 2010 Orange Bowl still fresh in the public mind, the Hawkeyes ranked 27th that winter.
The year before that, Iowa was 39th; in 2009, 67th. Coming off three straight double-digit victory seasons from 2002-04, Iowa’s 2005 class ranked was ranked seventh nationally by 247sports.
“If you get down to it, if you look at every high school recruit at (that) typical age,” Huffman said of Ferentz, the longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten (18 years), “he’s been the coach at Iowa not just their entire football career, but their entire life.”
And life is good, at least on the goodwill front. A staffer at the Iowa ticket office said Wednesday that season ticket renewals were at 95 percent for the fall of 2016.
That’s a far cry from a year ago, and even farther from 20 months out. On Thanksgiving weekend 2014, Iowa had blown a 17-point lead at home at the end of the 2014 season to new-money rival Nebraska, a 37-34 setback at Kinnick Stadium that capped a see-saw 7-5 campaign — the program’s fifth straight season with at least five defeats.
And it got worse in a hurry. When Ferentz was questioned about the proceedings afterward, he was quoted as saying “that’s football” on at least three occasions. “That’s football” went from an off-hand cliche to a P.R. albatross, two words that left emotional Iowa fans enraged, two words that still bring cartoon smoke out of thousands of ears, especially given Ferentz’s guaranteed take of $4.025 million that year.
The Hawkeyes had managed to drop every “trophy” game in 2014 — to Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Cornhuskers — and suffered their worst defeat to the Gophers in the Twin Cities since 1998, while surrendering the most points (51) in the series since 1949. An absolute thrashing by Tennessee in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl was the final nail in a season of coffins.
From 2013 through ’14, Kinnick Stadium was only sold out once — for Iowa State in September 2014, a stunning 20-17 defeat. Iowa reportedly suffered a 17 percent decrease in season-ticket sales from 2014 to ’15.
Another day, another dumpster fire. In April 2015, North-Carolina based Public Policy Polling surveyed 1,219 Iowans on everything from politics to sports. Ferentz’s “approval” rating among respondents checked in at 46 percent, which was higher than Gov. Terry Branstad (44 percent) and Sen. Joni Ernst (40 percent), but far lower than then-Iowa State men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg and, um, corn (both at 74 percent).
“There’s no question, I think, honestly, last year, (Ferentz) going to the Rose Bowl was probably the best thing that could have happened to his longevity at Iowa,” Huffman said. “Barring them going 0-12 this year, he’s bought himself a few more years of goodwill and (a feeling of) ‘OK, recruiting is on the uptick again.’ ”
Some Rose Bowl rewards are glorious and instant; others, gradual and sustaining. The top two Iowa prospects for the class of 2016 as rated by 247sports, linemen John Raridon and Jake Heinrich, elected to cast their lots with Nebraska and Arkansas, respectively. In 2014, the state’s top two finds, lineman Ross Pierschbacher and wideout Allen Lazard, committed to Alabama and Iowa State.
Of 247 sports’ top eight in-state prospects for ’17, though, the Hawkeyes have received commitments from three — linemen Mark Kallenberger and Tristan Wirfs and end Levi Duwa — while remaining among the top five options for wide receiver Oliver Martin and defensive end Andrew Van Ginkel.
“You always see the bump in a season in the next class,” Huffman said. “So when you’re losing guys like Raridon out of state and losing Heinrich out of state, that’s a byproduct of a down year (the year before).
“But now that they won last year, they were able to stem that (negative) momentum. So they had a good year, I think, with the 2016 class.”
Public Polling ran another set of numbers in December, two weeks before Christmas, this time surveying 1,264 Iowans. Ferentz’s approval number, after a 12-0 start, after a division title, rocketed to 78 percent — twice the love of Hilary Clinton (38 percent), Donald Trump (35 percent), Ted Cruz (36 percent) Bernie Sanders (39 percent) and almost twice the approval for the Affordable Care Act (42 percent).
So winning heals a lot of wounds, in a lot of corners. The trust is coming back. Bit by bit, the kids are, too.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler