IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz’s football program is caught in the recruiting crosshairs between business as usual and prospects taking control of their future.
If it wasn’t so personal to those involved and so vital to the program, it would be fascinating. Instead, it’s the worst possible situation for Iowa approaching the regular-season finale and the next 10 weeks of hard-core recruitment.
In a four-week span, four players from Texas have decommitted from Iowa. Two were high-profile, Rivals’ 4-star recruits in running back Eno Benjamin and cornerback Chevin Calloway. While committed to Iowa, Benjamin took official visits to Missouri and Arizona State, a no-no for the Iowa coaching staff. The situation became untenable, and Benjamin dropped the Hawkeyes on Oct. 23.
I am officially opening up my recruitment!
Thank you & God Bless?? pic.twitter.com/Q3qILK12ni
— EB5™ (@eno_benjamin5) October 23, 2016
Calloway, who picked the Hawkeyes over Alabama and Ohio State among many others this summer, publicly chided the Iowa coaching staff for not staying in touch enough before officially decommitting shortly after Benjamin. Four days ago, 2-star wide receiver Beau Corrales chose to look around after committing to Iowa this fall. Tuesday, 3-star wide receiver Gavin Holmes dropped his own bomb by decommitting on Twitter and calling out the Iowa program in the process.
God has a plan. . .
I have decided to officially open up my recruitment! Thank you to those who understand. pic.twitter.com/M7qiuWfuWB
— G3 ® (@Gavin_Holmes23) November 22, 2016
It’s a stunning development. With a 12-win season and a fully operational $55 million performance center, Iowa football accumulated its best recruiting class since 2005. The momentum was obvious, especially in Texas. Three months later, departures are coming at a staggering pace.
The root of the issue is Iowa’s policy against allowing commits to visit other campuses. Ferentz encourages athletes to take visits, find the best fit and, when the player is ready to make a commitment, leave the recruiting world behind him.
In the wake of Holmes’ decommitment, I asked Ferentz on Tuesday about his philosophy dealing with recruits.
“If you’re not sure, look around,” Ferentz said. “Because we try to be straight up front about who we are and what we are, and how we do things. One thing, you can’t promise too much, other than opportunity.
“It’s my 18th year here, so I promise you, I’m not searching for my identity anymore. I’ve been through that. I know who we are and who we want to be. We’ll tweak things here and adjust to the times. We have a good feel about what we’re trying to do. We’ll try to keep identifying guys that are going to come in here and thrive.”
That’s a straight-up answer from an honorable man. But right or wrong, it doesn’t jibe with the Twitter generation. Unlike seven or eight years ago, the majority of players now commit before their senior high school season. For most talented athletes, a commitment should come with a tag that reads “unless something better comes along.” Better, of course, is ambiguous.
Schools can do the same thing, and Iowa is not blameless, either. Many of Iowa’s best recruits are those already committed to Mid-American Conference schools. Among this year’s impact players, Desmond King was a Ball State commit, LeShun Daniels was committed to Boston College and Akrum Wadley was pledged to Temple. Imagine Iowa without those three players?
So it makes for an interesting discussion. Why can college coaches attempt to pry away commits but players can’t make visits without getting scholarship offers yanked? It gives the program an insecure impression if committed players aren’t allowed to make visits and comparisons. Maybe allowing a prospect to take an official visit either reaffirms the player’s decision or convinces them it’s not the right spot.
On the flip side, coaches have a finite amount of scholarships. If they lose a committed prospect on signing day (in Iowa’s case, running back Karan Higdon in 2015), often they’re left with a backup option that doesn’t fit (Eric Graham, who left after one year). They need some protection against the whims of teenagers, which sometimes change within an hour and certainly by the upcoming weekend. Coaching careers and programs’ futures depend on the infusion of talent.
“There’s no guarantees until signing day,” Ferentz said. “I think that’s something we all realize. So we play every case individually, and from my standpoint, looking at the big picture, we’re going to have ups and downs. We’ll have guys commit, decommit. We’ll have guys commit. And typically we have a pretty good feel of who is in what category. Every now and then you get a surprise. It’s just the way it goes.
“You’ve got to have good recruits to be successful. I get that. What’s really important is identifying and finding players that are going to fit here in our program and thrive in our environment. And it’s not for everybody.”
Ferentz is in a no-win situation. He can’t mention the player or the specifics of a case without committing an NCAA violation. He wants to allow recruits to keep their options open until they commit, when they are welcomed into the family. But that’s not the way the world works anymore. Recruiting is constant, swirling and vicious.
Even when he’s right — like Tuesday — he can’t win in the public eye. And in the recruiting world. that makes him all wrong.