IOWA CITY, Iowa — When a football recruiting cycle comes and goes, there’s a natural curiosity among fans to discuss the players their team couldn’t snag.
Near-misses happen in all walks of life — take fishing or dating, for example — and recruiting whiffs at schools such as Iowa happen all too frequently. In the 2003 recruiting class, Philadelphia native Matt Ryan chose between the Hawkeyes and Boston College. Proximity to home guided the Atlanta Falcons quarterback to pick the Eagles.
A few years later, Iowa nearly landed linebacker Sean Lee, who came from coach Kirk Ferentz’s alma mater, Upper St. Clair (Pa.) High School, in the Pittsburgh area. But Lee opted for in-state Penn State, a move that has soured Ferentz on recruiting in his hometown to this day.
Then within the Iowa borders in 2010, the Hawkeyes missed on Clinton running back David Johnson and offered him a grayshirt opportunity rather than a full scholarship. Johnson chose FCS power Northern Iowa, and he later ripped apart Iowa’s defense for 237 total yards in a 2014 game. Johnson now is one of the NFL’s top running backs with the Arizona Cardinals.
But recruiting misses have happened for generations. And at every school. Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry missed on a quarterback late in his tenure who could have extended the Hall of Fame coach’s tenure and perhaps cost Ferentz a shot with the Hawkeyes.
“I’ll tell you a funny one. I remember telling Joe Moore we never played against [Purdue’s] Drew Brees but I saw him on film,” Ferentz said in an interview with Land of 10 last year. “I said, ‘Boy, as I understand it, Brees visited here. It would be nice if he was here.’ [Moore] just started laughing. ‘You just be glad he’s not.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Do you think Coach Fry would have retired if Brees was playing?’ I said, ‘Good point. You’re right. I wouldn’t be here.’”
As a young assistant under Fry in the 1980s, Ferentz remembers feeling emotionally crushed when recruits would pick another school. Now he shakes if off, but Johnson is one who stands out.
“Yeah, I don’t cry over spilled milk too much but at the same time I read about comments they make about [Johnson],” Ferentz said. “[Former Colts offensive coordinator] Tom Moore compared him to Franco Harris. That would have been nice. Probably where it’s most evident was when he torched us out here on the field. That was the day it was most evident.”
Ryan told national broadcaster Dan Patrick late in the 2016 season how much he liked Iowa and Ferentz before choosing Boston College. Ferentz had the same feelings for Ryan and his family.
“It turns out one of my really good friends was on the Atlanta staff for five years and [Ryan] told him the same thing, about how much he liked it here,” Ferentz said. “But I wish I had a dollar for every one of those we had. The distance there [from Philadelphia meant it] was B.C. It’s a tough sell sometimes.”
But as recruiting goes, sometimes teams make up for the recruiting losses. Instead of landing Ryan, Iowa signed Drew Tate, who led the Hawkeyes to the 2004 co-Big Ten championship and the most improbable bowl victory in school history. Additionally, Iowa has developed plenty of 2-star candidates into some of the Big Ten’s top players and future NFL starters.
“That shows you how tricky recruiting is,” Ferentz said. “The converse of that is, how come nobody recruited Josey Jewell? We almost didn’t. How come nobody recruited Mike Daniels? You can go right down the list of those guys that we hit on. But it would nice if we could hit them all, and get them all right.”
In the 2018 recruiting class, Iowa filled plenty of needs. The Hawkeyes signed six defensive backs, four athletes who can play wide receiver, four defensive linemen plus many others. As for the ones who got away, don’t expect Ferentz or recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell to dwell on the players who picked other universities. They’re more concerned about the ones they did sign.
“It’s just like my wife when she goes to garage sales,” Bell said. “Don’t ever talk about … I wish I would have started early because I could have got that. Don’t worry about the stuff you didn’t get. That’s how I operate. There’s nothing, when I’m looking back on this class, I really wish we could have got … I don’t even think that way. It doesn’t even enter my mind.
“I’m more focused on what we did get and developing it, and then the things you didn’t get, you address it in next year’s class. If you didn’t get it, it wasn’t there for you. It was a reach to try and make it fit because that’s just a really bad situation when you reach and try to make something fit.”