IOWA CITY, Iowa — The stereotypes runneth over when Iowa football coaches hit the road recruiting players.
A gold TigerHawk on a black or white polo shirt stands out as a brand. It symbolizes a Big Ten school that prides itself on toughness, fundamentals and physicality. But the name “Iowa” often leads players to first think about cornfields rather than 70,000 fans at Kinnick Stadium.
Agriculture is the state’s backbone, and Iowa athletics embraces that legacy with its ANF helmet sticker — America Needs Farmers. It’s not a negative, but the projection often sends the wrong impression to players from other regions or urban areas about their potential college experience.
Recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell grew up in northern Mississippi and came to Iowa as a player in 2000. After an injury cut short his playing career, Bell earned a mathematics degree in 2005. He coached as an assistant at Iowa City Regina High School, then at multiple small colleges before returning to Iowa as a graduate assistant. He became a full-time Iowa assistant in 2016 and works with defensive ends along with his recruiting responsibilities.
Bell tries to encourage athletes from all over the country to attend Iowa. If they are from another region, Bell shares his personal experiences.
“I tell them my recruiting story,” Bell said. “I think that’s as big as anything that I can sell. I can go outside the region because I am not from here. I can tell them my thoughts before visiting Iowa, my thoughts while I was at Iowa, and then after I graduated, my reflection upon Iowa.
“I feel like I am in a really good position and a really good role to be able to go out there, outside the region, and be able to sell my experiences here. All of them: bad, good, indifferent. All of my experiences here. The most important thing that I tell them that’s unique is the guy that I am working for now, Phil Parker, is our defensive coordinator, I remember in December of 1999, Phil Parker walking into Olive Branch [Miss.] High School and put me against the wall to see how tall I was. Now I work here and I work for Phil Parker. You don’t have that story at any other college, I can guarantee you don’t have. The type of stability that we have and the type of longevity that we have is unprecedented.”
Among Iowa’s top goals for any recruit, but especially for one out of the region, is to encourage him to visit unofficially. That means the recruit is serious about Iowa. There’s no scholarship offer without an athlete stepping on campus. Then once the athlete and usually his parents get to Iowa City, that’s when the recruiting process gains traction.
Bell discovered wide receiver Brandon Smith when visiting his mother in Mississippi. Smith lived in Lake Cormorant, Miss., and had a dynamic career. Smith generated plenty of interest from regional SEC schools but lacked offers. Bell told Smith about Iowa, and the interest became mutual so the Smith family visited Iowa at a summer camp.
“Brandon had traveled to quite a few schools and had met quite a few coaches and the atmosphere there in Iowa it was totally different,” said Tyjauna Smith, Smith’s mother. “A lot of these places, we even visited Alabama, it was like business. It was like looking at my child like a steak, they were looking at him like a juicy steak. We go to Iowa, of course we knew there would be a business side, but the atmosphere there was so welcoming. It was more of an interest in us as a family. Like I told Brandon, they not only recruited him, they also recruited us as a family. I really appreciate that. I can truly say we were comfortable from the jump. We were comfortable there. No pressure at all. Nothing at all.
“We got there, we visited the campus. We went downtown, just that feel of here in a sense. Small area, not a lot of people, but nice people around. They were welcoming, even at the hotel. My husband talks about that now. It was just so familiar to him and to us. He had that feeling of home when we first made it there. We had that feeling of home.”
Geography always plays a role in recruiting, and educating players about the state is part of that process. Iowa safety Geno Stone lived in New Castle, Pa., and was committed to Kent State late in the 2017 recruiting period. Michigan State invited him to East Lansing for an official visit with an offer likely to follow. Just days before the visit, the Spartans pulled Stone’s visit when the staff secured other commitments.
By the time Iowa got involved with Stone, he was reluctant to see the Hawkeyes after what happened with Michigan State. He nearly said no to a potential visit with the Hawkeyes before his mother, Erin, put him in the car and drove to Iowa City in a snowstorm from western Pennsylvania.
“To be honest I didn’t know anything about Iowa,” Stone said. “I didn’t know where it was. When you hear Iowa, you think it’s far away. In my mind, I didn’t want another Big Ten school to do that to me, and I was actually scared to go to see how it would be. I kept telling my mom and my coaches that I didn’t want to go visit. I wouldn’t like it.
“But as soon as I got up there, I loved it actually. It blew me away when I first saw the campus and stuff. It reminded me of Penn State, because that was my dream school that I wanted to go to. It was just a surreal moment to be there. It was a great opportunity.
“Once you get in Iowa City, it’s a beautiful place. But around it there were farms and stuff, cornfields. But I’ve got stuff around my house, too. But it’s more flat. I have hills around me. Once you get to Iowa City, it’s a great town. A lot of great people actually. The coaching staff and the players, they were a big part of it. But people all around you, they’re great people. They treat you like they knew you already. It was a great opportunity to go there and a great thing to see.”
That’s part of the staff’s goal, just getting players to see the campus for itself.
“It’s one of those things where I tell kids anything that anyone has told you about Iowa, if it’s been negative, I can guarantee you they have never visited,” Bell said. “Is it cold? Yes. It’s the Midwest. It’s cold in Chicago. That’s what you get. Until you take a visit, how can you really know? That’s the challenge in recruiting, to get these kids here.”
Educating urban-area athletes
Selling Iowa to urban athletes has its challenges, even to those in the Midwest. Often the conversation revolves around previous players’ success for that area. That’s been in the case in St. Louis with Christian Kirksey, Marvin McNutt and Adrian Clayborn or in Detroit with Desmond King.
Special teams coach LeVar Woods, who recruits St. Louis, Kansas City, the Dallas Metroplex and northwest Iowa, said the cornfield stereotype has faded over time.
“I don’t know that people say that’s necessarily a real rural area anymore,” Woods said. “Once people get here, like from Texas, once people get here, they love this place. They come in here, they meet, they see what it’s like and realize it could be a home for them. In Texas there are guys like Josh Jackson, guys of recent that have played here and been successful.”
Chicagoland is the ultimate battleground for Iowa and other Big Ten powers. The suburban outskirts are local about 3 hours east of Iowa City and the rest depends on traffic. That doesn’t mean Iowa is automatically viewed as an extension, however.
Linebacker Amani Jones played at Phillips Academy, which became the first Chicago Public League school to win an Illinois state title. He needed to research everything about Iowa during the recruiting process.
“To be honest, I haven’t even heard of Iowa really,” Jones said. “I kid you not. I haven’t heard of Iowa. When [offensive coordinator] Brian Ferentz came up to my auditorium it was like, ‘I like you, we want to recruit you.’ I was like, ‘Oh.’ Then I took a little more interest in it, and started gaining ground and getting more information, start asking to my coaches like, ‘Where’s Iowa? How far is it? How they do in the season?'”
The more Jones looked into Iowa, the more interested he became.
“I just did my research because, I don’t want to be that guy like, ‘There’s nothing out there,'” he said. “I really wanted to come see it and just like, how is it? I know it’s cornfields out here, but you’ve got to come see it for yourself. You really can’t trust nobody’s word until you see it yourself.”
On Iowa’s current spring roster, 49 players hail from within the state. Of the 23 incoming scholarship freshmen, just five are from the state. Once they arrive on campus, any kind stereotype evaporates. But the challenge for the coaches is to prove that in the recruiting process.
“One thing I tell people is if you play football here at the University of Iowa — at all — if you wear the jersey, the fans already have a respect for you,” Woods said. “If you come in and you play well, then fans will love you. If you come in from out of state, if you come from Texas and you make the commitment to come to Iowa, I feel like our fans are better than any fans in the country because they understand that you’re really coming. You’re passing up all the schools in Dallas. You’re passing up all the schools in the SEC to come here.
“Once our fans become fans of the players, they’re fans for life.”