There are few things that Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz hasn’t done in his career.
The country’s longest-tenured Division I college football coach – along with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops – Ferentz has established himself as one of the most-respected leaders in college football. He’s a four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and won four separate Coach of the Year awards in 2015 alone after a 12-2 record and a national Top 10 finish.
One thing that Ferentz hasn’t really done before? Establish himself – or Iowa – as a consistent winner in the national recruiting race. It’s not that Iowa has ever fared poorly, but the reality is that since 2000 they’ve had one Top 10 national finish (2005, No. 7). The Hawkeyes’ winning ways on the field is a testament to Ferentz and his coaching staff, not necessarily their flair as recruiters.
Thanks to an infusion of young, charismatic, coaches and an influx of money spent on their Iowa City facilities, that may be changing. Those are certainly key elements in Iowa’s recent run of success in Texas: the Hawkeyes have 15 commitments in 2017 and a full one-third of them hail from the Lone Star State.
“Winning always helps the following class and you’re seeing that now,” Young told Landof10. “Winning isn’t everything in recruiting, but it’s probably a bit more meaningful when you’re Iowa and have to try to get kids from farther distances to want to visit.”
As Young said, winning isn’t everything, but it sure does open some doors in places that they may have otherwise been closed. The key when you’ve got that opening is to take advantage of it, and the Hawkeyes – thanks to a blend of new energy and long-term relationships on their coaching staff – are doing just that.
“LeVar Woods has gone down there and done some recruiting, starting a couple years ago,” Young said of the former Hawkeyes linebacker who played seven seasons in the NFL. “It takes a couple of years for it to fester, but he’s one of the best young recruiters in America. Plus, having Greg Davis and Bobby Kennedy on staff helps. They coached at Texas under Mack Brown and know the landscape and the high school coaches. They have their trust.”
It’s that trust and connections that have really helped seal the deal on a number of the top players in Texas. The recent addition of Chevin Calloway, the state’s top-ranked cornerback, helps back that up. Trust is built upon reliability and consistency, and that’s something the Hawkeyes have had in bunches since Ferentz took the reins in 1999.
“I loved (Iowa) from the start,” Calloway said on Twitter. “It’s great academically and (in) preparing players for the NFL and life after football, having an over 81-percent graduation rate. There’s great coaching stability.”
Stability and consistency. Again, those are the things that catch a recruit’s eye, that’s what makes them think “I could play for these guys,” but that’s not always enough. You have to know the school you’re choosing is committed to making you the best you can be and Iowa’s recent facilities’ revamp shows how dedicated the entire school is to the football program.
“The facilities are state of the art now, and was far from it before,” Young, who used to cover Ohio State football recruiting, said. “There were areas and spots that (the coaching staff) made sure recruits didn’t see in the past. Not anymore. They may have the best around and can’t show them off enough. They gave us a tour of the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Complex, and they are incredible. The latest ones always are, but it’s now a touch ahead of what I remember at OSU even. Their weight room is so big and spacious that you can drive multiple 18-wheelers through it.”
That’s quite a change from the famed pink locker rooms under Kinnick Stadium, but the Hawkeyes decision-makers knew exactly what they were looking for.
“The staff and the architects visited 4 NFL sites, Nebraska, Oregon, Oklahoma and a few more schools,” Young said of the new facilities. “They got a good idea of what they wanted and needed.”
Knowing your coaches are going to be there when you graduate, that’s a good thing. Knowing the school is pouring money into your program and its facilities? That’s a good thing, too. But the reality is that to find program success you need recruiting success and sometimes that comes from just one final thing. Sometimes you just need one guy to believe in what you’re building. A pied piper, so to speak.
That’s what the Hawkeyes found in 4-star running back Eno Benjamin from Wylie East High School on the outside of Dallas. The country’s 10th-ranked tailback committed to Iowa in April and since then he’s been recruiting his tail off in Texas, getting guys to come to Iowa City with him.
“Having a catalyst like Eno Benjamin, who is a contagious personality, certainly plays a role,” Young concluded. “He opens up the door and then the coaches are closing on the visits.”
It’s paying off for Benjamin, who picked the Hawkeyes out of 27 offers that included opportunities from Michigan, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Missouri, Arizona State and others. Since the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder committed on April 18, four other Texas stars have followed.
First it was quarterback Peyton Mansell, then wide receiver Gavin Holmes and defensive back Matt Hankins, who committed on the same June afternoon. The most recent piece, as noted, was Chevin Calloway, the second-best player in Iowa’s class. To recruit others, Benjamin says he’s just been upfront about what to expect in Iowa City.
“Iowa is a very unique place and isn’t for everyone,” Benjamin told Landof10. “I find the players who I know who has what it takes and who are also very coachable and won’t bring a huge ego along with them. It’s a place where I felt comfortable. I knew I could accomplish my goals as a player and a man, years beyond football.”
To be a leader means a lot to Benjamin and he knows he’s not done.
“It means quite a bit,” he said of helping recruit other players for the Hawkeyes. “I am glad it’s turning out the way it is. I’ve had a strong vision about this place and I’m glad these Texas boys are seeing it as well.”
They’ve done well in Texas, but the Hawkeyes may not be finished. Iowa is right in the thick of things for Garland wide receiver Shamond Greenwood, defensive tackle Damion Daniels – a teammate of Calloway’s at Dallas’ Bishop Dunne High School – and are perhaps the only team that could flip Lake Dallas defensive back Kobe Boyce, who is committed to Texas. How do you add those next pieces?
“I just give them facts,” Benjamin added. “It’s really a ‘must see it to believe it’ type of deal. You wouldn’t think for one second that Iowa City looks as it does. It’s the stable coaching staff and top-notch facilities. There’s a beautiful setting there in Iowa City.”
Today, Iowa has the Big Ten’s third-ranked recruiting class, and the 15th-ranked group in the country. If they can build upon the success they’ve had in Texas in other talent-rich states around the country, they could find themselves nearing a Top 10 finish come signing day.