Austin Blythe sat across the desk from Jim Harbaugh in one of those meetings where the head coach offers a top prospect the forum to ask questions and makes one of his strongest recruiting pitches.
It was nearly six years ago. Blythe was a high school junior and Harbaugh was Stanford’s head coach and aggressive salesman.
“I remember he scheduled an extra (meeting) for us,” said Curt Ritchie, who coached Blythe in high school at Williamsburg and now calls Iowa’s senior center his son-in-law. “The first one he tried really hard to get Austin to verbally commit. The second one I thought he really, really pushed it. He wanted a commitment before Austin left.”
Harbaugh offered a Stanford education, a fast-rising program and a chance to get away from Midwest winters. That was enough for the Cardinal to finish as the recruiting runner-up for the four-star offensive lineman.
“They were probably my second choice,” Blythe said. “But it was a no-brainer coming to Iowa.”
Blythe’s college football career is set up to end the way it all began — with Iowa versus Stanford. The Rose Bowl date between the Hawkeyes and Cardinal marks the end of a dream Blythe has been living for five years, one with a pinch-me senior season.
The Hawkeyes are 12-1 and within reach of their best finish in the national rankings in 55 years, in part because of their co-captain and all-Big Ten center. If there’s been a downside to all this for Blythe, it’s that this four-month magical ride is nearing the end.
“After the Big Ten championship game, he was struggling to say the least,” said Ritchie, whose daughter, Kiley, married Blythe in May. “The big thing he told me was that he’s not ready to quit playing with this team. I think it’s really hit him. He’s not ready to quit being a Hawkeye. He has loved every part of it.”
Blythe’s relationship with the Hawkeyes almost seemed too good to be true at the start. He had one varsity game under his belt when the Hawkeyes offered him a scholarship during a summer camp after his freshman year.
Ritchie said he and Blythe’s father, Curt, advised Austin to hold off on a commitment.
“It’s not like we didn’t want him to get an offer from Iowa,” Ritchie said. “We just didn’t know if he was really capable of playing at that level at the time and we didn’t want to put pressure on him.”
It might have been viewed at the time as a projection play by the Hawkeyes, but Blythe was coming off a wrestling season that ended in the state finals, one victory shy of becoming Iowa’s first freshman heavyweight champion. And the Hawkeyes were hardly the only ones impressed by what they saw from Blythe in camp.
Ritchie said the same scenario regularly played out on the camp circuit. Blythe would run the pro agility shuttle, coaches would look at their stopwatches and an offer would follow. Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Wisconsin also extended offers.
Out of the blue one day during the fall of Blythe’s junior season, Ritchie received a fax. It was a scholarship offer from Stanford and an invitation to check out the campus in California the following spring, along with dozens of other prospects from around the country.
Blythe went accompanied by three guests: His mother, Ritchie and Ritchie’s daughter, Sadie. The Williamsburg coach remembers the vast campus, the upbeat coaching staff and the polite young player host who answered their questions over dinner when Blythe was off with the other recruits.
“He was a great guy, nice guy, but I had no idea who he was,” Ritchie said. “I remember going out to practice the next day and my daughter, Sadie, was out on the field running around. Coach Harbaugh had her throwing passes and I remember her running up to me and saying, ‘Dad, that guy we ate with last night, I think he’s pretty good.’ ”
His name: Andrew Luck.
Blythe also spent some time hanging out with the eventual No. 1 pick of the Indianapolis Colts, along with David DeCastro, now a starting guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Hanging out with those guys and learning what they were all about at Stanford was kind of like us, kind of like Iowa after being here for five years,” Blythe said. “Similar program. Similar mentalities. It’s going to be a really good football game, another physical fight and that’s what we love.”
Harbaugh, of course, never got that commitment from Blythe, who gave his pledge to the Hawkeyes during the spring of his junior year.
“He always told me it was going to come down to people and that’s something we always tried to keep at the forefront of the whole thing,” Ritchie said. “You need to find people you trust and believe in and want to be around, people who are going to push you to continue to improve in all areas. He would always tell me he liked coach (Kirk) Ferentz, he liked (assistant) coach (Reese) Morgan and liked the coaches at Iowa. He was very comfortable there.”
Rick Brown and Chad Leistikow discuss how Iowa played in the Big Ten title game and what to expect in the Rose Bowl.