Leistikow: The story behind Ogwo's decision to leave Iowa's football program

Chad Leistikow

Emmanuel Ogwo came to Iowa with the goal of starring in two Division I sports.

He’s come to the realization it’ll now have to be one.

Ogwo has fully transitioned from football to track and field, in which he was an elite high school talent in Mesquite, Texas. In an interview with the Des Moines Register, it was clear Ogwo could no longer table his desire to speed around an oval.

“I didn’t leave Texas to sit on the bench for two years,” Ogwo said. “I felt like track was giving me the opportunity to be the competitor that I wanted to be, and (to) compete earlier than football was allowing me to.”

As a high school senior, he ran 46.68 seconds in the 400 meters — one of that year’s top times in the country.

Ogwo got partial track scholarship offers from some Texas schools, but the best overall opportunity came from Iowa City. Iowa offered him a full ride in football while telling him he could compete in both sports.

Emmanuel Ogwo redshirted during the 2015 football season, then toward the end of 2016's fall camp decided to transition into the Hawkeyes' track and field program full time.

After a few minutes of talking with Ogwo, it’s easy to tell he’s got an intense, competitive fire. He said he took it "personal" that fellow freshmen Adrian Falconer and Jerminic Smith got 2015 playing time while he redshirted. He felt he elevated his game throughout the offseason. But as fall camp wound down, Ogwo still couldn’t crack the depth chart (coming in with the top six) at wide receiver, a position of great need for the 2016 Hawkeyes.

“I worked my butt off the whole year, and then toward (fall) camp, I had high expectations. (Then) not earning a starting position or a backup — I wouldn’t have minded that,” Ogwo said. “But I saw toward the end of camp, certain guys were getting reps that I felt that I deserved. And I just started opening up my options again.”

He showed flashes. Ogwo caught a long touchdown pass from Nathan Stanley during the Kids Day open practice. But when you’re top-10 nationally in one sport and not top-six on your own team in another, the decision is clear.

“He’s too talented in his mind to be sitting on the sideline,” Ogwo’s new coach, Joey Woody, said, “whether it’s track or football.”

Woody, a former World track champion who grew up in Iowa City, is entering his third year as the Hawkeyes’ track and field director. He has a vision for track helping football, and vice versa.

And just because it didn’t work out for Ogwo to star in two sports at Iowa doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Understandably, when football’s paying the scholarship bill, football comes first. Ogwo was reminded of that shortly after Iowa’s Rose Bowl loss to Stanford. As he was preparing to enter Woody’s track program, football brought him back.

Kirk Ferentz and Co. challenged Ogwo to give football his full spring attention.

“I understood what (Ferentz) wanted from me,” Ogwo said. “I was open to it, which is another reason why I thought things in football were going to go the right way. And they did not.”

Former Iowa wide receiver Emmanuel Ogwo stands on the sideline during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015.

No hard feelings on either side, they say. Ferentz supported the move in announcing it last week. Ogwo thanked the program for giving him a chance and thinks the strength he accrued via Chris Doyle's training regimen (he rose from 165 pounds to 180 on his 6-foot frame) will help him "break some records" on the track.

Woody, who has been on Iowa’s staff since 2006, emphasizes a philosophy of speed and power to the track program.

Iowa football has always developed power under Ferentz. Speed? That's always a question.

“We’d love to be able to work with football,” Woody said. “There are potentially some prospects coming in the next few years that want to do both track and football. So it’s an exciting opportunity for us and for them. ... Especially as we have more success, we can assist football in their recruiting.”

Ogwo gets to stay on a full football scholarship through the spring semester, a bonus for Woody — who must annually divvy up 12.6 track scholarships between the 55 to 60 men that’ll comprise his spring roster. Do the math, and you can see the benefit that 2-3 football scholarship athletes can bring to a track program.

It’s being done at other major programs. Oregon wide receiver Devon Allen just finished fifth at the Olympics in the 110-meter hurdles. Big Ten Conference champion Nebraska had place-winning discus throwers who play football.

Football and track, Woody said, can “work real well together. (A few years ago), the whole TCU 4-by-100 (relay) was one of the best in the country. … They were all football players.”

The most recent example of an Iowa football player making the track-and-forth transition was receiver Paul Chaney. After finishing third at the 2009 Big Ten meet in the 100-meter dash, he became Iowa’s return man in football until he tore his ACL early in the season.

Mount Vernon's Tristan Wirfs, an Iowa football recruit, competes in the shot put at the Iowa High School Track and Field championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines on Friday, May 20, 2016.

Looking ahead, the Hawkeyes’ football Class of 2017 has two elite discus throwers in Edwardsville, Ill., native A.J. Epenesa and Mount Vernon’s Tristan Wirfs.

Looking back, maybe the Ogwo setup needed more time to work for all parties. Maybe it was simply a 19-year-old satisfying his competitive needs.

After Ogwo, it's an arrangement worth closer evaluation. Make no mistake: Ordinary Hawk Fan would gladly take a last-place track team if it meant having a championship in football.

But the question is: Does a spring spent in Iowa's rising-in-reputation track program spit out a better football player? Woody, who shares Ferentz’s keen eye for developmental talent, talks about it as an iron-sharpens-iron philosophy.

“I love football players on the track. I think they bring a different dynamic and they have a different mentality,” Woody said. “I think it helps the entire team. I don’t think we take anything away from what they’re doing in football. Our goal is to enhance what they’re doing on the football field.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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