The Iowa coach's opening statement on National Signing Day addressed work ethic, commitment to a culture.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The best way to describe the 22-player recruiting class that Iowa’s football program secured last week?
Kelvin Bell only needed one word.
“The word — and you’re going to think this is cheesy — is 'Commitment',” Iowa’s recruiting coordinator told me. “That’s this group. It was a committed group.”
In a recruiting cycle that turned a white-hot spotlight onto the Hawkeyes’ commitment policy, loyalty was put to the test.
A class that had 17 verbal commitments in August, when prospects’ most recent Hawkeye football memory was a 12-0 regular season and Rose Bowl berth, had slimmed to 13 by late November.
A stunning home loss to North Dakota State happened; 599 yards allowed at Penn State happened.
“When we were 5-4 and got blown out by Penn State,” Bell candidly conceded, “how attractive of a place is Iowa City, Iowa?”
As Iowa prepared to face Michigan a 24-point underdog, four-star running back Eno Benjamin and four-star cornerback Chevin Calloway de-committed. Two more Texans would follow suit. One of them, Gavin Holmes, took aim at the policy that Iowa’s committed recruits aren’t allowed to visit other schools.
On the outside, it seemed like Iowa’s recruiting efforts were in a tailspin. It had national people writing about the Hawkeyes — and not in a positive light.
“The bottom line is this,” Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell wrote in late October, “If you try to enforce a no-visit policy in this day-and-age, it will bite you in the butt.”
On the inside, Kirk Ferentz stood firm by the no-visit policy but said it would be revisited in the offseason.
And last week, with 22 signed letters accepting scholarship offers in-house, he didn't sound like a man about to change it.
“On a national scope, everybody has their definitions,” Ferentz said. “… We will go back to it one more time, I'm sure, after this is all settled, but I think we all feel the same way we did a year ago or six months ago. The word 'commitment,' to us, means 'commitment.' It means your decision has been made and you're straight ahead.”
The responses to Ferentz’s “'commitment' means 'commitment'” quote came almost as quickly as I tweeted it.
Hypocritical, some of you said, considering six players that Iowa landed in the final three days were previously committed to other schools.
And to that, I’ll say again what I said in November: I respectfully disagree.
If you’re still looking around, you’re not committed. Simple. It works both ways.
“To me, it's easy,” Ferentz said. “If you talk to a player and he's not sure, same thing. He may have said he's committed to the school, but if he's not sure, he's not sure. We're going to keep recruiting him, just like people recruit our players, as well. So you test those commitments.
“That's how it goes. If they say, ‘Hey, Coach, I'm committed to school B,’ (the response is), ‘Great. Just thought we would ask'.”
One of the final additions to Iowa’s Class of 2017, Trey Creamer, was an example of that.
Iowa had been recruiting Creamer as an athlete out of Cartersville, Ga. But, as it happened, Creamer verbally committed to Minnesota after taking an official visit to Minneapolis on the weekend that Iowa defeated the Gophers, 14-7.
When Minnesota fired coach Tracy Claeys after the season, Iowa took notice. It kicked the tires one more time with Creamer.
“We saw that as an opportunity,” Bell said. “We still (had) a need at receiver and at DB. Here’s a kid that’s committed to our rival. If he’s willing to go to Minnesota, he’s got to be willing to go to Iowa. So we threw our name in the hat, and fought it out for him.”
So the class ultimately came together with a mix of early commitments who stayed with the Hawkeyes from the get-go to the flurry of late flips.
Loyalty means a lot to Ferentz and how he operates. You could argue it works against him at times, too, in his decision-making.
But you can’t blame him for testing that loyalty with the no-visit policy, considering he builds the program around a dependency on his guys being totally committed — even before Day 1 on campus.
So, looking back, it makes sense why Ferentz said this in November at the peak of the no-visit firestorm: "I'm confident, at the end of the day — by Signing Day — we'll have the right 20 to 22 guys here."
If Iowa had made exceptions for Benjamin and Calloway, who had their scholarship offers pulled, what kind of message would that have sent to the core commitments of the class like A.J. Epenesa, Tristan Wirfs and Brandon Smith?
“I just think about the character and commitment of these guys — blue-collar guys — that want to go to work and want to play for Iowa,” Bell said. “I can’t say that about everybody that we had committed at one point in time.”
To finish his point, Bell talked about Epenesa.
Like his fellow Hawkeye commitments, the nation’s No. 6 overall recruit (according to 247sports.com) certainly could’ve gotten wobbly after Iowa’s blowout loss at Penn State on Nov. 5.
On the field, Iowa’s current players didn’t give up on the black and gold; Iowa would stun Michigan that week.
Off it, Iowa’s future players didn’t either.
“Five-star player. No. 1 player in the state of Illinois. Top-15 defensive lineman in the country,” Bell said of Epenesa. “And the team you’re committed to is 5-4, and he’s unwavering. Not going to take a visit (elsewhere), not going to sneak away for a weekend to Mizzou. Not going to do it.
“He was with us, through and through. That right there really embodies this class — commitment.”
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.