Leistikow: At Iowa, transferring Ahmad Wagner earned total respect

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

I cannot tell a lie: It would have been a fun story to cover, had now-former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner become a member of the Hawkeye football program.

What a tale that would’ve been to follow and tell: Whether a 6-foot-7, 235-pound power forward, with 12 to 18 months of work with Chris Doyle, could’ve transformed into a legit Big Ten Conference tight end or wide receiver.

But, alas, Wagner is headed closer to home. He tweeted Tuesday that he would be continuing his academic and athletic career at the University of Kentucky.

Former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner works on a craft with a patient at the UI Stead Family Children's Hospital in January.

No, not on the hardwood of Rupp Arena under John Calipari — but on the grass of Kroger Field in Lexington under the direction of head football coach Mark Stoops (a former Hayden Fry-coached Hawkeye).

It was thought he would have only one year of football eligibility remaining, in 2019, after sitting out this fall; but Kentucky's Rivals site reported he might get two under special circumstances. Wagner definitely would've had two years’ eligibility if he had stayed at Iowa.

But, frankly, his climb to the field here would have been a challenge in Year One, especially if he tried to make it as a tight end, the Hawkeyes’ deepest position.

It never felt like the right football fit at Iowa. If it had been, we probably would've seen him going full speed ahead in spring practice.

Now, Wagner’s future college home is just 2½ hours away from his native Yellow Springs in southwest Ohio — like driving from Des Moines to Davenport.

The early reaction I saw from Iowa fans on social media was positive.

In an era where trashing a decision by a recruit — and that’s what Wagner was again, a recruit — seems commonplace, the replies to Wagner's tweet were filled with well wishes.

Wagner earned that type of response because of his character; because of the way he endeared himself to the Hawkeye basketball faithful with his lunch-pail work ethic.

In three years at Iowa under Fran McCaffery, his stats didn't blow anyone away. But he did start 25 games, score 297 points, grab 251 rebounds and secure 43 steals.

He was seen as a spark plug, a guy who actually played defense, a guy that made little plays that turned into big ones.

The sequence I’ll remember most about Wagner came in this year’s first round of the Big Ten Tournament in New York City.

Iowa held a precarious 63-61 second-half lead against Illinois. Though it was a disappointing Hawkeye season, this particular game had extra importance — players, administrators and fans were determined to end a streak of four straight one-and-done finishes at the Big Ten Tournament.

After a Tyler Cook bucket and foul, he missed the free throw. But there was Wagner, as he often did, making a hustle play. He snagged the offensive rebound, then (rather than trying to score himself) made a smart pass to Jordan Bohannon, who was stationed in a marksman location — outside the 3-point line.

Catch, shot, swish. Wagner's assist had given Iowa an important seven-point lead on the way to a streak-busting win. "A big-time play," Cook would later say.

It was a feelgood moment for a guy whose minutes had gradually vanished in his junior season. Surely, Wagner had been pondering this football move long before making that offensive rebound.

Wagner was an inspiration inside the Iowa locker room.

He brought humility and leadership — a gold-mine combination for any coach. As a sophomore, Wagner was named the recipient of the first Kenny Arnold Hawkeye Spirit Award — an honor given to a player who shows “leadership, courage, character and determination.”

Off the floor, Wagner has been quick to volunteer his time to community service activities, such as visiting sick kids at the UI’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

Wagner is a good guy, a well-liked guy by teammates, fans and members of the media. I always found him to be an engaging, honest interview.

He wasn't on his way to an NBA career at Iowa. Perhaps at Kentucky, he will find what it takes to be a rising prospect at football. Perhaps not.

At a minimum, though, the folks in Lexington are getting a good teammate, a good locker-room influence.

Wagner's story will continue to be an interesting one.

But here in Iowa, it’s one we’ll now have to consume from afar.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.