IOWA CITY, Ia. — The story behind one of the most unique talents in Iowa basketball history is one about family, perseverance and a girl and her golf bag.
Jarrod Uthoff, the guy who scored 30 points in one half in one of the nation’s most hostile arenas, traveled a patient path to becoming one of the Big Ten Conference’s most dominant players. And while the perfect Senior Day sendoff didn’t materialize after three straight Hawkeye losses, there’s a lot to appreciate in Uthoff’s story. Publicly, he's a man of few words, but Uthoff opened up about his personal life and journey in an interview with The Des Moines Register.
One thing everyone sees: Whether he’s making his trademark fade-away jumper or missing seven shots in a row as he did against Minnesota before rattling off 24 points, Uthoff’s expression never changes. So it's no surprise he won't get sentimental about his final college home game Tuesday against league-leading Indiana.
“It’s not going to be emotional for me,” he says. “I’ve got a game to think about.”
Yet that quiet determination has made him a better basketball player.
The quiet part, that was always there. The youngest of Dale and Diane Uthoff’s five kids, Jarrod’s childhood was one of absorption.
“The other four kids talked many years for him, and he just took it all in,” his mother says. “I was always so concerned because he never said anything. And he’s still sort of that way.”
His intelligence helped his game grow to match his now 6-foot-9, 221-pound frame. Fran McCaffery calls Uthoff “a coach’s dream” because of his self-motivation and acceptance of teaching.
“Give him the green light, and he takes it from there,” the sixth-year Iowa coach says.
Going the extra mile
Uthoff is an outdoorsman. He hunts deer with a bow and shotgun, and he grew up in Marengo fishing with his dad and older brother Dale Uthoff Jr.
Both activities require a quiet persistence for success — something Uthoff’s transferred to basketball from the fishing boat on the Iowa River, where he and his brother once caught a 50-pound flathead catfish in the dark.
“You’ve got to be willing to go some places that aren’t as easy to get to,” Dale Jr. says, “and at times of day when it’s a little painful to wake up that early.”
That passion, especially for basketball, was evident in an ornery fifth-grader at Iowa Valley Elementary School. Uthoff, so gifted academically that those close to him say he doesn’t even have to try, goofed off in class too much. (“I was a little wild child,” he admits.)
So he was given an incentive: With good behavior, he could earn one bonus recess a week and pick anybody to join him.
When he accrued those recesses, his playmate wasn’t another boy. He chose elementary principal Cindy Miller, who is about 6 feet tall and had played basketball at Central College.
“Probably because I was taller than everybody else,” she jokes now. “… With all kids, we work with them to have something to work toward.”
They would play H-O-R-S-E or shoot in the school’s multipurpose room. But those 15-20 minutes a week underscored Uthoff’s motivation to improve.
He got into it during the summer after his older brother by 13 years graduated from Drake. Before going into the professional world, Dale Jr. spent his last free summer driving Jarrod to basketball camps — including Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa — around the state.
“That summer kind of got him started working on fundamentals,” says Dale Jr., now an actuary in the Indianapolis area, “and got him going.”
Finding love in an elevator
Basketball desires took Uthoff to new places and heights. After his freshman year at Iowa Valley, he moved in with older sister Erika on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids to enroll at Jefferson High School. He was Mr. Iowa Basketball as a senior after averaging 26.2 points a game and signed with Wisconsin.
It was a few days into his first semester in Madison that Uthoff met someone that changed his life. As Jessie Jordan, then a player on Wisconsin’s golf team, stood in a Smith Hall elevator carrying her clubs, a large hand reached out to prevent the doors from closing.
“She was in there with her golf clubs, and I said, ‘Well, you must play golf,’” Uthoff recalls, laughing about his introduction. “And she looked right at me and said, ‘You must play basketball.’”
Though they didn’t start dating until February 2012, they related to each other almost immediately. Jordan comes from a family of athletes. Her older brother, Ben, was a wrestling All-American at Wisconsin and younger brother, Isaac, still competes there and is ranked No. 2 nationally at 165 pounds. (A cousin, Bo Jordan, is ranked No. 3 at that weight for Ohio State.)
In April 2012, their relationship was at a crossroads. After redshirting for Wisconsin, Uthoff decided to transfer. His reasoning then was that then-Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's scheme did not fit his skill set. His transfer made national headlines when Ryan made it contentious by putting more than two dozen schools, including Iowa, on a no-transfer list.
“The transfer is what Jarrod wanted,” his mother says. “How it turned out is not what anybody expected.”
Uthoff, of course, went to Iowa anyway. A Big Ten rule change that went into effect during the 2011-12 season lessened the financial cost to transfer within the league. But the price was higher than just paying his own tuition for a year — he would have to sit out another 12 months under NCAA transfer rules.
“Throughout the transfer process, I definitely matured,” Jarrod Uthoff says. “It helped shape who I am.”
A year of Skype, reflection
There’s a famous quote from author Richard Bach: “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours.”
In a small way, that’s what Uthoff did in letting go of another year of basketball eligibility. In a big way, that’s what Jordan did with the man who gripped her heart. She stayed behind that year in Madison. Yet their bond became stronger.
As a transfer, Uthoff wasn’t permitted to take road trips with the team. Connecting with Jordan helped.
“We would Skype every single night,” Jordan says. “I’m not even kidding, for hours on end.”
Jordan didn’t have a car, so on Friday nights after practice, Uthoff would drive to Madison to pick her up and bring her back to Iowa City for the weekend and then make the round trip again on Sunday night — 12 hours of driving.
“Sitting out, not playing, having your girlfriend three hours away,” he says. “That was tough.”
The next year, she transferred to Iowa and continued her golf career here.
“I knew I loved him when I couldn’t tell him to stay at Wisconsin because I didn’t want to keep him from his dreams,” she says. “And I knew he loved me when he showed that unwavering commitment to me in that next year.”
While she’s now in the working world as a regional field director, including in Johnson County, for the Republican National Committee (her father, Jim, is a U.S. congressman from Ohio and was discussed as a possible successor to John Boehner as House speaker), Jordan is also improving as Uthoff's part-time personal rebounder.
“You should’ve seen her when she first started. She couldn’t even catch the ball,” Uthoff says, grinning. “She was afraid of it breaking her nose. It was hilarious.”
Jordan is more than happy to fetch basketballs on off hours when Uthoff wants to get extra shots up at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena practice gym — often after a loss or bad game.
“If I want to see Jarrod, I have to be at the gym,” she says. “That’s fine with me, as long as he’s working toward something. If he was at the bar, I wouldn’t make that (a priority).”
Uthoff proposed this past summer, and they’ll be married July 30 in Ohio.
A newfound faith
Uthoff averaged 7.6 points off the bench in his first college-playing season, one that (hard to believe) began 32 months after his last high school game. Iowa lost seven of its last eight games — not the year he envisioned after so much waiting.
He felt something was missing. Jordan encouraged Uthoff, raised Catholic, to find his faith. So did a random man in an ROTC class. So did Billy Taylor, Iowa’s third-year director of basketball operations. Taylor's own faith journey was helped by reading Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” He was led to share that book with the ever-inquisitive, introspective Uthoff.
Sometime later while driving alone, Uthoff was flipping through radio stations when a man’s voice caught his attention as someone who “knew what he was talking about,” Uthoff says, “It turned out it was Lee Strobel talking about ‘The Case for Christ.’ That summer I became a Christian.
“That changes a person. You’re more humble. It may sound corny, but you realize you’re not the king of your own kingdom.”
He says his faith “absolutely” unlocked more from his basketball game. He began to dwell less on mistakes.
“No matter what happens on Earth, there’s eternity out there,” Uthoff says. “You don’t get consumed with little things.”
Taylor saw a deeper transformation: Uthoff changing “as a person and as a man.”
“The way he is as a teammate and as a leader — he’s patient and loving to his teammates,” Taylor says. “I just think they’re all characteristics of his faith.
“I look at some of the young guys on our team, for example. I’ve noticed Jarrod being more intentional about those relationships. Spending time with the younger guys, talking to them and trying to help them navigate a very difficult time in their lives. Everyone wants to play.”
Not playing, that’s something Uthoff certainly can relate to. How to deal with struggles, that’s where Uthoff has evolved.
‘A winning environment’
The fact that Uthoff doesn’t have Internet or cable in the apartment he shares with senior walk-on Okey Ukah (Jordan doesn’t in hers, either) gained national attention as he built up All-America-type numbers. Uthoff is the only power-five conference player this season with more than 500 points, 175 rebounds and 75 blocked shots. He credits blocking out distractions and his faith for elevating his mental game.
“I’ve had the physical attributes. I’ve had the skill for a while,” Uthoff says. “But it was that next step, to have confidence in myself — to create a winning environment for myself.”
Instead of TV, he’ll talk for hours with Jordan about politics, Christianity and the outdoors. As he puts it, “You talk to me without a camera, you could probably get me going.”
In public interviews, his answers are terse and honest. He only lets his guard down with those he completely trusts.
“The thing about him is, he’s as genuine a person as I’ve ever known. He is who he is,” McCaffery says. “There’s no acting going on. He’s as open and honest a person as you’re going to find.”
That’s why when Uthoff says of possibly playing in the NBA, “If it doesn’t work out, that’s the way it is,” you believe him. It’s not indifference, it’s a calming peace within.
“We’re kind of down after losses and up after wins,” says father Dale Uthoff Sr., an electrician for Whirlpool. “He’s not that way at all. That’s why he’s able to play the game.”
Uthoff’s college story isn’t over yet. He can either lead the Hawkeyes back from their recent slide (a Big Ten co-championship remains possible), or things could go the other way like in 2014. Whatever and wherever it ends, his parents will be there. They go to all the games, home and away — they even drove the 12 hours to Penn State a few weeks ago. Jordan will be there for him, too.
He cares about that more than any Hawkeye basketball legacy he might leave.
“I don’t want (fans) to remember me in any way — whatever way they see fit,” says Uthoff, who averages 18.5 points and 6.4 rebounds for No. 16 Iowa (20-8).
Fans will remember that 30-point half of long 3-pointers and high-flying dunks at Iowa State, the one that had his brother jumping up and down in front of his TV in Indianapolis. They’ll remember him as the face of a team that rose to as high as No. 3 in the Associated Press rankings with 11 No. 1 votes. And he’ll likely soon be selected for postseason awards, including first-team All-Big Ten.
“You enjoy your four years — or five years, in my case — and when your time’s up, your time’s up,” Uthoff says. “You can’t look back at the glory days. You keep looking forward.”
THE UTHOFF FILE
Born: May 19, 1993
Height, weight: 6-9, 221
Family: Parents, Dale and Diane Uthoff of Marengo. Four siblings, Dale Jr. (35), Erika (33), Jenna (30), Valerie (25). Fiancee is Jessie Jordan.
College career: Has 1,191 points in three years, No. 21 all-time at Iowa, including 517 this season in 28 games. He’s the third Hawkeye ever to have 1,000 career points and 150 blocks (joining Acie Earl and Greg Stokes). One of the 11 remaining candidates for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, awarded to the nation's top player. … One of only two Big Ten players in the last 20 seasons with at least 150 career blocks and 115 3-pointers (joining Minnesota’s Michael Bauer, 1999-2004). … Named NBC/ESPN midseason second-team all-America. … Career highs are 32 points (at Iowa State), 15 rebounds (vs. Minnesota) and six blocked shots. … Academic All-District first-teamer. Graduated with a degree in economics in May and is in a graduate program for sports management.