Harty: Hawkeyes' big hurdle always has been recruiting

Pat Harty
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Pat Harty

To say that it's hard for the Iowa football program to recruit is like saying it's hard to find a parking space in downtown Iowa City.

It's saying what most of us all already know, but sometimes it's worth repeating.

Greg Davis's horizontal passing attack has shouldered much of the blame for perhaps the least appreciated 2-1 start in school history, and deservedly so, because it has been dreadful at times.

However, Iowa's offensive woes are a by-product of a bigger problem that can be traced directly to recruiting deficiencies.

Kirk Ferentz and his assistants simply haven't recruited well enough on a consistent basis to sustain a high-level of success. They've had more successes than failures, thanks to their ability to identify and develop talent. But as is the case with any developmental program, staying ranked among the nation's elite only happens sporadically.

"If you're not doing as well as you would like to do, typically there's going to be scrutiny, introspection, whatever," Ferentz said. "Usually it's a pretty intricate deal. If it's just one area or one point, then usually you see coaching staffs trying to address that, change personnel, et cetera. But I don't think that's the case right now. We just have to do better."

Iowa's talent will go a long way in determining how much better the team gets this season. Fans likely will blame it on poor coaching if Iowa fails to live up to expectations, even though it'll probably be more a case of sub-par recruiting.

You can rip Ferentz for hiring Davis as his offensive coordinator, for his clock management, for being too conservative and for being too loyal to certain players, because that's your right as a fan.

But the truth is, Ferentz's conservative approach still can be successful with the right players. It might not always be entertaining, but it works if he has enough talent and chemistry.

It's just that Ferentz doesn't always have enough talent — or as some disgruntled fans believe, enough talent that he's willing to use on a regular basis — to get the job done.

The jury is still out on his current team, which hits the road for the first time this season with a game Saturday at 3-0 Pittsburgh. The run-happy Panthers probably deserve to be favored slightly because they're playing at home and because they've looked better than Iowa has after three games.

Talent-wise, though, the two teams are very similar. They sometimes recruit the same players from the East Coast and they often finish close to each other in the recruiting rankings, usually in the 25-to-50 range, nationally.

Iowa has been rocked by attrition at times under Ferentz, with recruiting largely to blame for that, too. Most of the players left because they were in over their heads, competing at the Big Ten level.

It's hard to think of one player under Ferentz besides receiver James Cleveland who transferred from Iowa to another major college program. Cleveland finished his career at Houston.

Most of them have transferred to schools that compete at a lower level because that's probably where they belonged in the first place.

At Iowa, you have to take chances in recruiting, but sometimes those chances backfire or they don't materialize.

Hayden Fry, who preceded Ferentz at Iowa, dealt with the same obstacles during his 20-year reign as coach from 1979-98. With exception to his 1985 squad, Iowa's talent under Fry never was equal to Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan.

The football coach at Iowa learns to do more with less — with exception to salary — or he doesn't survive. Fry lasted for two decades because in addition to rebuilding the program, he won enough games over the long haul to have staying power.

The program was clearly in trouble, though, when Ferentz replaced Fry shortly after the 1998 season. Iowa was coming off a 3-8 season in 1998 and hadn't won a Big Ten title since 1990.

Ferentz, now in his 16th season at Iowa, has earned the same staying power as Fry by also winning enough games. But like Fry, Ferentz's second decade falls short of what he accomplished in his first 10 years at Iowa.

The reason has more to do with recruiting than anything else. It was harder for Fry to recruit near the end of his run because he didn't have as dynamic a staff compared to when he took over the program and because the product he was selling had become sort of stale over time.

Ferentz deserves credit for embracing a more modernized approach to recruiting, one that relies heavily on the influence of social media. He's doing what he can to keep up with the changing times, but so is everybody else.

Despite what some fans believe, the game hasn't left Ferentz behind. He knows what it takes to play winning football, and that's mostly talent.

Alabama's Nick Saban currently occupies the throne as the king of college football coaches, his success due mostly to recruiting. I'd be willing to say that probably 99 percent of the time, Saban's teams at Alabama have more talent than the opposition.

The best thing Saban has done at Alabama is recruit enough star talent on a regular basis to sustain a level of dominance.

Nobody ever has done that at Iowa. Forest Evashevski came close for a while in the mid-to-late 1950s, but the game has changed so much since then that it's hard to compare the two eras.

All we have to go on is Ferentz and Fry for almost four decades at Iowa. And in both cases, recruiting has been the biggest challenge, by far, caused in part by Iowa's low in-state population. You stay long enough at Iowa and recruiting ultimately will suffer.

Ferentz has to guard against his program becoming stale to outsiders, if it hasn't already. When he took over at Iowa, there was a buzz that some talented players gravitated towards. Some of those players were lightly recruited, but they developed over time and ultimately exceeded expectations.

Fans can argue about why those kinds of stories haven't happened as frequently during the latter stages of Ferentz's run, but it's no mystery. It's recruiting.

• STATISTICALLY SPEAKING: Iowa recruit Adrian Falconer had 12 catches for 224 yards and four touchdowns, but his high school team from Leesburg, Fla., still lost 34-28 last weekend, falling to 2-1 on the season. … Iowa's three quarterback recruits combined for 666 passing yards and for 11 touchdowns in their most recent games. … Jack Beneventi threw a career-high five touchdown passes to lead his Fenwick team from suburban Chicago to a 35-30 victory over De La Salle. He completed 17-of-29 passes for 286 yards and zero interceptions. … West Des Moines Dowling quarterback Ryan Boyle connected on his first 10 passes, threw for two touchdowns, ran for a pair of scores and accounted for 188 yards — and that was just his first-quarter stat line as Dowling exposed a Waukee secondary with four first-year starters. For the game, Boyle completed 16-of-23 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries. … Regina quarterback Drew Cook completed 9-of-14 passes for 204 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-6 victory over Sigourney-Keota last week. He also had six carries for 53 yards. Cook played only one series in the third quarter before his father, Regina coach Marv Cook emptied his bench.

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