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How could racial bias allegations tarnish Iowa football with prospects? 'This sort of thing is going to matter to recruits'

Matthew Bain
Hawk Central

Since last Friday, allegations of racial bias levied against strength coach Chris Doyle and the Iowa football program have thrust Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeye program into the national conversation on racial injustice for the wrong reasons.

And that situation puts Iowa in an awkward spot when it comes to recruiting.

Ferentz and his staff need to convince 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds — in a sport where the plurality of college players (49%) are black men, according to NCAA diversity statistics — they can have success on the field and thrive personally at Iowa. The death of George Floyd in late May at the hands of Minneapolis police, and the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, have sparked waves of protests concerning racial injustice throughout Iowa and the United States. 

"We all can see on social media that kids are very much involved in the current causes," said 247Sports Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu, who's been covering the region since 2005. "More than ever, this is the time where this sort of thing is going to matter to recruits. So could it have an effect on recruiting? Definitely.

"And it's unquestionably something that Iowa is going to have to address, and already has had to address when it comes to the recruits that are committed in the class, and the guys that they're going to recruit moving forward."

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz (right) told reporters on Sunday that athletic director Gary Barta would coordinate an independent review of Iowa's strength and conditioning program, which has been the focus of many former athletes' allegations of racial discrimination.

The Hawkeyes are in the middle of their best recruiting cycle of the Ferentz era. Their 2021 class already has 15 recruits, including three four-star prospects. As a whole, the class is ranked No. 13 in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite. Five of Iowa's 15 2021 recruits are black.

Iowa's 2020 group of signees, which ranked No. 35 in the country, is also arriving on campus this week to start voluntary workouts.

Although it's early, there haven't been public indications of fallout from the 2021 recruits or 2020 signees. Those who have spoken have conveyed a message of unity. They want to lead the change that will make Iowa football a better program.

Some of the top Hawkeye recruits in the 2021 class told the Register they want to be part of the culture change at Iowa. 

"It doesn’t at all impact my commitment to the University of Iowa," Cedar Rapids Kennedy four-star offensive lineman Connor Colby, Iowa's second-highest-rated 2021 recruit, said. "I believe a change needs to occur, and I think coach Ferentz and the rest of the coaches will make the changes to make sure it’s an environment where everyone can be who they are, regardless of your skin color."

Ankeny receiver Brody Brecht, who picked the Hawkeyes over Iowa State in a highly watched recruiting battle, told the Register he's still "100% committed" to Iowa. So, too, did OABCIG athlete Cooper DeJean, who blossomed into a four-star prospect last fall.

"This will change the Iowa football program for the better," DeJean said. "I trust in coach Ferentz that he will get everything right within the program and the program can move forward and will be even better than before."

Another 2021 Iowa recruit Keagan Johnson, who is black, told Blair Sanderson of Hawkeye Report that he believes "the staff will make the right changes." 

“I talked to coach Ferentz and (wide receivers) coach (Kelton) Copeland yesterday. We discussed how this isn’t a step back, but a step forward for the program," the Bellevue, Nebraska, receiver said. "Inequality isn't just a problem in football, but it’s also a problem in society. And you can’t ignore it, you must address it. I believe the staff will make the right changes. Hawkeye football will be just fine.”

OABCIG's Cooper Dejean (1) says he is still fully committed to Iowa, and that he's confident Kirk Ferentz can lead the change necessary within the Hawkeyes program.

Overall, though, it's still too early to tell if there will be any negative short-term recruiting effects, Trieu said. He said we have to wait to see if there are any consequences, such as any staff changes, before knowing how this situation will affect Hawkeye recruiting in the near term.

Currently, Doyle, the nation's highest-paid strength and conditioning coach in college football, is on paid administrative leave as he awaits an investigation into his alleged behavior. Numerous allegations from black former Iowa players of racial bias centered on Doyle. He has been accused of telling one black athlete he'd send him "back to the streets" and asking a player if he engaged in "gang-banging" in the offseason.

In a tweeted statement Sunday, Doyle, who has led Iowa's strength program since 1999, denied crossing "the line of unethical behavior or bias based upon race."

Then, there's the potential long-term effect.

Josh Helmholdt, Rivals' Midwest recruiting analyst, said Iowa can't afford to have its image tarnished when recruiting against other Big Ten schools. The Hawkeyes need to shore this perception up as soon, and effectively, as possible.

"If it's not a situation that gets addressed fully and satisfactorily … then it will have certainly a major impact on recruitment," Helmholdt said. "There are a lot of options for prospects out there. And if serious concerns linger, you are not going to be able to recruit against other top universities with that hanging over your head."

Helmholdt said Iowa must be transparent and communicative with its current players and recruiting targets through this whole process.

"If the communication from Iowa and its staff to the recruits both committed and uncommitted falls off, that's likely to breed distrust," he said.

Trieu said, once the recruiting dead period ends and prospects can again visit schools, Iowa's staff — no matter who the coaches are at that time — will have to take extra steps to assure prospects, and particularly black prospects and their families, that they have an inclusive program.

Much of that effort, Trieu and Helmholdt said, will need to focus on the strength and conditioning program, which had been a major recruiting asset for Iowa in recent years. The Hawkeyes had garnered a reputation for developing two- and three-star prospects and molding them into NFL players. Iowa's had three first-round picks in the past two NFL Drafts. 

Doyle was seen as a major reason for that success.

"That's always been a big part of (Iowa's) visits," Trieu said of Doyle's program. "Now, I think it's going continue to be a big part of the visits — maybe with a different angle than what you had before."

Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports and Society Program at The Aspen Institute, said no school can afford to be on the wrong side of the national conversation on racial injustices.

And, partly, for recruiting reasons.

Now more so than ever, Solomon said football staffs will tout their program's diversity and inclusiveness when trying to recruit black athletes. Iowa has extended offers to more than 60 black athletes in the 2021 class.

"Parents and kids are going to be watching this," Solomon said. "And they’re going to be recognizing how different schools, athletic departments and coaches are or are not treating their black players."

On Sunday, Ferentz told reporters that athletic director Gary Barta would coordinate an independent review of Iowa's strength and conditioning program.

That's a good first step, Trieu and Helmholdt said. Both said Iowa has responded well so far. Ferentz spoke quickly. Iowa put Doyle on administrative leave within two days of the first allegations about his behavior being aired. On social media, current players have rallied together to lead Iowa's culture change.

But, to continue to recruit at a high level in the future, more steps will need to be taken. 

"It's only going to be (OK for Iowa) if it gets addressed fully and satisfactorily," Helmholdt reiterated. "That will dictate how detrimental it is to Iowa when it comes to recruiting."

Matthew Bain covers recruiting, Iowa/Iowa State athletics and Drake basketball for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at mbain@dmreg.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.

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