Ohio State. Michigan. Penn State. Iowa?
The first three are recognizable names throughout the country, brands that stand alone in college sports. They’ve won national championships, been led by some of the sport’s greatest coaches and play games in iconic stadiums.
Life as a Buckeye, Wolverine or Nittany Lion is of the silver spoon variety. Program success ebbs and flows, but the game’s titans have a built-in advantage. It’s felt every February on National Signing Day when the top programs welcome star-studded classes. It’s a constant cycle resulting in sizable NFL alumni.
So, where does Iowa fit in? Surprisingly, near the top.
Until Ohio State had six draft picks to Iowa’s three in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Hawkeyes were the Big Ten’s top producer of NFL players dating back to 2010. Consider in that same timespan Iowa’s overall record is 27-24 and it hasn’t won more than eight games in a single season.
The Hawkeyes have 22 draft picks versus Ohio State’s 23. Each school owns three first-round selections, second to Wisconsin’s four. The difference between Iowa and Ohio State – and even Wisconsin to an extent – lies in recruiting. Take one glance at the ratings and you’ll comprehend the rationale.
How has a Midwestern school surrounded by vast stretches of emptiness and cornfields churned out so much NFL talent? Well, it turns out coaching and developing mid-tier and low-level recruits. In Kirk Ferentz’s 15 seasons as head coach, Iowa’s had 55 players drafted. Those numbers have turned into sales pitches in living rooms across the country.
“We certainly sell that, because that is something our guys have done a good job of,” Ferentz recently told the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
There are just three cities located in Iowa with a population above 100,000. Des Moines, the state capital, is the largest with a little more than 200,000. Iowa City, home to Kinnick Stadium and the University of Iowa, is the state’s fifth-largest city – population: 70,133. One can quickly understand how it might be difficult to entice Floridians, Texans and even Ohioans to the Hawkeye State.
Iowa’s 2014 recruiting class, ranked 59th nationally, included only two four-stars based on the Rivals.com’s ratings. The Hawkeyes had thee times as many two-stars. The current eight-man class of 2015 has zero four- or five-stars and the players are from the state of Iowa, Illinois and South Dakota.
If you examine Iowa’s last 32 draft picks, which dates back to 2007, 26 – 13 each – have been two- and three-stars. Ferentz’s status as one of college football’s top coaches has been mocked, and with good reason when his salary is included in the discussion, but it’s hard to deny he and his staff’s ability at squeezing talent out of players during their careers at Iowa.
“I think our guys get great support, and I think they receive excellent coaching. What we do is an NFL-style system,” Ferentz said. “But all that being said, the credit goes to our players. They have to put the energy and effort into it, too. And that’s what it takes.”
The statistics are a blessing and a curse for Ferentz. On one hand, sending recruits to the NFL helps replenish a roster. But the win-loss record doesn’t always indicate superior talent. Iowa’s won two conference championships under Ferentz with plenty of six-, seven- and eight-win seasons sprinkled in. It’s marvelous mediocrity.
Chris Doyle, Iowa’s popular strength and conditioning coach, has contributed to the skewed numbers. His workouts and capacity for enhancing muscles and overall strength prepared under-the-radar players for professional football. Doyle may not carry the same cachet on a national level as Mickey Marotti, but he’s more than proven his worth.
“Chris is a huge component of what we do,” Ferentz said. “Yet the guys who have benefited from it are the guys that invest in it and put the effort in.”
If college football mirrored financial securities, Iowa would be in the midst of a bull market.