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Friday, June 21, 2024

The outside world sees nepotism at Iowa, but recruits just see family


Pop quiz: Of all the offensive players who made verbal pledges to Big Ten schools for the 2023 recruiting class, which prospect carries the highest rating, and to which school did he commit?

Hint: The answer doesn’t involve head coach Ryan Day’s recruiting juggernaut at Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes are on pace to sign the conference’s top-ranked class for the fourth consecutive cycle. Nor does it involve arguably the league’s hottest team at Michigan, where head coach Jim Harbaugh has won 22 of his last 24 games and captured the Wolverines’ first Big Ten title in 17 years last December.

Instead, the program in question is Iowa, which owns the least-productive offense among Power 5 schools based on yards per game in 2022. It’s a team whose head coach, Kirk Ferentz, has drawn criticism for continuing to employ his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator despite ranking 130th in total offense and never finishing higher than 87th nationally since his promotion six years ago. The tension boiled over when a columnist for Cleveland.com questioned Ferentz about why he’s willing to swap quarterbacks but won’t entertain an in-season change at offensive coordinator following a particularly ugly loss to Ohio State earlier this year.

The exchange became contentious when Doug Lesmerises asked Ferentz if he’s put the program in an unfavorable position by allowing his son — who makes $900,000 per year — to continue overseeing one of the worst offenses in college football for the remainder of the season, and whether his eventual postseason evaluation of Brian Ferentz would be identical to that of any other assistant coach. A wildfire of headlines across the country sparked renewed discussions about nepotism hires doubling as painful roadblocks for aspiring minority coaches.

“I’ve tried to treat everybody with consistency on our staff, past and present,” Ferentz said in response to Lesmerises’ questions. “Same thing with players. I’ve had three family members play as well in our program, and, you know, they’ve got to earn everything they get. Just like coaches do.”

Even with the high-profile upheaval, Iowa maintains a commitment from five-star offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor, an in-state jewel of jewels from 115 miles west of Kinnick Stadium in Des Moines. At 6-foot-7 and 330 pounds, Proctor is the No. 11 overall prospect in the ’23 recruiting cycle and the No. 2 player at his position. He was offered scholarships by eight of the top 10 teams from the latest College Football Playoff rankings, in addition to more than three dozen other schools. 

Proctor headlines an Iowa recruiting class ranked 27th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten behind Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. If he signs with the Hawkeyes, Proctor will be the school’s highest-rated player since 247Sports began tracking prospects in 2000.

“It says a lot about the coaches, the program, the tradition, the fans,” said wide receiver Alex Mota, a three-star prospect committed to Iowa, when asked what it meant for Proctor to choose the Hawkeyes. “Every time I walk through the field (for recruiting visits during games) and I’m walking with KP, they’ll be yelling at him, ‘Welcome home!’  So the fans enjoy it. And I know he enjoys it, too.” 

That the Hawkeyes have produced 19 NFL draft picks along the offensive line since Kirk Ferentz was hired on Dec. 2, 1998, is reason enough for Proctor to spurn the overtures from traditional blue bloods and remain closer to home. But when coupled with this year’s high-profile meltdowns against South Dakota State (zero touchdowns), Illinois (zero touchdowns) and Ohio State (six turnovers), a commitment from someone of Proctor’s ilk begs the question of what attracts offensive players to Iowa, where 18 of the last 20 seasons have ended with bowl appearances but 13 of them included offenses ranked outside the top 75.

Conversations with a half-dozen prospects committed to Iowa in the ’23 and ’24 recruiting classes offered a window into how Ferentz and his staff build the roster, how they identify the types of offensive players most likely to consider the Hawkeyes and the ways in which the program’s unwavering consistency gets incorporated into their pitch. For the recruits who eventually commit to Iowa, many of the things that invite criticism of Ferentz are what got them to Iowa City in the first place. 

“Really his stability with the program, you can just tell he loves where he’s at,” said Leighton Jones, a three-star interior lineman from Indiana, “and he doesn’t want to be preached upon like some of the other Big Ten coaches that want to be worshiped or whatever. He’s a really humble guy, and I felt like I could pair well with him. 

“My biggest thing was coaching turnover. Throughout the time I was being recruited, a lot of things were going on, coaches were moving — that was my biggest fear. But I knew Iowa was the place that it wouldn’t happen.” 

*** *** ***

There was a moment during Jones’ recruitment when a member of Iowa’s staff handed him a piece of paper with approximately 40 or 50 names on it. The list, he was told, included every former high school wrestling champion who matriculated at Iowa and went on to earn All-Big Ten honors in football.  

For the Hawkeyes, who have produced six first-round NFL offensive linemen since 2004, such a recruiting tool was multipronged. Not only did it demonstrate the rugged mentality Ferentz demands in the trenches, but it also offered Jones — a wrestler himself at Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Indiana — the ideal blueprint for what his career might look like in Iowa City.

The coaches believed that Jones, who played mostly defensive line and tight end in high school, could effectively switch sides of the ball like last year’s starting center, Tyler Linderbaum, who was selected No. 25 overall by the Baltimore Ravens despite changing positions in college.

“I really mirrored myself with some of the guys they have on that paper,” Jones said. “And I feel like it just matched up perfectly.”

Jones and his future teammates described the heavy emphasis Ferentz places on offensive line recruiting as being markedly different from the approaches taken by other schools who pursued them. The Iowa coaching staff explained that building outwardly from the trenches was their preferred philosophy, and recruiting rankings for the prospects they’ve targeted in recent years reinforce that claim: Three of the Hawkeyes’ four highest-rated commits in ’23 are offensive linemen, three of the top six signees in ’21 were offensive linemen, and three of the top five signees in ’19 were offensive linemen.

That kind of consistency ripples through Iowa’s recruiting on both sides of the ball. Over the last five years, none of the Hawkeyes’ classes have ranked higher than 27th nationally, but none of them have finished worse than 46th, either. They’ve signed 77.3% of their players from states housing at least one Big Ten school during that stretch, and they’ve taken exactly one quarterback each year. 

“They definitely recruit different than other schools,” said Trevor Lauck, a three-star offensive tackle from Indianapolis with additional scholarship offers from Ohio State, Michigan and Tennessee, among others. “They know that they’re not going to pull all the four and five stars, so they’re going to build it around relationships. They’re going to focus on that.”

Focusing on relationships includes consolidating official visits to ensure as many recruits as possible are on campus simultaneously, a method the coaching staff believes is a valuable way to secure commitments. Lauck said he was only given one choice for when to use his official visit — the weekend of June 24 — and the guest list included prospects who now represent the top four players in Iowa’s class, only two of whom were committed at the time.

Proctor, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, gave his verbal pledge a few days after the official visit weekend. He became the program’s first five-star commit since defensive end A.J. Epenesa in 2017 and the first on offense since the Hawkeyes landed a trio of five stars in 2005: tight end Anthony Moeaki, offensive tackle Dan Doering and offensive tackle Dace Richardson.

“I really got to see who I would be around, you know?” Lauck said. “And I just really enjoyed my time with the guys and I feel like I bonded well with them.”

The other pillar of relationship building involves players forging bonds with members of the coaching staff, Ferentz included. Offensive line coach George Barnett was praised for encouraging recruits to simply “be a kid” by enjoying what time they have left in high school rather than peppering their phones with messages. Wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland was lauded by Mota for his honesty when asked about the possibility of early playing time. And prior to his retirement last season, former quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe connected with three-star quarterback Marco Lainez III by swapping book recommendations.

Ferentz, meanwhile, prefers to talk about life over football.

“The first thing I realized when I walked in that building was culture in the sense of family that they gave you,” Lainez said. “Every time you walked in there, everyone was very welcoming. Everybody just welcomes you into their family. It was just a very loving culture.”

*** *** ***

Family is also what has thrust Ferentz into a prickly position this season with an offense sputtering among the worst in college football. The Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) rank 124th in scoring offense at 17.9 points per game, 123rd in passing offense (152.7 YPG), 119th in rushing offense (98.4 YPG), 126th in third-down conversions (29%) and tied for 129th in long scrimmage plays, with only 28 gains of at least 20 yards.

All of that would be problematic regardless of who was running the offense, but Ferentz’s decision to promote his son to offensive coordinator in 2017 and give him control of the quarterbacks in 2022 has only intensified the vitriolic swarm. Things came to a head this season after the blowout loss to the Buckeyes and the pithy exchange between Ferentz and Lesmerises. The head coach eventually issued an apology for his demeanor.

“I wanted to take a moment to apologize for my comments during the news conference yesterday,” Ferentz said in a statement disseminated to the Iowa media. “I should not have been dismissive of one of your colleagues — his questions were fair. I have a high respect for the work that you do, and I am appreciative of how you cover our team. You ask tough and pointed questions but do so with a high degree of professionalism. I tell our players to take the high road and yesterday, I did not do the same.”

Brian Ferentz, 39, was a starting offensive lineman at Iowa and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2005. He spent parts of the 2006 and 2007 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints before accepting a job as a scouting assistant for the New England Patriots in 2008. From there, Brian Ferentz moved into an on-field role as an offensive assistant in 2010 and later got promoted to tight ends coach for what proved to be his final season under Bill Belichick in 2011.

Father and son reunited in Iowa City when the latter was hired to coach the offensive line in 2012. Brian Ferentz maintained that position for three seasons before his responsibilities expanded to include a run game coordinator title and, eventually, a second bump to full offensive coordinator in 2017. Since then, his positions of focus have included running backs (2017), tight ends (2018-21) and quarterbacks (2022) — the last of which has proved most controversial given the anemic performance of starter Spencer Petras (five TDs, five INTs) and the lack of a reliable backup.

“The guy calling the plays is coaching the quarterback directly,” Ferentz said last spring after announcing the decision to have his son oversee the quarterbacks. “Personally, I think if he can get that situation it’s better, and Brian is more than capable of doing that job. And he knows our offense better than anybody, quite frankly. I think it’s going to be a good, positive move for us.”

But the statistics suggest otherwise — not only for the 2022 campaign but across the whole of Brian Ferentz’s tenure as offensive coordinator. From 1999-2016, Iowa’s offense averaged 359.4 yards per game with an average national ranking of 74.5. The best season was in 2002, when the Hawkeyes ranked 13th in total offense, and the worst season was in 2016, when they finished 121st with just 325 yards per game.

In the six years since Brian Ferentz took over as offensive coordinator — including the 10 games this season — Iowa has averaged 335.4 yards per game with an average national ranking of 108th. The best season was a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign in which the Hawkeyes ranked 87th, and the worst season is happening right now, with the Hawkeyes mired one spot ahead of last-place New Mexico and two of their coaches in the crosshairs.

That Iowa has fallen so far in the national rankings despite an average output within 24 yards of the pre-Brian Ferentz era reflects slippage relative to college football’s increasingly high-flying offenses. Georgia Tech was the only team that averaged more than 472 yards per game during Kirk Ferentz’s first season at Iowa in 1999. This year, 17 teams are exceeding that mark.  

“They’ve had success in the past,” said three-star quarterback James Resar, a verbal commit for Iowa in the ’24 recruiting class, “so they didn’t forget how to coach. It’s just things haven’t been going well. I think people are overreacting too quick.”

A canvassing of Iowa’s recruits produced numerous responses mirroring Resar’s opinion. Players expressed varying degrees of frustration over the toxicity on social media, where both Kirk Ferentz and Brian Ferentz have been raked over the proverbial coals. All of them believe their recruiting classes can restore the Hawkeyes to the upper echelon of the Big Ten, and none of them plan to decommit if or when there’s a change at offensive coordinator. Three consecutive wins over Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin in which Iowa scored 81 combined points have certainly helped. 

Thus far, the only defector is four-star running back Kendrick Raphael from Naples, Florida, who decommitted on Sept. 21 and did not respond to an interview request. But Raphael’s decision to re-open his recruitment came weeks before things got heated at Ohio Stadium.

“It bothered me a little bit because I like both of them,” Lainez said of the Ferentzs. “I like them a lot. I want to run through a wall for both of them already. It’s weird to say because I haven’t even suited up for them, but I want to. Then I also saw how they were handling the situation. And it was a very good lesson for me learning now, as a high schooler, that they’re responding in a way that is necessary. So it kind of showed me the way.” 

*** *** ***

Pop quiz: Of all the assistant coaches on Kirk Ferentz’s staff this season, how many played for him at Iowa? 

Hint: There are more ex-Hawkeyes prowling the sideline than not.

In a literal sense, family is the reason Ferentz landed in hot water this season when an offense run by his son underachieved. But in a metaphorical sense, family is the reason many recruits have decided to become Hawkeyes in the first place.

Counting Brian Ferentz, five of this year’s eight assistants passed through Iowa City as players before eventually deciding to be coaches. Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods, who was already on campus when Ferentz was named head coach, has been on staff since 2008.

Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell joined in 2012 and has filled roles both on and off the field. Running backs coach Ladell Betts, a former second-round pick in 2002, returned to campus last season. And Abdul Hodge, a former All-American linebacker under Ferentz, was the latest addition to the staff in May.

“They all preach about how honest Coach Ferentz is and how he does everything the right way,” Jones said. “So that kind of appealed to me that the players always have good things to say about him.”

From the outside, there are two ways to perceive Ferentz’s philosophy of populating his coaching staff with former players. The first is to question the efficacy of an insular system that, to some extent, seals off new ideas by employing a series of coaches familiar with what the Hawkeyes have always done. The second is to appreciate the strength of culture necessary for people to want to return. 

And that’s the lens through which future Hawkeyes choose to peer.

“The environment is really what pulled me in,” said interior offensive lineman Cody Fox, a four-star prospect in ’24 whose brother plays at Iowa. “And the coaching staff is what kept me there.”

Read more:

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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