Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Iowa Is Good for College Football

With Few Top Recruits Nearby, the 9-1 Hawkeyes Made a Bold Run at the National Title


November 10, 2009

Ricky Stanzi and other players with the Iowa Hawkeyes celebrate a 21-10 victory over Penn State in September.

Iowa's upset loss to Northwestern on Saturday didn't fundamentally change the college football season. The unbeaten triumvirate of No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Texas and No. 3 Alabama continues to steam toward the most predictable finish in years.

But here's what hasn't been said: Iowa's improbable winning streak, which had reached 13 games and taken them as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and No. 4 in the BCS standings, was one of the most stunning—if not inspiring—stories in the recent history of college football.

In a day and age when star coaches at schools in the country's richest recruiting grounds have been hoarding the top talent, the Hawkeyes were an unlikely candidate to threaten them. The team has never won an outright national title, it's only had one marquee recruiting class in the past five years and was ranked No. 22 before this season. Even its coach, Kirk Ferentz, said he was surprised by its performance. "Realistically, I have a hard time even picturing us in the top 10," he said last month.

Yet the Hawkeyes started 9-0 this season and beat so many solid opponents that they were ranked No. 1 at one point by the computer polls. Even the loss to Northwestern wasn't an indictment—the Hawkeyes had opened up a lead in the game that collapsed only after junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi was forced out with an ankle injury.

What's remarkable about the Iowa program is its relative isolation. The ride to campus in Iowa City cuts through endless farmland. "I mean, a lot of corn on the drive up," says Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki. The lack of population puts the team in a peculiar fix. Other top football schools fill their rosters with scholarship players from their home states—roughly 59% of Florida's recruits the past five years were from Florida, and a whopping 93% of Texas's were from the state, according to The Hawkeyes have taken only 22% of their recruits over this period from Iowa, which is one of the smaller states to have a major-conference football program.

There are four other teams ranked in the top 20 of this week's BCS standings that have lower percentages of native players. Boise State took just 16% of its recruits from Idaho in the past five years, and Oklahoma State took 16% from Oklahoma, while Arizona and Oregon have even lower figures. But each of those schools has an advantage Iowa doesn't: They feed off of bountiful talent from a giant football state nearby—Texas in Oklahoma State's case, and California for the other three.

While Iowa is roughly four hours from several Midwestern cities, it faces stiff challenges from competitors like Notre Dame, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State. As a result, Iowa's recruiting rankings aren't usually the stuff of champions. After putting together the nation's 11th-best recruiting class in 2005, the Hawkeyes have ranked 40th, 28th, 53rd and 63rd, according to, a Web site that tracks recruiting. "Of course they have trouble recruiting," says former Iowa president Mary Sue Coleman, now the president at Michigan. "They're in the middle of Iowa."

Chuck Long, Iowa's star quarterback in the 1980s, said he didn't know anything about the campus before he visited, despite growing up a four-hour drive away, outside of Chicago.

"The key to Iowa recruiting is just getting kids to take that first visit," says Mr. Long, who went on to become an assistant coach with the Hawkeyes. "When I was there, we felt like if we could just get someone on campus, we'd have a great success rate of getting them to go to school there. The challenge is getting them to visit."

There are those who say Iowa was lucky to get this far. The team beat lower-level Northern Iowa with two blocked field goals, barely squeaked by Arkansas State, beat Michigan State on a last-second touchdown pass and pulled off a big comeback against Indiana after trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter.

The season is hardly over for Iowa: The No. 15 Hawkeyes visit No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday in a matchup that will decide which school will receive the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth (which will almost certainly be to the Rose Bowl). The game appears to be a formality. With Mr. Stanzi injured, the Hawkeyes weren't able to score so much as a field goal at home against unranked Northwestern. They don't figure to fare better in Columbus against Ohio State's sixth-ranked defense.

In any case, optimism still reigns in Iowa. "We've had a lot of national exposure, so that gets recruits to pay attention," says athletic director Gary Barta. Adds Allen Trieu, a recruiting analyst with "Last week I talked to a number of kids who say Iowa is one of the schools they're excited about."

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