Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Will Iowa's 'Moneyball' recruiting pay off?
By Adam Rittenberg
Anyone who follows Iowa football, even casually, knows the Hawkeyes are a developmental program -- and damn proud of it. They've repeatedly taken the overlooked and underappreciated and made them into excellent college players, and NFL draft picks.
But there has been debate whether Iowa aims high enough and far enough on the recruiting trail. Iowa caused a stir last winter when head coach Kirk Ferentz said he no longer assigned an assistant to Florida and Eric Johnson, then the team's recruiting coordinator, said Florida, annually one of the top states in producing FBS players, wasn't a huge priority for the program.
Despite several recent misses in the Sunshine State, the Hawkeyes' approach seemed provincial at best and irresponsible at worst. But perhaps it's just different.
Colleague Jeremy Crabtree explores Iowa's recruiting strategy, which focuses almost entirely on the Midwest and on bringing in under-the-radar prospects.
From the story:
Most coaches believe that if you want to win big, you have to own the South. Not Iowa.
"Iowa just does things differently than anybody else in our league, and virtually everybody else in the country," one Big Ten recruiting coordinator said. "I don't think you'll ever see us focus only on the Midwest like [Iowa has] done, because it won't work for us. But for them it does. It's kind of like what you see in baseball with Billy Beane. The way Iowa recruits is kind of like 'Moneyball' on the recruiting trail. They have their formula, and a lot of people think they're crazy for doing it that way. It's produced a lot of good results, though."
Iowa has been a consistent bowl team during Ferentz's tenure with success spikes from 2002-04 and again in 2009. Given the small local recruiting base, it has been an impressive stretch.
While every Big Ten coaching staff talks about first securing its local territory in recruiting, Iowa seems to take it one step further. The Hawkeyes' coaches are always seeking the underrated Midwest prospect, who fit better with their culture.
Check out this quote from Johnson in Crabtree's piece:
"You have the guys from places like Illinois, and now especially Ohio and Indiana, that were overlooked because Ohio State and Notre Dame are recruiting on such a national level. Those kids play so much harder because they have a chip on their shoulder. Ohio State and Notre Dame told them they weren't good enough to play there, and recruits like to prove they were wrong."
That's certainly true in many cases, and Iowa has benefited from bringing in chip-on-their-shoulder recruits from the heartland. But it leaves me with two questions:
1. Will the "Moneyball" approach help Iowa reach its ultimate peak as a program?
2. Is Iowa too accepting of its place in college football's hierarchy?
I'm big on understanding who you really are as a program -- not enough fans do this -- but I've sat in Ferentz's office and heard him say, "We're not USC." While it's true, it also sounds a bit defeatist -- and tough to reconcile given that he's making a top-10 salary.
The population trends don't lie, and while recruiting rankings can be subjective, it can't be disputed that more elite players live outside the Big Ten footprint. Iowa has shown it can reach a certain level with try-hard, local and regional types, but can it reach the next level -- competing for a college football playoff spot -- without branching out and pursuing more nationally elite prospects? Because any program that pays its coach what Iowa pays Ferentz should be aiming for the playoff, period.
It's great to see Iowa making overdue facilities upgrades. There are other things the program can do to promote itself and become more appealing to top recruits, like Michigan State has done.
But I don't see a path to the playoff without making national recruiting, and particularly the Southeast, a major priority. I'm encouraged that Iowa's most recent 2015 recruits come from Texas (LB Justin Jinning) and Florida (WR Adrian Falconer). We'll see if more prospects follow from those fertile states.
How do you feel about Iowa's approach? Let me know.