Having it his way

Iowa recruiting coordinator leaves football to open fast-food restaurant

Updated: May 29, 2014, 10:26 AM ET
By Jeremy Crabtree | ESPN RecruitingNation

In mid-April, Eric Johnson walked into Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's office and told him he was leaving the program he helped build into one of the Big Ten's most consistent for the past 15 years.

Did he get a job at Alabama? Not quite. The NFL? No, he had a higher calling than that. He was opening a Culver's fast-food restaurant in Tennessee.

For many, it's hard to fathom why Johnson would walk away from a "dream job" with an annual salary of around $200,000 to move his wife and twin 10-year-old daughters more than 600 miles away to start a burger joint. The decision to leave the Hawkeyes for the Wisconsin-based chain generated a lot of jokes on Twitter, where he was deemed a "hero to all" who aced "Midwest 101."

But for Johnson, the demands placed on recruiters today is no laughing matter.

Sure, coaches have walked away in the past due to time demands and the strain it can put on a family. That certainly played a role in Johnson's decision, but one of the biggest reasons he's walking away is because he feels the recruiting game has changed so much over the past decade.

[+] EnlargeEric Johnson
Courtesy University of IowaEager to get away from the craziness of recruiting, Eric Johnson left Iowa to open a Culver's fast-food restaurant.

"It all ties together," Johnson said. "You can never get away from it. If you are at dinner and the phone rings, you have to get it. Vacation is the same way. When you are on vacation, you are worried you are missing an opportunity with a prospect. This all takes away from the family. Weekends are nonexistent because of visits. It is just nonstop 365 days of year, and I needed to get off of that train and get a healthy balance in my life.

"Our profession has gone so much off the deep end with everything that's going on with recruiting, and it's not even funny anymore. There are a lot of other coaches all over the country that feel the same exact way and don't like the direction things are going. There's so much BS out there. We want you to be a part of 'our can of swag' or whatever. It got to the point where I just couldn't be a part of it anymore."

Leaving college football behind was something Johnson had been thinking about for a while. Two years ago, he partnered with three other owners in another Culver's franchise in Nashville. Six months ago, one of those partners asked Johnson to run another location in town. He hesitated initially but came back to the idea after signing day in February.

"For me, I had to make a choice," Johnson said. "What kind of dad did I want to be? What kind of coach had I become? It had nothing to do with my wife. My wife didn't say, 'I want you home,' and all that. It was just my personal choice. It's just hard when you're always chasing 16- and 17-year-old kids."

Johnson is now in the middle of an intense 16-week training course at ButterBurger University in Madison, Wisconsin, where he spends his time studying the Culver's playbook on how to run a franchise.

"One of the things that [former Iowa defensive coordinator] Norm Parker taught me after being around him for 18, 19 years, is that you should try to find a way to give back to the game," Johnson said. "Norm was always a guy trying to find ways he could give something back. He was never looking for what can the game do for him. There's so much now with the way social media has built up, the young coaches see what the fans want to see and go out there in their Ray-Bans or whatever and try to see what the game can give to them, rather than what they can give to it."

So the guy who helped Iowa secure a top-10 recruiting class in 2005 and landed future first-round NFL pick Adrian Clayborn in 2006, decided it was time leave the Iowa family and join the Culver's family.

"It was one of the hardest things I've had to do," Johnson said. "Coaching is the greatest profession in the world. I told [Ferentz] that [Culver's] was so similar to how we do things at Iowa. If it was only going to be what the baselines are, how do you make profits and all that and don't worry about anything else, that's not what I would have wanted to get into. It's going to be a competition and a challenge for me every day."

He'll have the competitive aspect, just without a side of recruiting craziness.

Jeremy Crabtree

RecruitingNation, Reporter

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