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Moneyball and recruiting in Iowa

6/25/2014 - Iowa Hawkeyes

No offense, but Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz probably won't ever be confused for Brad Pitt.

In a college football world that's defined by swag and teams with 50 different uniform combinations, Ferentz has always done things differently. And that includes recruiting.

As more and more schools -- including virtually every program in the Big Ten -- flock to Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi more than ever, Iowa has done the exact opposite. Over the past 12 recruiting cycles, Iowa has stuck to its Midwest roots, signing 128 players from Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. Also during that time, Texas and Florida are the only Southern states among the 10 states from which Iowa most commonly lands commitment. It's more common for the Hawkeyes to land players from New Jersey, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

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."

Indeed it has.

Since 2002, Iowa has the Big Ten's fifth-best winning percentage -- fourth if you remove Nebraska, which entered the league in 2011. The Hawkeyes also have the 25th-best winning percentage in the country during that time and have won two Big Ten titles. Iowa has also done a very good job of turning the Midwest talent into NFL players, with 38 players selected in the past 10 drafts, including first-round picks Dallas Clark, Robert Gallery, Bryan Bulaga, Adrian Clayborn and Riley Reiff.

Where Beane, whom Pitt played in the 2011 film adaptation of Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball," used advanced metrics and statistical analysis to better scout players and help the Oakland A's compete with large-market baseball teams, Iowa's evaluation process is a bit different from its peers.

Former Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson, who recently left the program after serving as school's recruiting coordinator for 10 years, said the Hawkeyes noticed there was "something different" about how Midwest players reacted in games when compared to players from outside of the region. That helped Iowa win a lot of ball games with players who were a half-inch shorter or a tenth of a second slower than their Big Ten competition that featured rosters full of four-star prospects from outside of the region.

"Anytime you're a state school, you owe it to that state to start in-state first and then recruit outwards within your region," Johnson said.

Johnson added: "You need to at least be thorough in your state and the surrounding states because those kids bleed that school's colors. They're grown up following those teams. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, those kids are going to fight a little bit harder to be successful for that local school.

"Then 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."

Micah Hyde, a former first-team All-Big Ten defensive back who is now with the Green Bay Packers, is a perfect example. Despite earning first-team all-state honors at Fostoria (Ohio) High School, he didn't get a sniff from Ohio State, Michigan or even Michigan State, where his brother played. He said those slights drove him at Iowa.

"I didn't want to go to school that if they can't get another player, they thought they could get me," Hyde told reporters before a 19-16 victory over Michigan State in his senior season. "Michigan was the same way. They offered a bunch of five-star or four-star athletes, and if they didn't get them, they were interested in me. Iowa recruited me from the beginning, and I have worked every day to show them that I'm thankful for the belief they had in me."

The Hawkeyes has made a living with those types of prospects, but chips on shoulders aren't tangible and evaluations matter most, no matter the program.

A well-evaluated but undervalued prospect with a good frame is key to Ferentz's approach. Iowa can put these players in the weight room, coach them up and move them to another position, much like it did with linebacker turned defensive tackle Karl Klug or receiver turned tight end Scott Chandler.

They also love recruiting high school quarterbacks who will never take a snap for the Hawkeyes. Hyde, Chad Greenway, Jeff Tarpinian and Marvin McNutt are just a few on the long list of quarterbacks who came to Iowa but ended up starring at new positions.

Johnson said playing quarterback in high school requires football intelligence that few other positions need, and that IQ can often be easily translated to other positions. The Hawkeyes also believe that playing quarterback at a smaller school shows you're the best athlete on the field.

Those two things aren't unique to Iowa, but the Hawkeyes are one of the few to make it a primary recruiting strategy. And it helps Iowa -- essentially a small-market program with a 2013 recruiting budget for all sports of $1,275,114 that ranked 10th in the Big Ten -- compete.

"When you're at a school like Iowa that's in the middle of the country competing against a school like Ohio State that has a stadium that is the Taj Mahal of college football, you have to be OK with being different," Johnson said. "Iowa has a unique formula for recruiting success, and it's going to continue to pay off down the road."