While finishing a successful senior football season at Barringer High School in Newark, New Jersey in 1980, Keith Hunter had a college decision to make.
He could choose Pitt, a powerhouse program, which was just completing consecutive 11-1 seasons to add to the national championship they had won in 1976.
He could choose Syracuse, which was a solid program that was close to home.
He could choose Penn State, which had played for a national title just one year earlier.
Or he could choose Iowa, which aside from being 986 miles from home, had not finished with a winning record in 19 years.
Hunter narrowed his choices to Pitt and Iowa, but eventually felt Iowa City offered him something that Pittsburgh didn't: a change.
"When I started to really consider (Pittsburgh), I realized that it was no different from Newark. There was a lot of crime and drugs, and Iowa City didn't have that."
So it was settled. He wanted to play for Iowa and their little-known coach Hayden Fry.
"When I really looked at Iowa I said to myself ‘I can help turn this program around and be a piece of the pie.'"
With the addition of Hunter and his high school teammate Norm Granger, the Newark to Iowa City pipeline had officially been tapped. Hayden Fry's coaching staff, in particular Bernie Wyatt, had discovered what was becoming fertile recruiting ground for the Hawkeyes.
Just a few years earlier, the Hawkeyes had signed Andre Tippett and George Person from Newark. Tippett would eventually earn consensus All-American honors at Iowa followed by a successful NFL career, which included his number being retired by the New England Patriots in 1999.
So what did Wyatt do that most other schools didn't?
He went to Newark.
"Not many coaches wanted to go to Newark to recruit," said Hunter, "It's a tough town, and it's tough for coaches to make their recruits feel comfortable if they're not comfortable themselves."
When Hunter arrived in Iowa City, he realized he was part of a program that was being built from the ground up.
"At that time, they weren't able to get a lot of blue-chip type players because they hadn't been winning," said Hunter, who became a four-year letter winner at cornerback for the Hawkeyes. "They were looking for that All-State or All-County guy rather than the All-American. What they were really looking for were winners."
Following 19 years of losing, it would probably be easier to ask what Fry didn't change rather than what he did change.
"When Hayden came to Iowa, the system was bad and he had to fix some attitudes," said Hunter. "He made people cut their hair. He made people shave their beards. He made people dress alike. He wanted to turn ‘I' into ‘Team'."
As if changing the attitudes of his players wasn't enough, Fry also wanted to change the way the nation viewed the Big Ten.
"Back then people called it the ‘Big Two & Little Eight', but I remember saying to myself when I got there that as soon as everyone was thinking on the same line, we were going to be one hell of a football team."
When it came time to play the "Big Two", Fry searched for any advantage he could find. In addition to the infamous pink locker room that visiting teams still use today in Kinnick Stadium, he also tried to prepare his teams for the hostile crowds they would face in Ann Arbor and Columbus.
"When we would go to Michigan or Ohio State, he would have a loudspeaker play crowd noise in practice to get us used to that environment," said Hunter. "I think it worked subconsciously, but even with 100,000 people there, unless there was a big play or something, you just blocked out the crowd noise."
Although Fry looked at large opposing crowds as a disadvantage, many of the Hawkeyes actually looked forward to the challenge of playing in "The Big House" and "The Horseshoe."
"If you're an athlete, those things turn you on," Hunter said. "You want to play in those environments."
According to Hunter, Fry's assistant coaches were another important part of the rebuilding process. One of those assistants was a little-known offensive line coach named Kirk Ferentz.
"At that time, he was a young coach but you could tell he was very detail-oriented. Whether or not he had experience didn't matter. What was important was that he was detail-oriented and he was a good fit for the program and what we wanted to accomplish."
"Coach Fry hired the people he believed in and who believed in his system, regardless of their experience."
During Iowa's Big Ten championship season in 2002, many people across the country were surprised by the success of the Hawkeyes led by the same Kirk Ferentz, but Keith Hunter was not one of them.
"I'm not surprised at all at what Coach Ferentz is doing because he is a technique oriented guy, he's a very good coach and he's very well known by people who know football."
Hunter also believes that fan support is a crucial part of the rebuilding process.
"I think the fans are just as important as the coaching staff," Hunter said. "There's an old saying that it takes a community to raise a child. It's the same thing with a football program. It takes the Iowa City community to support the coaching staff and the team so the system will work."
After graduating from Iowa in 1984, Hunter was drafted by the Oakland Invaders of the short lived USFL before eventually signing a free agent contract with the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
These days Hunter, much like he did in Iowa City, is staying busy. He and his wife Claudette live in New Albany, Ohio where they have two daughters, Trinity (7) and Faith (2 months). The game of golf plays an important role in Hunter's life. In addition to teaching his daughter Trinity the game, he is also a teaching golf pro, and has started his own company. KGH Enterprises, that sells golf equipment to pro shops and country clubs in Central Ohio.
Although many of his daily activities center around golf, he has not completely forgotten the game of football. He currently serves as the vice president of the NFL Alumni Association of Central Ohio.
Hunter is trying to practice many of the things Hayden Fry preached to him 22 years ago, including the importance of giving back to the community. He helps raise around $150,000 per year for various charities.
"Since I left, I have always thought it was my responsibility to represent the University of Iowa, and to never do anything to embarrass the University," he said. "I don't think the program owes anyone anything, because it gave us all so much."
#14 Keith Hunter
Newark, NJ (Barringer H.S.)
- Four-year letter winner, 1981-1984
- Iowa Football Co-Captain 1984
- Played in Rose, Peach, Gator & Freedom Bowls
- Signed with Cleveland Browns as a free-agent in 1984 Nick Mishler will be a contributor to HawkeyeNation.com in the coming months and will provide features just like the one you have just read. He is a 2001 graduate of St. Ambrose University and a lifelong Hawkeye fan, having grown up just three blocks from Kinnick Stadium. Mishler has missed just two home games during the last 20 years of his life. Now living in Indianapolis, he still makes it to nearly every Hawkeye home contest