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Eric Johnson's office looks like it belongs on VH-1's "It Came from the ‘80s." All around the room sit piles of VHS videotapes. You'd never know the DVD was invented in this time capsule.
Fortunately, the Iowa recruiting coordinator loves finding a use for these visual dinosaurs. On them exists the future of Hawkeye football.
There's no telling how much videotape Johnson actually watches. But Iowa begins its recruiting season with a list of about 2,500 prospects in a given class. And Johnson watches the bulk of them.
Unlike professional football where a small percentage of the team changes, the Hawkeyes lose and reload around 20-25 percent of their team each year. And that's a lot of work.
"I always tell everybody that recruiting is a marathon," Johnson said. "During the summer, you're only about through the fourth mile. In December, we're probably at the 18th mile.
"Then you've just got to hang onto your pants, and hopefully, everybody stays in the boat with you."
If a floating vessel is what carries Iowa's recruiting class, this year's haul might be the Love Boat. It's exciting and new.
Things have changed. This year, Iowa has turned away athletes it might have lost to other schools in the past. Meanwhile, it has constructed potentially the best class in the Kirk Ferentz Era. At the beginning of January, the Hawkeye group looked like a sure bet to be in the Top 10 in the national recruiting rankings, with a shot at the Top 5.
But there's no doubt that the Hawkeyes have better positioned themselves for the top prize with hard work on the field and in the recruiting game.
The on-field success has been greatly publicized. We've lauded the expertise of the coaches, the strength program of Chris Doyle and the great walk-on stories. We've broken the rock and applauded the Next Man In.
This February's signing day could mark the beginning of Nirvana for the large segment of Black and Gold fanatics in love with recruiting.
Hawkeye Nation decided to get inside of the recruiting machine at Iowa by meeting with Johnson. We formulated a calendar of events you will find in this month's issue and conducted a lengthy Q&A session:
Hawkeye Nation: What are the key elements of information you're seeking when you first contact a prospect through the mail?
Eric Johnson: You're talking about the football program or the university itself, just highlighting. You don't give them a whole lot because you have to be giving them information from now through December. You don't want to run out of things to say.
HN: Are they personalized at all?
EJ: A little bit of both. Some kids will start getting hand written notes (in January and February). Some are getting general correspondence at this time. It depends. Every kid will get the general correspondence and then some kids will get a little more individualized.
HN: How do you generate that underclassmen list?
EJ: It starts with the recruiting services that start happening in January. It starts by talking to the coaches at the schools. It's an ongoing process, as more recruiting services will be coming in in February and March.
By the start of March, your list will probably be at about 2,000-2,500 kids. That's when you start evaluating the tapes and off the recruiting services you start calling coaches and asking about the kids. That's when your list starts to narrow down a little bit.
HN: When you watch a tape of a prospect, what are you guys looking for?
EJ: It depends upon the position. We look at a kid as an overall football player; toughness. And then you get into the athleticism and all that depending upon position.
HN: Is it tough to evaluate a kid from Florida or Texas as opposed to one in Iowa or Minnesota or Wisconsin?
EJ: Competition might be different, but you'll be able to tell if the kid is a football player. A kid that doesn't play against great competition should just stand out immediately. If he doesn't stand out immediately, then he's not a Division I recruit.
You may have to see a little bit of a kid from Florida or an Ohio because there are a bunch of Division I players. You've got to take that into account a little bit. And you may wait a little bit longer and do a little bit more research on a kid that is from a smaller area just to make sure that he is what you think he is.
HN: When you go into the schools during the six-week period at the end of April and into May, what are you looking to find out from the high school coaches?
EJ: You ask the coaches about intangibles; his work ethic; what they feel about his toughness; athleticism; different sports they play; what type of leader he is; the intangibles that you can't see on tape.
Or, you may have questions about what you see on tape. You can see if they reaffirm what you saw on tape or if they say, "No, really, this kid is this type of player. I think you should look at him."
HN: A high school coach is going to want to show the positives of his kid and maybe conceal the warts. How do you process the information to serve your needs?
EJ: Every coach is different. (Offensive Line Coach) Reese (Morgan), for example, really takes into account what other people say about a kid. I'm a big believer that when I watch tape, I don't want anybody to tell me their opinion on a kid. I want to look at that tape with nothing in my mind but what I see on that tape. I'm a big believer that what you see on tape is what you're going to get.
Some people combine the two philosophies. It just depends on the specific coach and his recruiting area.
HN: When you get your first chance to talk to these kids on the phone in May, what are you trying to learn?
EJ: You try to find out what type of kid they are on the phone. You can try to gauge their interest. How much do they know about Iowa? Have they paid attention? If a kid is a great player and doesn't know a whole lot, then you've got to sell Iowa.
You've got that one shot to try to make him believe, to keep reading your letters throughout that summer until you can start calling them again in September. You try to convince them to come onto your campus at least once during the summer and take a look at some things. You're not calling every kid on your list. You're just calling the top guys.
HN: You oversee everything as the recruiting coordinator, but explain how every coach in the staff is part of this process?
EJ: I told somebody this the other day. The coordinator isn't like the offensive or defensive coordinator. He kind of helps out administration and organizational wise. But I don't do any more recruiting wise than what every other coach in his area does. It just helps to have somebody that's seen all of the kids and can help organize where coaches are going and that type of deal.
HN: How many interactions are there between the coaches in this area?
EJ: There's a ton. Our evaluation process goes through the area coach and the position coach. I take a look at the tape. Coach Ferentz takes a look at the tape. It's a thorough evaluation process to make sure that everybody is on the same page on who we want.
HN: And the basic, initial evaluation is broken up by area not position, correct?
EJ: It's all by area.
HN: How much tape does each coach watch?
EJ: It depends on how much evidence you have to find. Some kids you can watch a half a game or a game and you're done evaluating the kid, good or bad. With other guys, there are questions that have you watching three or four games on them.
HN: How do you guys pinpoint your positions most in need in a given year?
EJ: We look at that initially before spring ball, just to kind of give us an idea of what numbers we're looking at. We re-evaluate that after spring ball. There may be injuries, whatever. We'll look at that again after two-a-days. And then, we'll look at it again after the season. That's evolving also.
HN: So, you guys do very little in person evaluation of players?
EJ: Very little. That's just not our philosophy. And really, it's kind of a waste of time. You're busy. Really, all it really is is so they can see that Iowa showed up at our game for a half.
It's a waste of time and a waste of money when you really should be around your own players. All it is is because Mr. Jones down the street is going to game. Michigan is going to the game, so Iowa should be there.
We don't follow that philosophy. It's big for some kids to say that Iowa and whoever was at my game. But our priorities are here on campus.
HN: The guys that you recruit, personality wise, it doesn't seem that your presence at a game would be the kind of thing to win them over anyway.
EJ: Not at all. There are kids that it's important to that we may lose out on, but we stick to our beliefs and philosophies and most kids respect that.
HN: What has to happen for you to offer a scholarship to an underclassman?
EJ: It's the same evaluation process. An area coach has to feel strongly as does the position coach. Basically, I'm just like a last resort. If the area coach and the position coach feel strongly about him, he's going to get offered a scholarship.
But he's got to have those intangibles that let's you know that he's pretty good. You don't want to make an offer and then that kid gets no other offers. All of a sudden you're sitting there as the only guy.
So, you've got to feel strongly about a kid to offer underclassmen. But a lot of them get it. Now, it's the game that we're playing. Hopefully we don't get to the basketball way where we're offering sixth graders.
I don't think we'll get to that point because you have to have a different physicality to play football than you have to have for basketball. Recruiting basketball players is like recruiting a running back or a DB. All you have to do is see if he can jump or dribble a basketball. And if he's 7-foot in sixth grade, you probably should offer.
HN: So, when you get to the point when the position and the area coach are agreeing on a kid, that's when you offer?
EJ: Exactly. He's still got to have the intangibles. He's got to have decent grades. He doesn't have to be a Rhodes Scholar or anything like that, but he's got to have decent grades.
You have to make sure he's not robbing banks or anything like that. You've got to do a little bit of background checking on them. It's not just strictly a football evaluation.
HN: How much does it hurt things when a Marcel Frost or a Teraz McCray bails on you guys at the end of the recruiting process?
EJ: It hurts every now and then. (McCray) was a big time defensive lineman for us. Losing him on signing day hurt us. You can't do anything about it.
Marcel Frost, he was a needed tight end for us. Losing him during the week of signing day hurt us. You adjust. And in the end, you'll be able to overcome that stuff.
But we've done it to other teams, too. You give it and you get it. Usually we don't go on other guys' guys unless they contact us. There are a lot of schools that will keep hammering and hammering a kid. But once a kid tells us he's made a commitment, we're going to go spend our efforts trying to get guys that haven't committed somewhere.
HN: Does seeing offers a player might have from other big name schools impact your decision to offer a guy?
EJ: No, we do our own evaluation on guys. Some (coaches) get upset because they'll say all of these schools have offered, how come we haven't? Well, if we don't see the evidence, it's not going to happen. If the coach recruiting that area likes him, but the position coach doesn't and there's a tiebreaker and I don't see evidence and Coach Ferentz watches tape and doesn't feel strongly, we won't offer even if Ohio State or Michigan or all those schools have offered him.
HN: Does the opposite happen where you offer a guy and then some of the big names jump on?
EJ: It happens a ton. I think people respect what we've done and how Coach Ferentz has built the team; the work that the area coaches have done. A lot of people see that once Iowa offers a guy, he gets a ton of offers. I know for a fact kids that we've offered and other schools will offer that kid having never even watched a tape of the kid. We use to be able to sneak some guys. We can't sneak guys anymore.
HN: It's still got to help if you're the first one in though, right?
EJ: It helps out a lot. But guys say a lot of stuff in recruiting. Hopefully they believe what they see here and what we tell them.
HN: How much do you deal with Coach Ferentz's named being linked to other job?
EJ: It gets brought up. Every coach has had to deal with it. But Coach has done a pretty good job.
This is where he wants to stay. I think he's proven that. As you've seen this year, the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
We're in a pretty good situation with great fans and the good people that we work with. We've got a shot to reach for more than just a Big Ten Championship. There are some programs that are "traditional powerhouses" that can't say that right now. We can.
Each year, our recruiting classes have been getting better and better. Hopefully we're poised to have the best recruiting class we've ever had here. If we can keep building and getting the kind of guys we feel are our type of program guys, this is a pretty good place to coach at. Parents see that.
You've got to get off that first part of that initial end of the season when his name is on ESPN for the Browns and Notre Dame and all of that kind of stuff. But once they have a chance to see and talk with coach, they realize the sincerity that he has.
We tell recruits to look into the eyes of the people that are recruiting you and see if you really believe what they're saying. Once they see our assistant coaches telling them that Coach isn't leaving and the explanation why, and Coach Ferentz tells them he's not leaving, they can see there's truth in that.
HN: Are there negative recruiters that promote the idea of his name being mentioned for other jobs?
EJ: Oh yeah, everybody does that. There's a lot of stuff that's been talked about, whether people are selling their programs or negatively selling other people's programs. We just try to sell Iowa. Let other people worry about trying to de-recruit Iowa.
HN: Each year, do you evaluate what you did and how you did in recruiting?
EJ: Coach is big on re-evaluating everything we do with this program. Recruiting is no different. In February we sit down and talk about what we did well and what we did bad recruiting wise. What kinds of changes we might need to make? What are other people doing that has worked?
It was easy for our first couple of years. I got to go out and talk to other programs to see what they were doing. Now, nobody will let us talk to them. Now we've got to do our own self-evaluation. We've kind of found out that we've got a pretty good system. You still try to fight getting kids on campus. But once we can get kids on campus, Iowa sells itself.
HN: What did you add or change after those first couple of years that have helped?
EJ: Just some things that we do on official visits. The calendar really hasn't changed too much. There were just a couple of subtleties that we did that have helped. We don't want to let those get out, but we think they've helped.
HN: Are they unique?
EJ: No, everybody steals ideas. There's no defense that's unique. People find out what we do. We ask recruits what they did on other visits. So, everybody knows what's going on, basically. But you never want to publicize what's going on just in case somebody doesn't know.
HN: How much do you involve your players in the recruiting process?
EJ: The players are our biggest selling point. That's one of the things that we tell kids when they're visiting, officially or unofficially, get around our players. They're the best resource.
They tell kids what it's like on a good day at Iowa and what it's like on a bad day at Iowa. They're not going to lie to a kid on what it's like here.
Our guys do a tremendous job. One of the things that we have as a great selling point is that among the players and coaches, it's a pretty good family atmosphere. We like being around our players. Our players like being around us, so they say. Prospects see how close everybody is in this program.
HN: Is that important to them?
EJ: No question. You don't want to go to a place where you're not going to like the people you're going to be around for five years. That's a hard situation. That's important.
HN: How important do you find academics to prospects?
EJ: You can say that it's important, but it's not for a kid. You may find that one out of every 10 kids that you bring in that academics are real important. Their parents will even say that it's academics. And then, they'll end up committing to a school that's not academically oriented.
The administration probably doesn't want to hear that. But we were just talking about a survey that was in USA Today last year about the kids that go to that all-star game in San Antonio on what's important in their recruiting process. The No. 1 thing was an ability win a national championship. I think academics were like 10th on that list.
It's important that kids know it's important here. When you come to Iowa, you're going to be a student-athlete. So, you don't want to just sell them on the football aspect of Iowa because that's not giving them a realistic perspective of what it's going to be like here.
We tell him he's going to go to class. He's going to graduate. That's important to us as a staff. We don't want this to be a football factory here. We're not going to put them all in a single major and say this is going to be the easiest thing for you to get through Iowa. We give them all of that on their visit.
HN: How do evaluate if a kid is going to be able to make it here academically?
EJ: You've got to talk to teachers and coaches and all of that. We've made mistakes. You've just got to try to get the best feel as possible. You look at the transcripts.
Our school administration and admissions does a tremendous job of evaluating transcripts of guys we're going to bring in on official visits and showing us how they feel those prospects will do as a student here. That helps us out and we appreciate the administration doing that for us. That gives you the best idea probably.
HN: What important about the unofficial visits during the summer that seem more commonplace nationally these days?
EJ: A lot of those kids are kids that are thinking they're going to make a decision early. You give them as much of an official visit with them paying for it during an unofficial visit time. You hit the professors. You hit the academic support. You allow them to talk with the players one on one for awhile. They still meet with our strength coach, Coach Ferentz, position coach, all of that kind of stuff. You try to give them as much information in a one day period of time as possible so they can make an informed decision.
The only thing they're missing out on, which isn't a big deal, is seeing what the student life is after hours. For us, if that's all a kid is worried about, we're not going to be worried about that kind of kid. We're not worried about a kid that's concerned about going to a party school.
HN: If you guys miss on some of the big name prospects, as you have the past several years, does it make you hesitant to go after those types of kids again?
EJ: No, we'll always have our priorities when we rank our top prospects. I feel we do a good job here is having a list of guys and knowing how we feel about them. We're not going to take a guy that we don't feel that compete and help us win games here.
We might not always get the top, top guy, but we're going to get a guy that we feel can help us win football games. I've heard of schools that have had success and then completely changed their recruiting philosophy. They tried to go after top guys and never developed a list below that. We do a pretty good job here of developing lists and knowing who we feel can help us be successful as a program.
HN: You've pulled scholarship offers after meeting a quota at a position. How does that process work?
EJ: We're always honest with the recruiting process. Basically, if we offer a kid a scholarship and he doesn't accept it that day, we tell him we're recruiting a bunch of other guys. We tell him that this is how many guys we're going to take at a position. If you don't take it, you're leaving yourself up to chance.
Usually when we offer a guy a scholarship in April he doesn't have to worry about that. But when we're getting down to crunch time, we tell guys, "Hey, there's only two left at this position. We're bringing in so many guys here this weekend. You may lose out on one."
We're honest with kids throughout that process so they can't say, "Hey, Iowa led me on to believe…" You don't want to leave a kid hanging. There were a couple of schools last year that had commitments and pulled those scholarships away. We'll never do that to a kid.
If a kid committed to us and got injured, we honor that scholarship. If we offer a kid a scholarship and he didn't commit to us and gets injured, well he should have probably committed to us before he got injured. That's not our fault.
We're also always re-evaluating things like we talked about. We may start out thinking we're taking three at a position but then it changes to us only taking one. Well, you may be out of a scholarship at that point.
HN: What if you have five or six offers out to, oh let's say blue chip offensive linemen, but you've decided you're only taking four. Is it first come, first serve or do you expand your original allotment for that position?
EJ: You can re-adjust, but we've been in positions that we waited, waited, waited a long time on a guy. So, we're never going to turn down a good player at another position that can help us win, to wait.
That being said, we're going to try to stick to the numbers that we need at each position. We're not going to take 10 offensive linemen. We can't front load something like that.
So, we're going to tell those guys, "Hey, we've got X number of scholarships left. We've got X number of guys we're recruiting. We're only taking so many. You're in or you're out. We love you. You've been the guy we're recruiting. But how do we know you want to be a Hawkeye when this guy right now is saying that he wants to be a Hawkeye?" If you feel comfortable enough offering someone a scholarship, and he wants to come, you're taking him.
HN: Do people make too big of a deal about early commitments?
EJ: Yes. The big time official visits start in December and run through January. That's when you're really trying to sell your campus. Hopefully you can get some parents on the visits.
Everybody is always worried about early commitments and that kind of stuff. The good players are going to wait until December and January, a lot of them, to make their decision.
There are quarterbacks that commit early that want to help recruit the recruiting classes so they help get players that fit around them. But a lot of times kids haven't researched a whole lot of programs until December.
You want to make sure that when they make that commitment that they've seen a couple of other places at least that they feel strongly about to make sure that Iowa is the place for them. If they make a commitment in June without having seen any place else all of a sudden they start questioning if your place is the place. And you were banking on getting that kid, and he changes his mind.
Everybody always worries about those early commitments. They really shouldn't. Remember, it's a marathon.
To learn what the Iowa coaching staff does on a month by month basis, 12-months out of the year, CLICK HERE