Inside Iowa recruiting: Which college football programs recruit the state best?

IOWA CITY, Iowa — No state with a smaller population than Iowa boasts two football programs competing in separate Power 5 conferences. The fact that either — let alone both — have enjoyed high levels of achievements without a deep talent pool within its borders is a testament to their collective recruiting acumen and development.

On the eastern side there’s Iowa, a Big Ten member which has the ninth-most victories among Power 5 programs dating to 2015. Iowa State has the second-most wins in the Big 12 over the last four years and sits in central Iowa, 30 miles north of state capital Des Moines. For generations, the programs carved out their own niche and their fan bases remained strictly loyal to the brands. That often spilled over into silo-type football recruiting.

Iowa historically has enjoyed more football success, but since Matt Campbell’s arrival in Ames seven years ago, the programs have battled more often for the same recruits than perhaps at any time in history. Players and coaches, especially in the Des Moines metro area, often hear from multiple coaches from both universities and the engagement remains persistent.

After landing just two in-state prospects in his first full recruiting class in 2000, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz hired hall of fame high school coach Reese Morgan to lead his in-state recruiting efforts. Morgan became the state’s most dominant recruiter until his retirement in 2019. Now, three coaches attempt to cover the state for Iowa: special teams coordinator LeVar Woods (northwest/western Iowa), assistant defensive line coach Jay Niemann (central Iowa) and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz (eastern Iowa). Then the other assistant coaches double up to ensure there are no gaps. At Iowa State, all 10 assistants are responsible for a section of the state. Running backs coach/run game coordinator Nate Scheelhaase, for instance, is responsible for Polk County, by far the state’s largest with nearly 500,000 people.

But it’s not just Iowa and Iowa State who pursue these athletes. Not anymore. The state develops twice as many quality Division I athletes as it once did. Over the last six years, the state averages 17.2 three-star prospects and 3.0 four-stars within Iowa based on 247Sports’ composite rankings. From 2010-16, it was 8.8 three-stars and just 1.3 four-stars per year. Coaches from Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska and Minnesota have pushed into Iowa with almost home-turf frequency. National programs like Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan, among others, also have entered the state in recent years.

In addition, some of the nation’s top FCS programs reside either within or near Iowa’s borders. For years, Northern Iowa became an FCS powerhouse collecting Iowa and Iowa State’s recruiting leftovers. Now, UNI battles Missouri Valley Football Conference foes South Dakota, South Dakota State, North Dakota State and North Dakota, all of which make multiple stops annually at Iowa high schools. Also, Division II giant Northwest Missouri State has more former Iowa players on its roster than any other out-of-state program.

As part of a series looking at recruiting within states, The Athletic spoke with several Iowa high school coaches and granted anonymity in exchange for candid remarks. Any identifiable comments were removed to ensure anonymity.

The panel:

Coach 1: Southwestern Iowa head coach

Coach 2: North Central Iowa head coach

Coach 3: Central Iowa head coach

Coach 4: Central Iowa head coach

Coach 5: Iowa City/Cedar Rapids-area head coach

Coach 6: Quad Cities-area head coach

In addition, other head coaches provided a few stand-alone comments for this story.

What is your general impression of how both in-state FBS schools recruit across Iowa?

Coach 1: (Iowa State defensive coordinator) Jon Heacock originally had been our area guy and did a phenomenal job. LeVar Woods at Iowa is our area guy, and he’s been consistent for us and has done a great job. What I will say about both of those programs, I think they’ve really emphasized the importance of in-state recruiting that even if we don’t have guys, they make it a point to stop in to talk about kids in our program and just maintain that line of communication.

Coach 2: They’re both really similar. (Iowa State offensive coordinator) Tom Manning recruits our area and LeVar Woods. I’ve known LeVar for the last 30 years, and I’ve always had a really good relationship with him. I’d say both (schools) are built on relationships. I’ve actually probably had a longer relationship with LeVar than I have Tom Manning, but both are really accessible. Both respond to phone calls; both respond to text messages. And both ask the same thing, “Who do you recommend from your school, and who else would you recommend that can play?”

Coach 3: They’ve been just outstanding. They’re just quality humans. And even when we didn’t have Division I players, they would come around and talk with us. I think a lot of the recruiting is very similar. They try to build relationships with kids the best they can within the rules. They’ll send multiple coaches over so the kids get to meet multiple people. Head coaches will come by. So, I think it’s very similar.

Coach 4: They both do a fantastic, fantastic job. It’s unique in a state with three million people to have two FBS schools in two separate conferences. It’s unique for sure, but both have had a tremendous amount of success, especially since Coach Campbell’s been there. Obviously, Coach Ferentz and his staff have been there for 23 years, and the stability of that program speaks for itself. And, from a distance, it looks like that’s what Coach Campbell is trying to do at Iowa State, create that stability and continuity and do it the right way. We’re fortunate to have both of those schools in our state.

Matt Campbell has led Iowa State to five consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1923-27. (David K. Purdy / Getty Images)

Coach 5: We’re up the road from Kinnick Stadium, and that’s an elite level of football. Same thing with Iowa State. I can’t really say that anyone coach has been fantastically better than the other. They’re all really good guys.

Coach 6: I’ve been at it for a long time, and the schools do a great job, the three big schools. Iowa, Iowa State, UNI are always kind of making the rounds, usually popping in once or twice a year. They’ve been showing interest in our kids and are very professional and for the most part, they’re very, very supportive of high school football players here in the state of Iowa.

Former Central Iowa head coach: Coach Ferentz, I got to know him really well. I coached (one of his sons) in the Shrine Bowl so I had a really strong connection with him. But then living where we are and now especially with Coach Campbell, it’s just a great situation. When you get to know them as people and you understand how they’re wired, you understand how they’re successful. They have that thing that a lot of people wish they had in any business, let alone coaching. They’re definitely special guys.

What are your impressions of Iowa? Is anything different since Reese Morgan retired?

Coach 6: Reese was terrific. Being a high school coach here in the state of Iowa and being really familiar with so many of our head coaches, myself included, I always felt he understood the challenges and just some of the things that high school coaches have to do. It’s much different than a college coach, obviously; we’re teaching and doing different things like that. Reese was always very accommodating, very professional, very down-to-earth. When he decided to step away it was a big loss for them. But I think the Hawks have done a great job trying to pick up where Coach Morgan left. Brian does a great job popping in, (offensive coordinator) Brian Ferentz. (Linebackers coach) Seth Wallace has been in. I don’t think they’ve missed a beat from that standpoint.

Coach 1: Reese had done a lot of the recruiting here for us. But LeVar would be in every now and again, and so their recruiting really hasn’t changed. From that aspect on what we see, which is the communication, them stopping by and just maintaining that open relationship, not a whole lot has changed in our neighborhood.

Coach 3: I’m good friends with (Defensive recruiting coordinator and assistant D-line coach Jay Niemann). And I was good friends with Reese. So those guys just do a great job working the state of Iowa and continually keeping Iowa kids in front of the head coaches. I think they’re one of the best ambassadors that our Iowa kids have. And I don’t really know if Iowa State has somebody like that.

Coach 4: I’ve known Jay a while, and he’s been fantastic. I’ve gotten to develop a good relationship with him. Just solid, just steady, always there, constant communication, there’s never lulls, that type of thing, even when they’re hot, heavy into their season. It’s been a good transition.

Coach 5: I’ve got great relationships with those coaches. They’re a great resource for me as a coach. They’re always willing to help, and I appreciate them and I respect what they do. And at the same time, they’re doctorates of football so to speak. I’m at a master’s level of football, perhaps in high school, I guess if you want to compare degrees with that. They’re excellent. They’re good guys. They’re successful. They know exactly what they’re doing. And I really appreciate all of them there. They’ve always been very good to me.

Northern Iowa high school head coach: Iowa has done a great job. “We’re gonna get really good athletes, and we’re gonna develop the heck out of them. They’re gonna find a fit for a kid where he can contribute.” And obviously a heck of a job with their linebackers, and they’ve done that with their offensive linemen. They’ll take a high school tight end and turn him into an all-Big Ten guard or something like that. That’s their way of doing things. Get as many good players as they can, coach them up, develop them and play them on Saturday.

What are your impressions of Iowa State? How has Matt Campbell’s recruiting approach differed from his predecessors?

Coach 3: Matt and I get along really well. I think it’s because we both coach offensive line. Coach Ferentz coaches offensive line, but he has a different personality than Matt Campbell. With Matt Campbell, you can just sit and shoot the breeze. That might not be anything to do with anything, he just sits and just visits. So, I enjoy our time when he does come in or on the phone or if we pop up there and watch practice or whatever. He’s just my kind of guy.

Coach 1: Iowa State is phenomenal. Each one of their position coaches is responsible for one part of the state, and they try to hit up every single school in that area. They’ve really made a push to get into every school in Iowa to really continue to sell themselves and build their brand. They don’t really need to do that anymore — they’re nationally there — but they’re still making a point to get down to our level and every other school to recruit.

Coach 4: I wouldn’t be able to compare the current one with the old staff. Coach Campbell and his staff do a great job of identifying in-state talent and recruiting them. He’s a culture guy, and he’s a man of his word. He’s doing it the right way and has done things that I would say nobody has been able to do. So, it speaks volumes for his character and what he’s going to do and continue to build up there.

Coach 5: They do a great job of recruiting the state of Iowa and I appreciate everything they do. I can’t speak to what it’s like for them coming into (Eastern Iowa), and I can’t speak for what it’s like for an Iowa coach maybe going over to the center part of the state or to Ames perhaps. It’s more about just the personal relationships that these coaches are willing to build that I appreciate.

Coach 2: The Iowa State coaches, they know I’m a fan of Iowa State. Now, I’m not this loyal person that “Hey, this is the end all, be all,” kids. It’s not my life. It’s the high school kid’s life. It’s their decision to make. If they develop relationships with Iowa or if they develop a relationship with Kansas State or whoever that school may be, that’s their choice. My time has come and gone.

Coach 6: They got a little pipeline (to our area), and they’ve been in our school. (Safeties) coach (Deon) Broomfield and obviously, with Coach Campbell, they’ve gotten a lot of national attention. I think it’s gotten Cyclone Nation fired up. His brand of football and leadership, it’s gotten the fans and players interested and excited about playing for Iowa State. Obviously being in Ames, I think he’s done a good job really kind of hitting hard the Des Moines metro area, and rightfully so.

Other Power 5 schools have entered the area, especially those located along or near the Iowa border. Which schools are the most active with your school and what are your impressions?

Coach 1: Kansas State and Kansas have done a phenomenal job since they have turned over the coaching staffs. They have made it a point to make (southwest Iowa) a priority for them. Omaha has a different recruiter for Kansas State than they do for us in southwest Iowa, even though we’re right there on the river. But Kansas has the same recruiter, and they’ve done a fabulous job of maintaining and starting to grow that relationship with us in our program. Nebraska honestly has not done a very good job. They’ll come in if we have a guy, but they don’t stop in if we don’t. We don’t hear too much from Minnesota, but they have stopped in in the past. Kansas and Kansas State, regardless of who we have, they make it a point to stop.

Coach 5: The interesting thing is, you start to realize how tight-knit the college coaching community is, actually. They may go after the same player at times. So there may be some rivalry there, so to speak. But what I’ve been most surprised by is, how many coaches in the college coaching community know each other and respect each other. That’s really pretty interesting to see. Those coaches know the level of kid they’re looking for, and if they see an athlete that’s a really good player, but maybe you can’t play at their level, let’s say, they have no problem passing that player’s name on to a school that may be a little bit smaller or play at a different level. So that’s really pretty cool.

Coach 2: I haven’t dealt with Nebraska and Minnesota but I really dealt with Kansas State when (head coach Chris) Klieman took over. He’s got a lot of Iowa roots. And obviously, when (former offensive coordinator) Courtney Messingham was there, Messingham had a ton of Iowa roots as well. But now that Messingham is gone, they’ve still been on our school. They’ve sent a coach up, (defensive coordinator Joe) Klanderman, I think is who’s going to start taking over this area.

Coach 3: (Out-of-state schools) know that kids had been either an Iowa State or Iowa fan as they grew up. Typically, they’re not a Notre Dame fan or a KU fan or a K-State fan; they’re typically an Iowa or Iowa State fan. So, they know they’ve got to fight that battle before they even get started.

Coach 4: (The major programs are) elite for a reason; it’s because they get elite players. In order to get elite players, you’ve got to be elite recruiters. (I’ve noticed) just the thoroughness, obviously, the identification, the evaluation, and then the relationship part and getting a feel for the family, for the kid, his wants, his needs.

Coach 6: (Illinois head coach Bret) Bielema being an Illinois guy, being really Western Illinois guy as far as being from Prophetstown and being real familiar with the Big Ten, I think he’s making a more concerted effort to hit the Quad City region area. Coach (Pat) Ryan, who was a longtime high school coach in Illinois, is working for his staff (as director of high school relations). I think that’s one of the big parts of them trying to get some of that in-state talent, as well as Eastern Iowa. He’s the individual who’s reached out to me.

Who are the best individual recruiters with whom you have dealt?

Coach 1: The best salesman is probably (Minnesota head coach) P.J. Fleck. He walks it, he talks it, and things like that. Obviously, none of our kids have ended up there, but sitting in meetings and listening to him talk, having those conversations, he’s a really, really, really good salesman. A guy that is a really darn great recruiter is Connor Riley at Kansas State, the offensive line coach down there. I think he does a fabulous job of selling the program, selling the vision, selling what they can do as a program and lays out everything for you. A lot of coaches do that, but he has a knack for doing it in a way that kids completely understand and can relate to as well.

Coach 3: I really liked the guy at Minnesota, their offensive coordinator/quarterback coach (Kirk Ciarrocca). He was a great recruiter. Great, great guy. We hit it off really good. (Defensive coordinator) Erik Chinander at Nebraska. He’s just a great person, he’s just down to earth.

Coach 4: (Ohio State coach Ryan) Day and (former Notre Dame/now-LSU coach Brian) Kelly and (Notre Dame coach Marcus) Freeman and their staffs and their support staff. Reese was absolutely fantastic. I mean, he never forgot where he came from, was always an advocate for Iowa high school coaches, and kids and players, and just salt-of-the-earth great guy.

Coach 6: It would be hard to pass on Reese Morgan. I thought he’s done a great job and Coach Ferentz and his entire staff. I’ve been really impressed with him over the years. I would say Northwest Missouri State also has done a terrific job recruiting our kids.

Reese Morgan was inducted into the Iowa High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame before he was hired as an Iowa assistant in 2000. (Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Coach 2: I’m not saying Power 5 is easier to recruit, but you’ve got all these rating systems and everything. I don’t know how much I put stock into them, but if a kid’s a three-star, four-star athlete then obviously he’s been recruited by a lot of places other than just Iowa or Iowa State. The FCS level is a little bit harder because you might have that kid who’s a no-star player and they really get in on them on the ground running. You see a lot of times where especially when North Dakota State gets involved or South Dakota State gets involved if a kid that gets offered by them, all of a sudden Kansas is calling you. MAC schools are calling you.

What stands out negatively?

Coach 1: Nebraska, absolutely. It’s odd because I think it’s the same way for Iowa Western Community College. They have produced a lot of really good football players and Nebraska really hasn’t, in my opinion, really stepped up to really recruit a whole lot of those guys. That could be philosophy, junior-college guys, but they’ve taken junior-college guys before. So, it’s been rather interesting that they have not been into (southwest Iowa) or to Iowa Western for that matter to really recruit some of the top talents because there’s plenty between the high school level and the junior college level.

Coach 6: Not really too much unless sometimes I probe a little bit. Like, you guys kind of came out of nowhere. There’s some things that I brought up personally. I had a few concerns in regards to me and don’t these guys do their homework? But I’ve got to be honest on my end, too. I can’t be throwing falsehoods out there about our kids and so forth, the positives.

Coach 2: I haven’t had any coaches that have been negative at that (FBS) level. Maybe the smaller levels. It’s not even negative; they might make a comment about a school at that level, but no, not at all.

Coach 3: Usually you don’t meet a car dealer that you don’t like. If you do, you’re not going to buy a car, and he won’t be working there very long. Well, these guys are selling. So they’re usually pretty dang good to you when they’re coming into your school. I can’t say I’ve had anybody that I didn’t care for. I like them all. I know, they’ve got a hard job to do. And they work unbelievably long hours.

Coach 4: They’ve all been aboveboard, honestly. You read the stories on the national scene, but I haven’t lived that or anything like that. I’m waiting for that pickup truck.

Coach 5: I’m a teacher/educator first, coach second. I want to make sure that’s solid. I do like to hear from college coaches about the academic side of things. A newer coach may or may not touch on that as much as I like to hear, but I can’t speak for every coach, either. Nothing really jumps out, as far as being awkward or weird.

As much as we focus on the Power 5 programs, it’s the FCS schools that have really come into Iowa since the Dakota schools moved up from Division II. Northern Iowa has 46 Iowa natives on its roster, but South Dakota has 11, South Dakota State has 10, North Dakota State has five. Northwest Missouri State, a perennial Division II power, has 16 Iowans on its roster.

How have those schools, plus some FCS squads in Illinois, ramped up recruiting?

Coach 2: North Dakota State, they’re the Alabama of FCS. If you get an offer from North Dakota State, a lot of times that’s just as good of an offer as one from Iowa State or Iowa or Kansas State. That’s how highly I think they’re thought of by a lot of kids right now. The North Dakotas, the South Dakotas, the UNIs, the Western Illinois, they’re in a really hard position because if they offer a kid early, people are going to know about that kid. It’s kind of one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations. You want to get in on a kid early. You’re trying to find a kid who maybe is under-recruited. But the minute that you start recruiting him, they might become over-recruited.

Coach 1: Northern Iowa has done a fabulous job now that they have an area recruiter down in southwest Iowa that also will have the Omaha-Lincoln area. This is really the first time they’re really trying to get a foothold down over here in southwest Iowa.

Coach 4: UNI has had success, played for national championships, a perennial playoff team in the Valley, an hour and a half away. They do a great job. And then the Dakotas, too. South Dakota has put a bunch of money into their facilities and has done a nice job here. North Dakota State, South Dakota State, I mean, they’re all first-class people. There’s a lot of really good football in the Upper Midwest. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with those staffs.

Coach 6: Illinois State and, of course, UNI are always visible in the schools trying to keep the local talent.

Coach 3: UNI used to have a good handle on the state. South Dakota has put so much money into their program and North Dakota State is the premier program. South Dakota, Western Illinois, they come in here. North Dakota comes in here. Illinois State comes in here. Southern Illinois comes in here. I think maybe the talent has just taken another step where they feel like, “Hey, we probably should get in there and try to get a kid or two out of Iowa.”

Coach 5: There are great experiences to be had, great levels of competition to be found, great academics and degrees to earn at schools that are not necessarily Power 5 schools. It comes down to being honest with players, looking out for their best interests and just being transparent at all times.

Finally, let’s touch of the state of Iowa high school football. Since 2017, 81 rated prospects within Iowa ended up at Power 5 schools, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Another 20 earned scholarships to Group of 5 programs. Over that same period, there were 103 three-star prospects with 18 as four-stars. From 2010-16, there were only 53 composite three-stars, including eight four-star players.

Is the state producing better players or do they simply have more exposure today?

Coach 1: I think players are better and developed earlier. I think that’s the biggest change. There are so many more opportunities for these kids around the state to get better training. Kids are doing more in the offseason than what they had to help put themselves into the spotlight.

Coach 2: Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t know if it’s better. With social media, it’s so much easier for kids to get recruited. It’s so much easier for kids to have visibility. Hudl is an aspect that wasn’t around. And kids are really good at marketing themselves. Their high school coaches are really good at marketing kids. So, it’s a different timeframe. I don’t know if one’s necessarily better or not.

Coach 6: There’s always been really good quality football; it’s just Iowa now got a little bit more notoriety. I think, obviously, social media and just the strength and conditioning programs, and all those things contribute to producing really good players in our state.

Coach 4: I’m a huge advocate for our high school football. Obviously, being in central Iowa, there are a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches, a lot of good programs that play at a high level. If you look at the track record over the last 10 to 15 years, it continues to grow, I think it’s starting to get on the map. You talk to regional-type recruiters from other states in the Upper Midwest. I think they agree. It seems like it’s becoming more and more recruited, the volume of schools seems to increase.

Coach 3: What you’ve seen is training has changed. I think the training coaches are doing a much better job in the offseason. The weight rooms are amazing in Iowa compared to what they were 15 years ago. I think there are some really good coaches in Iowa. I think there’s pretty good football in the state of Iowa. There’s maybe not the kind of caliber that you would see in Texas or Florida, but I think around the Midwest, our state would stack up pretty good among the same-sized schools.

(Top image by Wes McCabe / The Athletic)

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