Heart of the matter

Advanced player development is supposed to be the lifeblood of our state’s three major football programs.

Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa rarely land big fish from the recruiting pond. Instead, these schools pride themselves on finding diamonds in the rough from all walks of life. Coaches identify untapped or overlooked potential at the raw beginning, harness it, sculpt it, and ultimately churn out a fine-tuned product.

Or so the narrative goes.

These days, it’s becoming harder and harder to understand the identity of our teams and their respective philosophies. Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes were 7-6 this season and had a miserable performance in a lower-level bowl game. Paul Rhoads’ Cyclones went 2-10 and winless in the Big 12. Mark Farley’s Panthers did post a 9-5 record with a playoff berth, but it’s difficult to justify the five losses given they defeated both FCS finalists in North Dakota State and Illinois State.

Since 2012, Iowa is 19-19 overall. Iowa State is 11-26. UNI is 21-16.

A decade ago – from 2002-04 – those records read 31-7, 18-22 and 23-12, respectively.

Struggles on the recruiting trail parallel the downturn. Though they’ve never ranked particularly high nationally even in the good years, the Hawks and Cyclones are obviously having issues with convincing prospects that Iowa City and Ames are destination locations – even by previous standards. Iowa’s 2015 class, for instance, is currently ranked 10th in the Big Ten and 51st in the nation. Iowa State’s is last in the Big 12 at the moment and 78th nationally.

So Iowa, ISU and UNI aren’t winning like they used to, and they aren’t recruiting like they used to either. In addition, they’re building their programs around far less home-grown talent. The Hawkeyes had five fewer Iowans on their 2014 roster than a decade ago (39 compared to 44). The Cyclones? Forty-five in ’14 versus 64 in ’04. The Panthers? Sixty-three in ’04; 52 in ’14.

Let’s localize the matter with a young man who is currently a junior in high school. He is already a three-year letterwinner on the gridiron, and was the first player in program history to crack the starting lineup as a freshman. He is a legitimate 210 pounds. He’s been clocked at 4.53 in the 40-yard dash, and can bench press 315. He’s rushed for over 3,000 yards at the Class 4A level in the last two years alone.

As a bonus, he’s also a top-ranked wrestler and member of the school’s state-qualifying 4×100 relay team in track. Holds a 3.59 cumulative grade point average. Never in trouble. Humble. Tough. A relentless competitor.

Fort Dodge fans know by now that I’m talking about Sam Cook. And despite his impressive measurables and glowing resume, Cook doesn’t have an offer from – or even a visit scheduled to – any of the aforementioned schools.

Am I saying Cook is a cornerstone recruit and a can’t-miss Division I talent? No. But the Hawkeyes, Cyclones and Panthers could do far worse than adding Cook to a short list of scholarship possibilities. In fact, they have done far worse. At the very least, he should be receiving a call or two by now from the 515 and 319 area codes.

Dan McCarney created a foundation with in-state kids like Cook during his tenure at ISU. It wasn’t a perfect formula, but the Cyclones won at least seven games in a season five different times on McCarney’s watch. Something tells me the fanbase would take that kind of production right about now.

By and large, local recruits will be heavily invested in the program and give everything they have to that school during their time there. I’m not of the belief that Ferentz, Rhoads and Farley should steer clear of states like Florida, Texas and California – far from it – but I do think they’ve lost their way a little if an athlete like Cook can go this deep into his junior season virtually unnoticed.

All three programs might want to stop being so farsighted and get back to both spotting and molding players from their own backyard before it’s too late. Paying more attention to kids like Sam Cook would be a step in the right direction.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net