IOWA CITY, Iowa – I’ve always been reluctant to question or criticize Kirk Ferentz’s approach to coaching football because it has worked well for him.
You don’t accomplish what Ferentz has in coaching without having the right instincts, the right temperament and a vast knowledge of the game.
I was one of the few who defended Ferentz in 2009 when he chose to take his chances in overtime against Ohio State with the Big Ten title on the line in Columbus, Ohio instead of trying to score in the closing seconds from near midfield.
The plan backfired as the Buckeyes made a field goal to prevail, 27-24.
Ferentz was ripped for being too conservative and too scared to take a chance with the game on the line.
Fans refused to consider that redshirt freshman quarterback James Vandenberg, after performing well for about the first 2 ½ quarters, had become an interception waiting to happen down the stretch.
Perhaps Ferentz was concerned that Vandenberg would throw another interception while trying to move Iowa into field-goal range.
What I’m trying to say is that I usually side with Ferentz when it comes to his decisions being questioned because the only thing the naysayers have in most cases is hindsight, and hindsight is always right.
This one time, though, I’m making an exception with Ferentz’s policy about committed players being prohibited from visiting other schools. I think it needs to be updated in the wake of four-star Texas running back Eno Benjamin reportedly being told by Iowa to move on after being verbally committed for about eight months. Ferentz’s policy needs more flexibility and wiggle room.
I’m all for rules and policies because imagine the world without them.
Ferentz has every right to prohibit his committed players from visiting other schools because a scholarship offer is a huge investment, especially an out-of-state scholarship due to the higher cost for tuition.
“We have a way we like to operate, the way we think is proper,” Ferentz said to reporters on Wednesday. “And ultimately what we try to do is encourage recruits to early commit to us, to make sure that they really mean it, that’s what they fully intend to do. And then if they do that, that’s fine.
“But otherwise we encourage them to keep looking around. And whenever they come to the decision they want to come to Iowa, we’re certainly happy to accept that.”
The problem occurs when a recruit who is committed to Iowa flirts with other schools, as is the case with Benjamin, who visited both Missouri and Arizona State despite being committed to Iowa. Ferentz considers a verbal commitment to be similar to a marriage engagement in that once you cross that line, the flirting ends.
But there is nothing official about a verbal commitment, leaving schools vulnerable until national signing day.
Ferentz’s policy is designed to guard against that vulnerability.
“You go back to the recruits, and prospects have all the rights and we really have none,” Ferentz said. “That’s really the way it is, and that’s really the way it should be.”
Recruits should have most of the leverage in the recruiting process because they’re making what is potentially a life-changing decision. It is their one chance to pick the right school, while coaches recruit on a continual basis, offering hundreds of scholarships each year.
The concern with Ferentz’s policy is that’s unrealistic to think that a star recruit who has other options might not grow restless or get bored after being committed for so long.
It is easy to enforce the no-visit policy with a two-star recruit from Iowa who picked Hawkeyes over three or four less-heralded offers.
But with a four-star recruit like Benjamin, the circumstances are different because he has offers that are comparable, it not better than Iowa.
If you’re not willing to compromise, you risk losing a key piece to the recruiting puzzle.
In fairness to Ferentz, we don’t know for sure if he is or isn’t willing to compromise.
I asked Ferentz on Wednesday if his willingness to be flexible with a recruit is impacted by how a recruit shares information with him.
“Yeah, sure,” Ferentz said. “There are a lot of things that factor into it, sure.”
Benjamin told Tyler Devine from Allhawkeyes that the Iowa coaches just couldn’t get over that he visited other schools and felt it was best to part ways.
That makes Ferentz sound stubborn and rigged, but we also don’t have all the facts in what led to the separation. I believe that if Benjamin had told Ferentz from the beginning that he wanted to visit a few schools in order to have something to compare Iowa to before signing a letter of intent that Ferentz would’ve worked with him.
But from most accounts, it didn’t happen that way.
Ferentz has shown a willingness to change with the times when it comes to recruiting. Iowa now offers scholarships to recruits at a younger age, partly because so many other schools are doing it.
Ferentz also is willing to recruit players who are committed to other schools. Some might consider that a double-standard, but why should Ferentz worry about somebody else’s policy?
"We’re open to it," Ferentz said. "We’ll listen. No hard, firm policies, other than case-by-case. But we do have a blanket statement we try to operate on. And just kind of go from there.
I’m not suggesting that Ferentz should get rid of his no-visit policy. He just needs to be more flexible or it’ll become extremely difficult to land coveted recruits. It already is hard enough for Ferentz and his assistant coaches to do that.
Benjamin is the second four-star recruit in the 2017 class to violate Iowa’s no-visit policy. Fellow Texas native Chevin Calloway, who plays cornerback, has visited several schools since committing to Iowa. Calloway still had himself listed as an Iowa commit on his Twitter profile until Monday.
The frustrating thing for fans is that Calloway and Benjamin both might have stuck with Iowa if they had been given the opportunity. Or they could have stayed committed until shortly before signing day in February and then signed with another school without repercussions.
"You can’t lose what you don’t have," Ferentz said without being specific.
Nobody ever said recruiting is fair. A four-star recruit sometimes has to be treated differently than a two-star if you hope to land him.
Ferentz does an outstanding job of developing unheralded recruits. But he also has relied on star recruits such as Tony Moeaki, Bryan Bulaga, Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn to be successful.
You need both at a school like Iowa where the difference between over-achieving and under-achieving is razor thin.