By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Compared to today’s typical recruiting guru who eats, drinks, sleeps, sweats and bleeds the never-ending process, I’m hardly in that class.
That’s why I have my trusted associates Tyler Devine and Dylan Burn to cover for me.
If an Iowa recruit, or a potential recruit in football or men’s basketball, so much as burps, they’re on it because that is the world in which we live.
Myself, on the other hand, I might miss the burp, but still have a passion for recruiting that dates back to when I was a kid in the mid-1970s and saw my first list of prep basketball stars in Street & Smith magazine.
I used to get so excited when the McDonald’s High School All-American Team appeared in Sports Illustrated each year. That was my introduction to future legends such as Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
The Internet has changed the recruiting landscape in a way that would’ve been hard to imagine 25 years ago. Recruiting is now big business with regard to football and men’s basketball.
The rise of social media has fueled the business by making recruiting information accessible to just anybody and by providing a massive stage for self-promotion and breaking news.
So to mark more than 25 years of recruiting coverage, I jotted down some of my most memorable moments during that time and turned those recollections into this bits-and-pieces column.
1. Willie’s wait: The Willie Guy saga already was well underway when I started working for the Iowa City Press-Citizen in 1991, but was far from over.
It took more than two years for Guy to achieve eligibility at Iowa, and by then, his skills, if not lesser, were at least rusty.
Guy never lived to up to the huge expectations that followed him from high school in Memphis, Tenn. He was named the top recruit in the nation by the Dallas Morning News in 1989 and had offers from just about every elite program in the nation.
Guy ultimately picked Iowa over schools like Nebraska, Notre Dame and Oklahoma because he wanted to play receiver after playing quarterback in high school and Hayden Fry was willing to give him that opportunity.
Guy missed all of the 1990 and 1991 seasons, and part of the 1992 season while trying become eligible.
It was thought that he would be eligible in 1991 and we recognized the occasion that summer by interviewing Guy at a park near West High School.
He was soft-spoken and humble, and I still remember throwing passes to him while a Press-Citizen photographer took pictures.
We ran a story in the Press-Citizen with a headline that said “Guy ready to fly as Hawkeye,” but it was premature because Guy learned shortly thereafter that he hadn’t been cleared.
Guy never achieved stardom at Iowa, but he stayed the course and finished his career as a Hawkeye. He also has stayed in eastern Iowa since college, living mostly in the Cedar Rapids area.
2. The rise of Brad Banks: My first conversation with Brad Banks always will stand out because for one, he’s Brad Banks, but also because he spoke to me from a phone in the hallway of his junior college in Mississippi. He had just returned from an official visit to Iowa in which he committed.
I still remember Brad saying “the Iowa coaches want me to come up there and do some quarterbacking and things.”
Brad certainly did some quarterbacking and things for Iowa.
His improbable rise from backup in 2001 to Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2002 was the kind of thing you wouldn’t believe without seeing it unfold. It was fiction turned into fact, one incredible Saturday after another.
And that’s the beauty of recruiting, that somebody can rise from relative obscurity and defy the odds. It doesn’t happen quite as much now because of how closely recruiting is covered these days by multiple media outlets, but it still can happen.
Brad was thrilled for the opportunity to join a Big Ten program and he represented the Hawkeyes and the University of lowa with class and dignity.
The Iowa coaches were initially interested in one of Brad’s teammates at Hinds Community College in Mississippi. But then Brad caught Iowa’s attention and that was the start of a lasting relationship.
3. Close calls and costly near misses: The worst part about recruiting, besides the cheating, of course, is seeing a star prospect pick another school.
It hurts even more when the star prospect lives in Iowa and picks another.
One of the most hurtful losses during my time was when former MFL MarMac star Raef LaFrentz chose to play basketball for Kansas in 1993. LaFrentz stood almost 7-feet and was ranked among the top recruits in the 1994 senior class.
Nobody has ever confirmed this with me on the record, but I’ve been told by several sources that losing LaFrentz to Kansas and head coach Roy Williams caused a strain in the relationship between former Iowa coach Tom Davis and former athletic director Bob Bowlsby.
And we know how that relationship turned out.
But in fairness to Davis, I also have it on good authority that Iowa stood little chance of landing LaFrentz because LaFrentz had pressure or influence from his family to pick Iowa. In fact, I’m told it was just the opposite.
But whatever the case, it never looks good when a phenom from your own backyard turns you down. LaFrentz would go on to be a four-starter at Kansas and a two-time All-America selection as a junior and senior. He never achieved stardom in the NBA, but he did play for a decades with four different teams and made lots of money.
Williams didn’t stop with LaFrentz. He returned to Iowa a few years later and landed 6-9 Nick Collison from Iowa Falls and 6-3 Kirk Heinrich from Sioux City, both of whom are still in the NBA, which should tell you something about their careers since high school.
Iowa never was a serious contender for Heinrich, but Collison was reportedly high on the Hawkeyes until the controversial coaching change involving Tom Davis in 1999. The uncertainty at Iowa made Kansas look even more attractive to Collison.
4. Runner-up for Niang: Former Iowa State star forward Georges Niang was another almost for the Hawkeyes.
I interviewed Niang between recruiting visits to both Iowa and Iowa State in 2011. The 6-7 forward had just left Iowa City and was traveling to Ames when we spoke on the telephone.
He raved about his brief time in Iowa City, but never gave any indication that he might commit because he was determined to visit Iowa State.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg were among the first coaches to offer Niang a scholarship and their offers came within a few days of each other.
Niang ultimately picked the Cyclones and would go on to have a standout career.
5. Pierschbacher’s de-commitment: The loss of Ross Pierschbacher cuts deep on the football side because he had been committed to Iowa for about 10 months when he switched to Alabama and because he grew up in Cedar Falls cheering for the Hawkeyes.
Hawkeye fans naturally felt betrayed by one of their own, but it’s easy to downplay or dismiss the allure from an elite program without having experienced it for yourself.
Both sides have since moved on, with Pierschbacher entering his third season as a starting offensive guard for the Crimson Tide and with Iowa returning full-time starters from a unit that won the Joe Moore Award last season as the nation’s top offensive line.
Speaking of Alabama, long before Ross Pierschbacher there was linebacker DeWayne
6. The Toney Bates interview: One of the funniest moments on the recruiting trail occurred when my former Press-Citizen colleague Bryce Miler interviewed a junior college football recruit named Toney Bates.
The interview occurred late in 1992 and was done over one of the phones in our office.
If memory serves me correct, Bates was working his shift at Kentucky Fried Chicken in northern California when Miller reached him on the phone. The interview lasted just a few minutes, but that’s all Bates needed to warn Big Ten opponents that he was coming as a hard-charging defensive lineman with bad intentions.
Bates told Miller while preparing a three-piece meal that he didn’t just hit, but that he hit to crucify. It was a priceless, eyebrow-raising interview that ended with Miller hanging up the phone and laughing hysterically.
Bates would had to have been the second coming of Alex Karras to live up to what he said that day, but it didn’t happen.
He barely played in his one season in the program in 1993 and was charged with groping several women on the UI campus.
7. Notable busts and attrition: There are no guarantees in recruiting as Iowa fans should know by now.
Iowa has signed three five-star caliber recruits, but two of them – offensive linemen Blake Larsen and Dan Doering – both failed to meet expectations.
The third five-star recruit to sign with Iowa is incoming freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa. He looks poised to stop Iowa’s misfortune with five-star recruits, but still has to do it.
Defensive lineman Richard Kittrell from Connecticut is another former mega-recruit whose career fizzled at Iowa.
Some other notable recruits who made it to campus, but didn’t materialize are Texas running back Andre Hill and Rochester, N.Y., linebacker Burt Richardson, both of whom enrolled at Iowa in the early 1990s.
Hill never appeared in a game for the Hawkeyes, but Richardson showed promise as a freshman in 1991 before leaving school.