By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – When a head coach stays in one place for as long as Kirk Ferentz has been the Iowa football coach, the search for recruits can lead to just about anywhere.
Entering his 20th season at Iowa, Ferentz struck it big in South Florida from a recruiting standpoint when he took over at Iowa in 1999.
The list of Florida natives who helped with the initial rebuild under Ferentz is long and distinguished, with names such as Colin Cole, Fred Barr, Brad Banks, Maurice Brown, Abdul Hodge, C.J. Jones, Antwan Allen and George Lewis on the list.
Iowa has also recruited well at times on the East Coast under Ferentz, New Jersey and Connecticut in particular, while Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maryland and Texas have been hot spots at times, too.
And, of course, recruiting in Chicago is always a priority for Iowa, as is Kansas City and St. Louis in most years.
But there is new recruiting hot spot that is located right smack in the middle of a state known more for producing college basketball players.
Indianapolis has suddenly turned into a fertile recruiting ground for the Iowa football team.
Offensive lineman Justin Britt is the fourth recruit from the Indianapolis area to pick Iowa in less than a year. He announced his commitment to Iowa's 2019 recruiting class on Twitter on Sunday after having visited the Iowa campus this past weekend.
His commitment comes on the heels of Iowa's 2018 recruiting class, which included three players from the Indianapolis area in defensive backs D.J. Johnson and Julius Brents and receiver Tyrone Tracy.
All three of the 2018 recruits were ranked as three-star prospects or higher and had multiple scholarship offers, while Britt is also a three-star recruit with multiple offers.
So what gives?
Why has Iowa suddenly become a key player in Indianapolis?
“It all comes down to which assistant coach has it,” said veteran recruiting analyst Tom Lemming in reference to who on the Iowa staff recruits in Indianapolis. “That means that coach has real good connections with the high school coaches. That’s normally it because when you’re that far away, you know, two states across, you’ve got to have a connection. And that’s what Iowa has got because the players they’re getting are pretty good ball players.”
In that case, Iowa’s connection would be recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell, considering he handles most of the recruiting in the Indianapolis area.
It wasn't unheard for Iowa to recruit in Indianapolis, or throughout the state of Indiana before Bell got involved. But to land four recruits of this stature from the Indianapolis area in less than one year is unusual.
"That's impressive," Lemming said. "All four can play."
Bell grew up in Mississippi and was a member of Iowa’s 2000 recruiting class as a defensive lineman. His career was cut short by injuries and he entered the coaching profession shortly after graduating from Iowa.
He gained his first coaching experience as an assistant for Iowa City Regina High School from 2004-06, and has been climbing the ladder ever since with stops at Cornell College, Wayne State and Trinity International.
Bell returned to Iowa in 2012 as a graduate assistant and was promoted to director of on-campus recruiting in 2014. He was then promoted to recruiting coordinator in February 2016, and now barely two years later, Iowa has made its presence felt in Indianapolis.
The four recruits from Indianapolis all have spoken highly of Bell, and that's important because Bell makes the first impression for Iowa. He gives recruits the first glimpse and the first feel for what Iowa stands for as a program and as a school.
"Coach Bell started to recruit me from a young age, so over time, we built a great relationship," Justin Britt said Monday. "He has a real father vibe to him. What I mean by that is he will try to do what's best for you. He won't try to make you make a decision but he will let you know that you are wanted. He keeps it real."
If a recruit from Indianapolis doesn't feel comfortable with Bell, the relationship with Iowa probably ends right there.
Bell starts the relationship and then it develops over time as more coaches on the staff get involved.
Lemming spoke highly of Iowa’s newest addition from Indianapolis.
“He’s big, he’s athletic and he’s a solid technically guy,” Lemming said of the 6-foot-4, 282-pound Britt. “He’s been starting for a couple years. He’s a guy that I think will be a guard more than a tackle.”
Iowa is also one of five finalists for four-star receiver David Bell, who is Britt’s teammate at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis. David Bell’s other four finalists are Purdue, Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State.
“It has to help Iowa’s chances with the Indianapolis kids going there because they’re all friends, or at least they know each other,” Lemming said.
Britt said the Indianapolis connection helped in his case.
"Having three guys from the last class from my area is great because I know for sure that I will have a couple friends in the beginning," Britt said.
It is hard knowing for sure why Iowa is so popular in Indianapolis right now, but most of the credit has to go to the coaches, especially Bell, for delivering the right sales pitch and for striking at the right time.
Purdue and Indiana both were energized by hiring new head coaches before the start of the 2017 season, and in Purdue’s case, it produced immediate results as Jeff Brohm led the Boilermakers to a 7-6 record that was capped by a 38-35 victory over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Purdue is considered a program on the rise, and yet, Iowa still has managed to land four recruits from the Indianapolis area in less than a year, and at least three of them had a Purdue offer.
It'll probably be more difficult to keep the Indianapolis pipeline flowing if Purdue continues to improve, so it’s smart for Iowa to strike now.
Time and performance ultimately will determine if the Indianapolis pipeline is successful, but there is reason to applaud what the Iowa coaches have accomplished so far.
There are two parts to recruiting: before and after.
The before part includes the actual recruitment and the signing of a letter intent, while the after is what happens once a recruit arrives on campus and starts competing for playing time.
The before part is filled with hope and optimism, and there is reason for both, thanks partly to Kelvin Bell's presence in Indianapolis.