By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Bob Sanders is the greatest of the greatest.
He stands above all others in my opinion as the greatest player at Iowa during Kirk Ferentz’s coaching era, which dates back to 1999.
That covers a lot of territory, considering the long and distinguished list of players who have achieved stardom under Ferentz, a list that includes, Brad Banks, Dallas Clark, Robert Gallery, Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Marshal Yanda, Shonn Greene, Marvin McNutt, Brandon Scherff, Desmond King, Josh Jackson and Josey Jewell just to name 12.
With all due respect to the other star players, nobody changed the culture, tempo and attitude under Kirk Ferentz more than Sanders did as Hawkeye from 2000-03.
That’s why Sanders is the perfect choice as honorary captain for Saturday’s homecoming game against Purdue at Kinnick Stadium because his alma mater needs his power and influence to help set the right tone for winning.
We can only imagine what Sanders will say when he addresses the team, which is coming off back-to-back losses to Penn State and Michigan.
The former All-America and NFL All-Pro defensive back should just have them watch tape of his playing days at Iowa because you can’t truly appreciate the greatness and impact of Bob Sanders without watching him play.
He was scary, and that’s coming from somebody who sat in the press box when he played at Iowa.
Imagine what opposing receivers and running backs thought of Sanders, whose bone-jarring hits helped to set a tone within the program, and helped to create a living legend.
I once was told by a very credible source about an Iowa receiver who would switch places in line just so he could avoid facing Sanders in a drill that involved contact.
Sanders mastered the art of tackling and he packed an incredible amount of power and speed into his undersized frame.
Some of his hits just made you cringe and hope that the opposing players would be okay.
Sanders wasn’t dirty. He was just incredibly violent, aggressive and alert, and that made him a force of nature in some respects.
The game has changed considerably since Sanders roamed the secondary and his aggressive style probably would conflict with the new rules about targeting.
You can’t criticize anything that helps to make a violent sport safer, but the rules have made it more challenging for defensive players.
Sanders came to Iowa at the perfect time in 2000, and with little hype as an under-sized defensive back from Erie, Pa.
He only had one other scholarship offer from Ohio, and his offer from Iowa came after Kirk Ferentz had been convinced by his former high school coach and close friend, Joe Moore, to take a chance on Sanders.
Ferentz took that chance and it would prove to be one the best decisions he has ever made as a head coach.
Iowa was coming off a 1-10 season in 1999 when Sanders joined the program and his impact was felt immediately.
The tempo changed the moment Sanders stepped on the field.
He made his first impact on special teams in 2000 and then just kept getting better.
Iowa won three, seven, 11 and 10 games, respectively, during Sanders’ four seasons on the team from 2000-03.
He made first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, junior and senior and second-team All-America as a senior in 2003.
There are other Iowa players who have achieved more hardware than Sanders, with 16 former Hawkeyes under Ferentz having been named first-team All-America by at least one news outlet.
Former quarterback Brad Banks even finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 2002, so there has been plenty of star power at Iowa in addition to Sanders.
But Sanders’ impact went far beyond statistics and individual awards.
He just set a tone that rubbed off on his teammates.
Sanders brought a toughness and an edge that Iowa so desperately needed during the early stages of Kirk Ferentz’s rebuilding project.
Sanders also brought an unmatched work ethic and resolve that helped him cut his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.6 seconds when he arrived at Iowa to 4.3 when he left.
It was easy to overlook’s Sanders’ blazing speed because of how ferocious he was as a tackler. He only stood about 5-feet-8, maybe, but packed about 205 pounds into a muscular frame.
Sanders helped lift the Iowa program to national prominence and then played eight seasons in the NFL where he was named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 as a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
However, there was a downside to his physical playing style in that only twice did Sanders play in more than six games in an NFL season in 2005 and 2007.
All we have now are memories of Sanders to cherish forever. Some popped in my head as I wrote this column.
Bob Sanders is a once-in-a-lifetime player who helped change the course of Iowa football.
His presence on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium will be a special event and that will be obvious from how the fans react.