By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Barely one year removed from the racial unrest that brought shame and embarrassment to Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa football program, the challenge of fixing the culture still is ongoing.
But it also seems fair to say that progress is being made.
That was my first thought after having learned that 2022 four-star running back recruit Jaziun Patterson had committed to Iowa.
A native of Deerfield Beach, Fla., Patterson announced his commitment to Iowa Tuesday night on the Tony Sands Show on BBS radio.
His reason for picking the Hawkeyes over a long and distinguished list of other Power Five programs sent a powerful message.
“They make me feel like family,” Patterson said. “I feel like their intentions are genuine and I get to play early.
“I’d rather go where I get to play early, rather than going to Florida or Alabama where the running back room is crowded.”
The playing early part was certainly important, and is often a key factor in a recruit’s decision.
But in Patterson’s case, what he said about Hawkeye football feeling like a family, and about the people being genuine, is more important from an image standpoint.
Because the chance to play early probably wouldn’t have been enough to convince Patterson to be a Hawkeye if he had any concerns about the culture in the wake of what happened last summer when multiple former Iowa black players accused the program of racial disparities.
Patterson turned down some attractive scholarship offers, including some from schools that are much closer to his home in Florida, because he must truly believe as a young black man that Iowa is the best place for him to reach his potential, on and off the field.
And that’s significant, and telling.
Patterson’s commitment gives further affirmation that progress is being made on the racial front.
It also shows that Kirk Ferentz’s decision to hire Ladell Betts as the Iowa running backs coach was a wise move that is now paying dividends in recruiting.
Betts said to the media shortly after being hired in March that he wouldn’t have returned to his alma mater without trusting and believing that the racial issues were being addressed properly, and that the program was moving in the right direction.
Without Betts on the coaching staff, Iowa probably wouldn’t have stood a chance in landing Patterson.
But Betts is now part of the Iowa culture, and his influence in this case can’t be overstated.
In addition to being Iowa’s second all-time leading rusher, and with nine years of NFL experience, Betts also coached high school football in south Florida before joining Kirk Ferentz’s staff.
Betts and Patterson have built a strong relationship, and that’s what recruiting is all about.
All of the Power Five programs that have offered Patterson a scholarship have nice facilities, strong fan support and national exposure.
So his decision mostly came down to the people, or the person, that he trusts the most.
One commitment certainly doesn’t make a recruiting class, or prove that Iowa’s culture is completely fixed.
But Patterson’s commitment is huge in so many ways, from the color of his skin to the position he plays and where he’s from.
It isn’t often that Iowa lands a four-star running back, and with Patterson being from Florida, it could help to re-establish a recruiting pipeline in a state that is rich in talent.
Florida natives have played a significant role for Iowa under Kirk Ferentz, but not as much recently compared to the early years.
Patterson’s commitment will also make it more difficult for opponents to use negative recruiting against Iowa. Because if the racial stuff still is a major obstacle, then how do you explain Patterson’s decision with him having so many other recruiting options?
Patterson is the ninth player from 2022 class to commit to Iowa, and the first running back.
And while I normally don’t write columns about a recruit making a verbal commitment to Iowa, I made an exception with Patterson because of the unique circumstances.
His commitment is a sign that Iowa’s culture is improving.
Iowa junior receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. described the culture now as being more like a home than a house. A home represents people, love and relationships, while a house is simply a structure.
The black players now feel more comfortable being themselves and Patterson must have sensed that.
Georgia native Tyler Goodson took a chance on Iowa and now ranks among the best running backs in the Big Ten heading into his junior season. It’s reasonable to think that Goodson’s insight helped convince Patterson to be a Hawkeye.
Goodson and his parents have spoken glowingly about Iowa since Tyler joined the program in 2019.
They haven’t tried to make excuses or dismiss the racial unrest from last summer. But they also believe in the Iowa culture, and they believe in Kirk Ferentz as a head coach, and more importantly, as a leader of young men.
Ferentz admitted to having a blind spot in response to the racial unrest, but he also vowed to fix it and then helped his cause by hiring Ladell Betts.
Time and performance will ultimately determine whether Patterson lives up to the hype.
But one thing is certain, his commitment to Iowa sends a powerful message that the culture is changing for the better.