‘They want to be part of that’: How Iowa uses Kinnick Stadium, Hawkeye football to recruit students and athletes

Head coaches across Iowa’s athletics department use Kinnick as a recruiting tool to bring prospective student-athletes to the Hawkeye State.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa’s 125-pound Spencer Lee walks off the field after being honored during a football game between Iowa and Michigan on Saturday Oct. 1, 2022. The Iowa wrestling team has its first match on Sunday, Nov. 13.

Austin Hanson, Pregame Editor

Kirk Ferentz isn’t the only Iowa head coach patrolling Kinnick Stadium’s grounds on most Saturdays

The head coach of the Hawkeye football team is often joined by the likes of men’s wrestling coach Tom Brands, women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder, and men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery.

As a 2022 Homecoming Grand Marshal, Brands was recognized during the first quarter of Iowa’s 33-13 win over Northwestern on Oct. 29. McCaffery and Bluder’s teams have made appearances on Duke Slater Field this season to show off their 2022 Big Ten Tournament championship rings. 

Kinnick is, however, useful to the trio of winter sports coaches beyond the 69,250-fan recognition if offers them, at times. Bluder, McCaffery, and Brands have all used Kinnick Stadium as a tool to help recruit top athletes to their respective programs.

The 2022-23 Iowa men’s basketball team gets introduced during a football game between Iowa and Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. The Cyclones ended a six-game Cy-Hawk series losing streak defeating Iowa, 10-7.
(Grace Smith)

“The atmosphere speaks to our fanbase,” McCaffery said. “You know, you look at that facility, the facility next door, and our facility, at an athletic program, not just one or the other, that is truly committed to being good. Our fan base wants us and expects us to be good and supports us in that endeavor. So, it’s a big part of [recruiting], no question.”

Guard Tony Perkins, one of McCaffery’s starters this season, visited Kinnick Stadium on a game day while he was being recruited to Iowa. Though he didn’t recall which game he watched as a recruit, he said Kinnick’s atmosphere stuck with him.

“Yeah, we actually went to a football game,” Perkins said of his recruitment. “The atmosphere was crazy. It was, like, sold out. Mostly every game has been sold out that I’ve been to since I was here when I was on my visit.”

Perkins, a junior, was a three-star recruit out of Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. 

Patrick Kennedy, the Iowa men’s wrestling team’s starting 165-pounder, also went to Kinnick while on a visit to UI. But his experience wasn’t quite the same as the one Perkins had.

“Yeah, I went to Kinnick,” Kennedy said of his recruitment. “I think we played Northwestern. I think we were smacking them pretty good, so I left at halftime. But yeah, it was cool.”

For Kennedy, opting to leave Kinnick early on game day isn’t uncommon. He still leaves most Iowa football games well in advance of the final whistle.

“You know, now going to football games not as a recruit, I just like to go to the walkouts part and see the hawk fly (in the pregame) quick,” Kennedy said. “That’s really all I need.”

Kennedy was heralded as one of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the country during his high school career. He finished the 2017 season ranked No. 1 at 170 pounds. After his 2018 campaign at Kasson-Mantorville Senior High School in Minnesota, Kennedy was No. 5 in the country at 182 pounds.

“We do use Kinnick Stadium,” Brands said. “Football is king. There is no doubt. The fanfare, the energy, we use it. I can tell you right now that the football program knows our gratitude. We give credit where credit is due because of the atmosphere they bring for us.”

When he’s not hosting recruits or standing on the field waving at fans with his team, Brands has been known to grow the reach of the  brand of Iowa men’s and women’s wrestling in a different way.

Brands has become a fan favorite at Kinnick in recent years because of some mid-game speeches — the most notable of which came during last year’s Iowa-Penn State football game.

As Hawkeye football’s in-game host Laura VandeBerg started to interview Brands during a third-quarter media timeout, he quickly snatched the microphone out of her hands. Then, Brands started his 35 second soliloquy with, “Laura, you are awesome, but I’ve got this interview from here.”

“Look at these guys,” Brands said. “They’re hungry, and lean, and mean like the hawk that was on the field. I love that hawk that was on this field. Anybody, anytime, anywhere — State College, Detroit, Lincoln, Nebraska, we don’t care. We love these guys. We love you guys. And Iowa Hawkeye football, we need a third quarter, and we need a fourth quarter.”

The No. 3 Hawkeyes trailed the No. 4 Nittany Lions, 17-10, when Brands took the mic. After Brands’ address, Iowa rallied, in the game’s final 25 minutes to pull out a 23-20 win. The fans that had watched Brands’ impassioned speech just 1 1/2  quarters earlier stormed the field. 

At a Presidential Committee on Athletics meeting two days earlier, Brands revealed that he was hosting 18 recruits in Iowa City that weekend.

“Yeah, I think what you do is, you either go in there and you stumble or you go in there and try to create or add to the atmosphere,” Brands said on Oct. 27.​ “That’s all you try to do.”

Brands told The Daily Iowan he might be permanently retired from speaking at football games. During his Oct. 29 appearance at Kinnick, Brands did not get the microphone.

Brands said he doesn’t know if he’ll be given the microphone at a game again. He added he felt fans responded well to his speech at the Penn State game.

Bluder and McCaffery both suggested games at Kinnick can help men’s and women’s basketball recruits see the passion and energy of Iowa’s fan base, giving them an idea of what to expect from the Hawkeye faithful at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“It’s amazing,” Bluder said. “I mean, it helps so much because everybody who’s an athlete, and you work so hard at your trade, you want to play in front of a great crowd. That’s like an artist painting a picture and never showing it to anybody — it doesn’t make any sense.

“We want to be in Carver. We want to show our recruits. You know, when we’re on television, we think we can give it a good environment to show on television. Even if they can’t get here, they can still see that amazing environment. Then, of course, statistics don’t lie, we were the third-best attended [women’s basketball] team in the country last year.”

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder yells at her team during a women’s exhibition basketball game between Iowa and Nebraska-Kearney at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022. Bluder is in her 23rd year as head coach for Iowa. The Hawkeyes defeated the Lopers, 108-29. (Grace Smith)

Sports teams  aren’t the only entities on campus that use Kinnick and the Hawkeye football program as a recruiting tool, either. The university hosts each of its incoming classes of freshmen at Kinnick before fall semesters begin. With a few exceptions, every freshman class participates in Kickoff at Kinnick, which is part of the UI’s ‘On Iowa!’ orientation program. 

Students are invited to Kinnick to make new friends, listen to live music, learn the Iowa fight song, and form a block I on the turf.

“I think, instead of helping people make a decision, it can almost reaffirm a decision,” said Allie Conklin, Iowa admissions associate director of national recruitment. “They might be like, ‘OK, I love campus, I love my tour, I love the academics, and now this is another really cool tradition that I get to do.’ It’s kind of like a rite of passage.”

Conklin added the UI does not see sharp increases or decreases in enrollment when Iowa football is or isn’t playing well.

Conklin said the most critical thing Hawkeye football does for the UI in terms of the recruitment of regular students is push the Iowa brand to other markets. When the Big Ten adds USC and UCLA in 2024, Iowa football and UI’s brand will find its way onto televisions from coast to coast in the U.S. 

“The draw of Kinnick, from our recruitment standpoint, is just the visibility we get from it,” Conklin said. “The football team being on [FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff] increases the visibility for the University of Iowa. So, students from New York, from California are all able to see our brand, whether they’re a football fan or not.

“We have so many students coming strictly for academics, and they might never step foot in Kinnick Stadium. But they’ve seen it, and those traditions are great. They want to be a part of that, or at least go to a place that has that sense of community, that has all those wonderful traditions like ‘The Wave’ and everything that comes with football Saturdays.”