NIL — Name, Image, Likeness. As a recruiting tactic, it's now one of the most important factors in college athletics — even if the results, by and large, aren't really there yet. To many it's the most convenient bogeyman whenever there's bad news, especially in this era of relaxed transfer restrictions. To others it's a step toward letting athletes actualize the self-worth that their colleges already freely cash in on, and a clarion call toward those institutions to help these valuable athletes achieve that monetary success if they want to retain them.
Regardless of your stance, there's no indication that NIL rights will be going away any time soon, and it also prompted this question from an Alabama podcaster:
Drop your top 5 college athletes that wouldve made the most $ from NIL deals if they played in this era.— Jayde Saylor (@JaydeSaylor) April 21, 2022
The responses were a predictable flood of Peytons Manning and Tims Tebow, but — to us at GIA — it's much more interesting to further refine the prompt to, let's say... the University of Iowa. You know, the Hawkeyes! We talk about them here at this website every now and then.
I'll amend the prompt a bit, but in an important way: instead of trying to imagine these athletes playing in today's landscape, this list is the players who would have cashed in the most at the time if NIL had always been legal. Otherwise we're introducing so many variables ("but would [insert athlete] have played for Kirk Ferentz?" and other unanswerables) that it's just too easy to lose the plot.
This is obviously not going to be a scientific process; there's no sense in trying to assign numerical values to nebulous concepts like visibility, especially across different eras.
That said, we most closely considered athletic accomplishments, the popularity of both the sport and the athlete, historical context, longevity and — perhaps most importantly — charisma. So when you don't see names like Brad Banks or Shonn Greene, it's not that they didn't do enough as Hawkeyes, they just wouldn't have had much of an opportunity to build off their accomplishments while they were still on campus. Likewise, Bob Sanders is probably the single best defensive player of the Kirk Ferentz era, but can you remember a single quote of his as a Hawkeye?
And one last thing before we begin: there are so, so, so many names we had to leave off this list to squeeze this into something readable and manageable, even as we expanded the list to 10 from the original prompt of five. If you think there's a glaring omission, yes; there's several (we punted on Luka Garza and Megan Gustafson since they're so recent, sorry).
So if you've got some names to add to the list, please do sound off in the comments, and let's have fun imagining Hawkeyes from the past cashing in on their fame.
1. Chuck Long
It has to be Chuck, right? Has to be. Iowa was sitting at the biggest of college football's big boy tables in 1985, thanks in no small part to its Heisman-caliber QB who had famously decided to come back for his senior season. All of the national hype was there, and for it to be in the hands of a curly blonde Midwest boy with a big smile and an aw-shucks persona? And Hayden freaking Fry advising him on marketability? You couldn't write an NIL blueprint better than that.
Obviously, even without a substantial NFL career (thanks, Detroit Lions), Long has parlayed his football acumen into coaching college ball, calling games on ESPN and now running the Iowa Sports Foundation. He's a natural magnet for attention in a way few Hawkeyes in any sport have ever been.
But just in case there's a lingering scintilla of doubt about how Long could have parlayed his status into marketability at the time, please see this video (hat tip to HawkeyeRecap for unearthing this) of Long rapping for a Cedar Rapids car dealership after joining the Lions:
Number one with a bullet.
2. Nile Kinnick
Few collegiate athletes captivated the national media landscape in their time than Nile Kinnick, especially in a pre-WW2 landscape where the All-American Boy trope was still essentially unblemished in the larger public eye. It was that way because of people like Kinnick, the warrior-poet of his era who was the first to breathe the kind of life and meaning into the Heisman Trophy that it enjoys to this day.
Kinnick, remember, won the 1939 AP Male Athlete of the Year Award in addition to the Heisman, and he was the first college athlete to do so (nine followed in short order, though none since Hopalong Cassady in 1955). As team sports went, CFB and MLB were the two biggest attractions in that era (and well into the '70s), so Kinnick standing alone atop the college football world really, truly meant something. That was fame that modern collegians can only dream of.
Plus, who else would have been able to write and deliver a solid 20 second promo for Dapper Dan pomade with Kinnick's brand of homespun gravitas? Imagine his voice, waxing poetic about trusting his hair to stay in place the way he trusts the red, white and blue to keep flying over our nation's heartland. Probably wouldn't be played in the pre-game montage over his Heisman acceptance speech, of course, but we can dream anyway.
3. The Brands Brothers
Nobody's shedding a tear for the theoretical lost NIL dollars of Tom and Terry Brands (least of all themselves), as they've coached for a combined 52 years at the University of Iowa and reaped levels of success matched only by their mentor, Dan Gable. Wrestling was always going to take care of them, even if they spent their college careers as amateurs.
But man oh man oh man oh man, we're talking about two of the best wrestlers to ever set foot in Iowa City, ever, a pair of twins whose competitive spirit can still captivate even the most casual of wrestling fans. Even back when they were on the mat in the early '90s, the college wrestling world revolved around Iowa City — and Iowa City revolved around the Brands boys.
And sure, maybe they wouldn't have wanted to do spots for wrestling gear or whatever at the time, maybe that wouldn't have fit their personalities at 20, maybe their time was at too much of a premium. All right. That just means they could have named their price.
4. Tim Dwight
For the last 25 years, few sights have been more ubiquitous at Kinnick Stadium than the replica #6 jersey, and you can still find fans wearing the banana-peel and Reebok versions that predated Iowa's 2001 Nike deal. That's not just backfilled loyalty, that's a testament to the volcanic levels of fame Dwight enjoyed as Iowa's do-everything weapon during the last heyday of the Fry Era. Dwight was more than serviceable in his 10-year NFL career, but in Iowa City, he was Superman.
Some jersey numbers just mean more to certain programs. Michigan has #1, Syracuse #44, and Tim Tebow made that #15 in Florida blue unforgettable. And no disrespect to Kinnick or Cal Jones, the two players who earned retired numbers, but there's no jersey number dearer to Hawkeye fans' hearts to this day than #6. That's all Timmy.
5. Randy Duncan
Never in the history of Iowa football has there been a greater period of sustained success than the 1956-1960 seasons, when the Hawkeyes logged four one-loss seasons in a five-year span and made two Rose Bowls, winning both (an accomplishment that has since remained elusive in Iowa City). Smack in the middle of that stretch was Randy Duncan's career as the Hawkeyes' starting QB, culminating in a runner-up finish for the Heisman Trophy in 1958 — Iowa's only national championship season as awarded by the FWAA.
If being a quarterback (on a Forest Evashevski squad, no less) wasn't enough of an indication that Duncan had the poise and chutzpah necessary to be a marketable figure in the era, recall that prior to the 1957 Rose Bowl, he offered that he cared less about winning the Rose Bowl on his trip to Los Angeles than planting a kiss on blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield (google her at your own discretion, but, yeah) — an opportunity Bob Hope would soon present him with at the Dinner For Champions before the game. And yes, he did.
Duncan was a famously pragmatic person, during and after his football career. But here's a secret: those types often make the most successful self-promoters. And Duncan was absolutely someone who made the most of opportunities in front of him — he's a must for the list.
6. Ricky Stanzi
Stanzi's the first player on this list where his recognition and marketability significantly outpaced his decoration for on-field merits; to the rest of the Big Ten, he was never more than an honorable mention all-conference QB. But as far as engendering fan loyalty goes, few quarterbacks had a better career in an Iowa uniform as Stanzi — and did so with such charisma.
See, conference accolades are good, stats are good — but it's the moments that keep fans invested. And holy cats, where do you even begin with Stanzi? The game-winning drive against Penn State. 7 Got 6. The 13-game winning streak as starting QB, dashed only by an unpunished face-mask by that rich kid school. The Orange Bowl win — to this day Iowa's only NY6 win of the last 60+ years. USA #1. And all of those happened before Stanzi's senior season.
Unfortunately, the video of Stanzi discussing his ankle injury with Camp Courageous visitor Brian is no longer online, but if you know, you know. And on that note, Stanzi wasn't just a moment maker, he knew how to be gracious with his time and energy in a rare way. That's the stuff that fans gravitate toward, and that's what would have made him, in our estimation, the single most marketable player of the Kirk Ferentz era.
7. Rob Houghtlin
Iowa's been blessed with an inordinate amount of heroes at placekicker over the years, but the man who started the trend — and to this day holds the unquestioned most famous kick in Iowa football history, if not the entire Big Ten — is Rob Houghtlin, hero of not only the #1 vs. #2 win over Michigan but also three more game-winners, including a 37-yard boot to stun the Gophers in the Metrodome in an underrated classic.
But that Michigan game-winner was Houghtlin's first in his career, and he wasn't going to miss it. He made sure Michigan knew that, reacting to an "icing" timeout by giving a "big deal" gesture to Bo Schembechler. The absolute nerve! A 160-something-pound sophomore with a sore leg, who had just left a 44-yarder well short about 7 minutes prior, giving THE Bo Schembechler the business and then drilling a field goal through the uprights? Yes, that's how you become a legend around these parts.
Houghtlin never got NIL cash for his exploits or parlayed them into an NFL career, but he'll likely have to settle for never having to buy a drink in the 319 area code in his life. Things could be worse.
8. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos
DJK inspired a lot of feelings during his tenure at Iowa; apathy was never one of them. And to marketers, that's money talking, pure and simple. Johnson-Koulianos was the recruit we plucked from under Ohio State's nose, the field-leveling athlete that helped that Hawkeye offense compete with any secondary that lined up in front of them. And he was cool as hell.
You could call him DJK. You could call him Mr. First Down. Long as you were talking about him, that worked. Of course, nobody turned Kirk Ferentz's hair gray faster than DJK, and yeah it all ended poorly to say the least, but his panache was undeniable and his play 1,000% backed it up. If you don't think he could have monetized that as a Hawkeye, you're smo... never mind.
9. The Entire 1985 Men's Basketball Recruiting Class
It's frankly impossible for us to choose between the fresh-faced point guard B.J Armstrong; the brash, dynamic scorer Roy Marble; the smooth wing facilitator Kevin Gamble; the relentless post presence Ed Horton; and the matchup-busting big man Les Jepsen, all members of George Raveling's legendary 1985 recruiting class. So why try?
Although basketball hadn't suffered through the same protracted lurch of futility that its gridiron counterpart did, the fact that the Hawkeyes were among the elite in yet another big-name sport at the time meant the rest of the country was taking notice, and this group (minus Jepsen, mostly) led the way.
Jepsen eventually came into his own as a prospect, and all five would be drafted; Gamble in the '87 draft, having come to Iowa as a juco transfer, Jepsen in 1990 having redshirted, and the other three in the 1989 NBA Draft. All five very different players, but so inextricably linked that singling out one or even two of these guys as substantially more marketable in that environment would ring hollow. So here we are.
10. Brent Metcalf
We weren't going to stop at the Brands bros, and really there's so many directions we could have gone here — Lincoln McIlravy, Joe Williams, the Banach twins, all wholly valid — but in terms of a guy who knew how to build a mythos and wrestle like a goddamn honey badger, yeah, we're going Metcalf.
In fact, Metcalf would probably have been higher on the list if it weren't for him shoving a back-flipping opponent in the aftermath of a loss in the 2009 NCAA Championships at 149 pounds — Metcalf's first and (obviously) only defeat of the season. But even that, which thankfully didn't end in injury and necessitated a reprimand from the NCAA Wrestling Committee, was more polarizing than anything else; to a certain subsection of wrestling fans who believe in a different time and place for celebration, Metcalf's shove almost felt like vindication. We're not arguing it was a net positive for Metcalf's marketability — it wasn't —but it didn't exactly end his career either.
That's our list, and again: so many names that had to be left off, and if we had written this a week ago or a week from now, maybe it would have looked different. It's a bit of a shame that it's a clean sweep for men, but until very recent history that's just been the standing disparity between men's and women's collegiate athletics. We absolutely don't endorse that disparity and would like it not to exist, but it would be disingenuous to the point of distraction to pretend it never did.
So please, please, please make your case in the comments for the athletes we had to leave off, and as always, GO IOWA AWESOME.