IOWA CITY, Ia. - I remember it clearly. Kirk Herbstreit briefly breaks off our interview to greet Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz. The popular college football analyst tells the Hawkeye head man that he picked up the best recruit in Ohio.
As a sports reporter, it’s one of those moments that stops you in your tracks. Did I just hear that right? Iowa pulled the best prospect out of Ohio in 2006? That can’t be right.
Herbsteit finishes up his brief conversation with Ferentz and returns to our interview. I follow up. Did you just say what I thought I heard? Yes, he says.
When I wrote what Herbstreit said about Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, it stoked the fire to the DJK-hype machine. Other reports at the 2005 Big Ten Kickoff event in Chicago also asked Herbie about it. It was on.
Johnson-Koulianos started his internet legend by compiling an eye-popping highlight video at Cardinal Mooney High. A quarterback, he did it all.
Combining the highlight tape from an Ohio prep player with the words of Herbstreit created a big buzz on our message boards. It was the type of hype of which plenty of previous Hawkeyes crumbled under.
I’m sorry. I’m not naming names here. Those of you who follow recruiting know them. And really, those guys aren’t guilty of anything other than not living up to someone else’s expectations.
The point here is that Johnson-Koulianos is becoming DJK playing a position other than the one he played in high school. That’s commendable because of the work it took to get to here. It’s easy for these kids to become overwhelmed and weighted down with expectations.
It’s a shame that some Iowa followers - fans and media - view Johnson-Koulianos as a disruptive force. His trips in and out of the Kirk Ferentz’s doghouse intrigue folks mainly because they differ from the common infractions during this coaching regime. We see plenty of guys feel the wrath after run-ins with the law or academic issues, things of which Johnson-Koulianos has steered clear.
Ferentz is old school compared to many coaches these days. He doesn’t Tweet. He’s not on Facebook. His rules might seem old-fashioned to some onlookers and players trying to be hip among their peers.
Johnson-Koulianos found himself the center of controversy after wearing a ball cap and sunglasses to a Tuesday press conference. He was expressing his style, just like a coach wearing khakis and a golf shirt. Ferentz saw it as an image of his team he didn’t want portrayed in public.
I chuckled when I saw Derrell just like people in their 40s smiled at me when I wore a skinny tie and a Members Only jacket in the 80s. I didn’t think much of it because I knew Johnson-Koulianos. I knew he wasn’t being disrespectful to his coach but expressing his individualism, something many of us did at that time of our lives.
That’s the rub. We can debate who is right or wrong. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Ferentz is the boss.
The coach explained it on media day. He said he was the dad and the players were his kids. It’s always been his way or the highway.
Heisman runner-up Brad Banks fell in line back in ‘02. The quarterback would sometimes forget to remove his earrings before TV interviews. He would stop in the middle and remove them.
These are young men going through college, learning about themselves and growing up. What might not make sense now could become clearer in a decade. It’s part of the process.
Ferentz understands. He just won’t compromise his beliefs about what it takes to win at Iowa. Individualism is second to team in his mind even if that means players sacrifice self and who they are as a person sometimes. It’s an uneasy conflict without blame.
Johnson-Koulianos is a good kid with a big heart. You need only watch him signing autographs for young Hawkeye fans to realize how much he cares. His position sitting on the brink of breaking career records at Iowa and his major role in Iowa’s turnaround the last two seasons tell a bigger story.
Johnson-Koulianos embraces the spotlight. That’s why he shows nerves of steel during a White Out at Penn State while others just show nerves in dropping passes. He goes home to Ohio State and takes a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Teammates notice how he carries himself and settle in behind him.
A leader is Johnson-Koulianos. It’s by example.
If he gets upset that running mate Marvin McNutt is afforded the opportunity for the game-winning reception at Michigan State, it can be viewed as descent or selfishness. It shouldn’t be. It’s that confidence that makes him special. It’s an example for young teammates to embrace the moment.
Johnson-Koulianos is one of only three Hawkeye receivers to lead the team in receiving three years in a row. He would be the first to do it for four seasons.
With 31 more receptions, Johnson-Koulianos will break Kevin Kasper’s career reception record of 157. He can break Tim Dwight’s receiving yardage record of 2,271 with 401 more. Both of those numbers needed would be career lows for No. 15.
So, barring injury, statistics probably will say Johnson-Koulianos is the best there ever was at Iowa. I can’t back that up because I haven’t seen every receiver to come through the doors. I’ll leave that for Bob Brooks.
I can say he’s the best I’ve ever covered. I jumped in during the 1997 season, so that includes Dwight, Kasper, Mo Brown, Kahlil Hill, Clinton Solomon, Ed Hinkel and others.
Johnson-Koulianos makes plays as evidenced in part that all 10 of his catches in wins against Penn State the last two seasons have gone for first downs. His 31.5 yards per kickoff return, ranked second in the Big Ten, illustrate the versatility that has him on the Hornung Award watch list as college’s best all-around performer.
It’s OK to remember Johnson-Koulianos’ overblown scrapes with his coach. They will be part of his legacy here at Iowa. However, it’s more important to recall his on-field accomplishments during a great run by the Hawkeyes. He deserves it by working hard to live up to someone else’s hype and getting it done. In the end, that’s what matters most.