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Throwback Thursday: Kirk Ferentz’s First NFL Draft at Iowa

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We’ve come a long ways over the last twenty year.

Michigan State v Iowa
It’s been 20 years since Kirk Ferentz took over and at least one Hawkeye has been drafted in every one of them.
Photo by Darron R. Silva/Getty Images

It’s NFL Draft day. It’s a bit of a surreal day this year. In a world without sports, it feels both exciting and also strange to have some semblance of normalcy today. The draft is moving forward as scheduled, which is more than can be said for just about everything else. But it’s also being run virtually, meaning there is no green room. There will be no draft picks walking across the stage to shake the commissioner’s hand. It will be a strange event in what are now truly strange times.

One thing that will be like it has become normal to be, is the guarantee of several Iowa Hawkeyes who will have their names called both tonight and throughout the draft. As it has been every year for the last fifty, save for 1977, there will be at least one Hawkeye drafted this year.

Tonight is sure to be different, however, from draft night 20 years ago following Kirk Ferentz’s first season with the Hawkeyes. The draft came after an abysmal year. Iowa went just 1-10 in the first season of the KF era. It was one of two brutally bad season after the coaching change was made which could cost Ferentz a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.

In the 19 seasons since Kirk’s first, Iowa has gone on to win 161 more games with just two losing seasons since those first two. The Hawkeyes have had 68 more players drafted since that first class, including nine first round selections. They made NFL history a season ago as the only school to ever have two tight ends drafted in the first round of the same draft. That’s fitting for a program that’s become known as Tight End U.

On draft night twenty years ago, it all got started for the KIRK Ferentz Hawkeyes with a tight end. Austin Wheatley, a tight end from Milan, Illinois, became the first Iowa player drafted under Ferentz. He was a 5th round pick by the New Orleans Saints. Wheatley’s NFL career was short, lasting just three seasons and he appeared in only four career games - all coming in his rookie year.

Wheatley was joined in that inaugural draft class by just one other pick. Safety Matt Bowen was a 6th round pick of the then St. Louis Rams. He earned the team’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award that season, but was placed on IR early in the following season due to a broken foot. Bowen played six seasons in the NFL with four different teams. He’s now a sports journalist and a must follow on social media.

Tonight, the story will be much different from the one twenty years ago. The Hawkeyes are fresh off a ten-win, rather than ten-loss, season. As with a season ago, Iowa is sure to have at least one first rounder selected tonight and potentially two. They may have a top ten pick. When it’s all said and done, Iowa is likely to have at least four players drafted and possibly five. As with in years past, countless more will get a chance as undrafted free agents and several will stick on NFL rosters.

That’s the program that Kirk Ferentz has built from the incredible foundation laid by Hayden Fry. There have been dark years and there are sure to be more, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel and the cupboards are never bare. Iowa football is an NFL factory.