AMES — When it came to the actual letters being faxed, Iowa State’s National Signing Day was as boring as Danny Tanner’s personality in Full House. Surprises, good or bad, did not exist. Easy-peasy.
Wednesday was low on drama, up until Paul Rhoads went all WWE during his annual press conference introducing Iowa State’s recruiting class.
Rhoads, who was visibly fired up as he took the podium inside of Iowa State’s Bergstrom Football Complex, simply held up a piece of paper. You could see from the emotion in the man’s face that a vintage Rhoads speech was on the way. Iowa State’s head coach was holding Allen Lazard’s National Letter of Intent in his right hand.
Rhoads got emotional when discussing Lazard, had some choice words for a handful of people (we’ll get to that momentarily), and then moved on with the rest of his press conference.
In the mind of an Iowa State fan, Rhoads showing pride towards the most important recruit to sign with the Cyclones during his five-year tenure was a fitting conclusion to what was an elongated story that could not end soon enough.
Iowa State’s extensive recruitment of Lazard has produced reality television levels of drama since the day he committed to the Cyclones in December of 2012. Iowa State’s defensive tackles coach and Lazard’s primary recruiter, Shane Burnham, remembers that day vividly.
“I was walking in Valley West Mall, getting ready for Jake Campos’ home visit,” Burnham said. “I remember right where I was. I was on the second-level, probably right about Vicky S or something.”
Lazard called. Lazard committed. As a result, Burnham was happier than Brent Blum in a room full of referees. But Burnham, who has established himself to be one of the top young recruiters in the Big 12 in recent years, knew what was coming. This story had only just begun.
“From that point, I said, ‘You do understand what is going to come at you? A mad month of May when you go to The Opening and the Under Armor Combine, are you ready for this?"
Lazard, a soft-spoken young man who stuck to his word from the second he committed, was ready to become a Cyclone. It was early in the process but Lazard knew what he wanted – to follow in his father’s (former Cyclone Kevin Lazard, 1990-1993) footsteps, play on the same team as his brother (Anthony, a walk-on linebacker) and realize a dream that he had been thinking about since the days where he played ball on the hillsides of Jack Trice Stadium.
But he may or may not have been prepared for the media onslaught that was on its way from a local and national level.
“Did he understand how highly recruited he was going to be? I don’t think that he did,” Burnham said. “But we tried to prepare him that this was coming. You had to take him at his word.”
That is exactly what Iowa State did. Others were skeptical. On Wednesday morning, Lazard finally signed on the dotted line and next year, chances are he will see significant playing time for an offense that struggled mightily in 2014 as a true freshman.
Old friends, now recruiting foes
Without naming names, Rhoads bluntly referenced the fact that Notre Dame and the University of Iowa had continued to pursue Lazard after he committed to Iowa State. As a result, even more drama has ensued since.
“He’s not going to a school in northern Indiana,” Rhoads said. “Boy, they wasted a lot of time and money. He’s not going to another school in this state, who feverishly called him about a half a dozen times in the past week.”
Rhoads’ comments predictably acted as a lightning rod on social media. National outlets picked these quotes up and ran with them. It was an honest, entertaining jab at a rival and two former colleagues (keep reading).
Forget about the shot at Kirk Ferentz. That is irrelevant here.
It’s the take on Notre Dame that was profoundly interesting. Four hundred and twenty-eight miles separate Ames and South Bend, Ind., but in the case of Lazard’s recruitment and the heavy-hitters involved, those two programs could not be closer. Little do many people know, two former Iowa State assistant coaches were the ones leading up Lazard’s recruitment for the Fighting Irish.
Tony Alford coached running backs under Dan McCarney from 1995-2001. Rhoads was on that same McCarney staff from 1995-1999, serving as the linebacker and defensive backs coach.
And then there was Bob Elliott, a 34-year coaching veteran who has coached in more spots than Todd Graham. Elliott has had three different two-year coaching stints at Iowa State in the last 30 years.
“It made it more fun,” Burnham said. “I see Tony on the road recruiting for Notre Dame and I’ve been told that Tony is one of their top guns. I know Bobby Elliott really well. I knew that he was a formidable foe when it comes to doing a great job of recruiting Allen. He knew the area. He knew people in the community. He knew the right buttons to push.”
As for Iowa State, Burnham headed up the process but Rhoads was meticulously involved. Lazard has gone on record numerous times stating that playing for Rhoads was the main reason that he wanted to become a Cyclone.
“For us, it’s our competitive juices,” Burnham said. “Saturday’s are fun but then, this is where we go head-to-head on a personal level with another recruiter. You try to out-work them.”
Going head-to-head with Alford and Elliott might have been fun for Burnham, but it also created more challenges along the way in comparison to a school from one of the coasts, that doesn’t normally recruit central Iowa.
“We knew they weren’t coming in blind,” Burnham said. “They know our situation. I can only assume that as our season went south, people would use that against us, which anybody would do.”
The Notre Dame visit
This is where the media had a legitimate reason to be skeptical of Lazard’s commitment to Iowa State.
It was when on Oct. 18 when the highly touted wide out took an official visit to Notre Dame. It is also very notable that Iowa State had a 1-5 record at the time.
“I asked him, ‘Hey man. What’s going on? They are coming in here in December and doing home visits,”’ Burnham said. “I thought that through our conversations, he was beyond talking with Notre Dame. It didn’t really change how we recruited him though. We just had a frank conversation there in November. He said he was 99 percent committed.”
The reason that number was 99 and not 100 was due to the slight chance that Rhoads wasn’t going to be Iowa State’s coach in 2014. Obviously, Rhoads isn’t going anywhere.
Lazard, who you have to remember is a high school senior, took the trip to South Bend, enjoyed it but never wavered. He still wanted to be a Cyclone and never once hinted otherwise. From there, any angst that Iowa State had was due to over-thinking the situation and nothing more. That happens with anything in life. When you put your heart and soul into anything, “what ifs” are bound to pop into your mind.
“We had no reason to doubt him other than your inner-demons,” Burnham said. “But I had no reason to doubt him. He never gave me a reason.”
Goes back to Campos…
Signing a prospect like Lazard brings a sense of legitimacy to a program on the recruiting trail. The same is true with Iowa State basketball and five-star prospect Rashad Vaughn, who will announce his decision this Saturday. Landing the first McDonald’s All-American during a coaching tenure is always the hardest.
“When you see a guy with a pretty girl, a supermodel, you think about that guy, that there is something to him,” Burnham said. “I think that’s the same thing in recruiting. When you land a supermodel, then people think, ‘There must be something there.”’
That’s why Burnham believes that Iowa State’s signing of four-star offensive lineman Jake Campos in February of 2013 was critical in Lazard’s recruitment.
“When you get this high profile guy named Campos who turns down everybody in the country, think that just made it easier for Allen, when a guy you know, who you grew up playing basketball with, to turn away all of these suitors and believe in what we are doing,” Burnham said. “I think Allen will be the same way and we used him a lot.“
Lazard did his part too. He visibly and aggressively used social media to engage with other prospects in hopes that they would join him in Ames. Lazard also has said that he tried to recruit buddies to Ames while on the summer camp circuit.
“It’s tangible evidence that the kids that are in our backyard and have a chance to go anywhere in the country are staying close because they believe in what we are doing,” Burnham said.
That is step one when it comes to taking Iowa State’s football program to that proverbial next level. Iowa State has to get the best recruits in its own backyard.
Next, comes consistent winning and better bowl games. After that, Rhoads, Burnham and the rest of Iowa State’s coaching staff will have the attention of others.
This story has been covered a lot and rightfully so, but make no mistake about it. Regardless of what Allen Lazard ever does in a Cyclone uniform, the fact that Iowa State was able to battle with and hold off some of the heaviest hitters in college football is without question a step in the right direction.
And for the sake of everybody involved, hopefully this 14-month drama has come to an end.