IOWA CITY — Iowa sports information was caught flat footed.
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos burst through the doors of the Hayden Fry Football Complex, saw the cameras and starting talking.
His words were fine and have been since that Tuesday in 2007. Never cliche, always insightful. Thoughtful and from the heart. His hat, sunglasses and earrings, those were against Kirk Ferentz policy, which is to say Iowa football policy.
DJK saw the camera and started talking, before Iowa sports info had a chance to say no hat, no sunglasses, no earrings.
The talking has, of course, stopped for DJK. Or at least the talking with the cameras.
Johnson-Koulianos and Ferentz have an agreement about media appearances for this his senior season at the University of Iowa. Ferentz offered to lift the ban after DJK broke Tim Dwight’s yardage for receiving at Michigan Oct. 16.
Ferentz claims they see eye-to-eye on some things. Football, maybe.
“He likes the limelight more than I do,” Ferentz said. “He’d be a great head coach. You guys would love him. The press conferences would go four hours a day.
“He’d be having fun and you guys would be having fun.”
OK, so maybe Iowa was caught flatfooted with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.
Big Ten media days 2006, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit talked up a freshman from Campbell, Ohio.
Johnson-Koulianos played quarterback for the storied Cardinal Mooney High School program. Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback who lives in Columbus, knew all about DJK and liked what he saw.
He predicted big things for Johnson-Koulianos, whose recruitment was largely unheralded. He signed with the Hawkeyes in summer ’06, long after national signing day in February.
“I watched him in the Big 33 and thought, this kid’s dynamic,’” Herbstreit said. “I knew when he went to Iowa, I knew it was just a matter of he and Kirk getting on the same page and if that ever happened, huge things could happen for him. I think that’s kind of where they are right now.”
The big moment of Johnson-Koulianos’ freshman season was the Wisconsin game. It was under the lights in Madison. It was on ABC.
Johnson-Koulianos announced himself to the college football world with fireworks. He caught four passes for 45 yards, including a one-handed, sideline, 21-yard TD pass that had ABC’s Brent Musburger screaming his name to a national TV audience.
“What a catch by Koulianos!” the ABC announcer screamed. “Oh baby, what a touchdown grab! Johnson-Koulianos with a circus catch!”
The movie “The Blind Side,” the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless youngster from a broken home taken in by a Mississippi family and now an O-lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, mirrors Johnson-Koulianos’ story.
He changed his name just before he came to Iowa, bringing in “Koulianos,” which was the name of his adoptive family back in Campbell, Ohio.
Derrell Johnson was born in Youngstown, one of the headliners of the “ain’t what it used to be” Rust Belt cities.
He grew up in the streets. No curfew. His biological mom had him when he was 14. His biological dad died when he was a toddler.
In an interview with Gazette sports columnist Mike Hlas this summer, DJK said, “I’ve seen drive-bys. I’ve been shot at. I’ve seen anything that you see on TV. I just thought that was how the world worked. You were just accustomed to it. That was all I saw, all I knew. Youngstown is rough.
“I didn’t change clothes for days. I would wake up wherever I was, my buddy’s house, my aunt’s house, this side of town, that side of town. Really just not knowing what the next day would bring, where I would be. Then my life took a drastic change.”
He moved in with the Koulianos family.
This big family became his big support system. Great things to have in your life.
“I caught a blessing,” he said. “Just at the right moment before things could have gone sour.”
Johnson-Koulianos’ first catch today will set Iowa’s career receptions record, topping Kevin Kasper’s 157.
His current career numbers are 157 receptions for 2,368 yards and 15 TDs. DJK has eight TD grabs this season, including a hat trick at Michigan. That’s more than the seven he had through his first three years at Iowa.
Ask players about records, you usually get aw shucks. DJK went the other way during media day in August.
“No they matter, really,” he said.
He was quick with the humility, though. He’s got dramatic timing down.
“Here’s my thing, I’ve never really been a full-time starter,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “So, I figure if I can obtain and maintain a starting position, I think those [the records] will take care of themselves.”
Is there a protagonist/antagonist in the whole Ferentz/DJK/interview kerfuffle?
You have a coach doing what he believes is in the best interest of his team and his player. You likely have an accumulation of moments where player and coach didn’t see eye-to-eye. Coach is always going to win that one, especially in college football.
“One thing I’ve always told him and have told everybody, the less said, the less you have to take back,” Ferentz said. “Maybe he’s caught on to that a little bit, but I’m sure he’s going to tell all in January.
“He’s got a good thing going. I think he’s in a groove, he’s in a mode. So, why screw that up? I didn’t ask him, but I’m guessing that’s what he’s thinking. Plus, I just said a minute ago for him and I to think that we could think alike, there’s probably not too many areas we’d agree on.”
Ferentz paused a moment at the thought of a DJK “tell all” in January.
“No words,” Johnson-Koulianos said of his relationship with Ferentz. “It’s a visual understanding. I look at him, he looks at me, and that’s it. He doesn’t have to say anything.”
DJK has 4,978 Facebook followers.
Through his status updates, he’s dealt with a little trash talk and has delivered inspirational messages to Iowa fans. This week, he’s told fans to stay on board in light of the Wisconsin loss and the battle Iowa (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) faces today with No. 5 Michigan State (8-0, 4-0).
After the Michigan game and the yardage record, DJK left this message:
“It’s taken five long years to reach this point. What an incredible journey it’s been. So many places, so many faces. There have been ups and downs, but this feeling makes it all worth it.
“I want to thank God, my family, friends, and fans for their support. Also, a special shout out to my haters, I couldn’t have done it… without you. Men may lie, women may lie, but numbers sure as hell don’t. MPOD. Go Hawks!”
It’s not PR. It’s not a charade. Johnson-Koulianos has said he’d connect with every Iowa fan if he could.
“Iowa football fans love their team,” he said this summer. “If I have the opportunity to brighten one of their days, I feel like it is my obligation as a representative of our team and university to do so.”
DJK continues to catch Iowa flatfooted. Even the coach would agree.