Susie and Ron Donnal family made a major life change when their son, Andrew, committed to play football at the University of Iowa.
They basically blew up their basement.
The Donnals are from Ohio, near Toledo about 2 1/2 hours from Columbus and the home of the Ohio State Buckeyes. So, yes, of course, they were Buckeye fans. The basement was an Ohio State mancave. They were Buckeyes fans, “were.”
Business is business when it comes to free college. Iowa recruited their son, then a 6-7 frame with some weight to pack on, and offered a scholarship. Donnal waited for a sign from Ohio State, but business is business.
“When you get into the business of getting offers, you kind of drop that fan mentality,” said Donnal, a junior offensive lineman. “That was kind of the last time the Buckeyes were anywhere in my head.”
The Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) land on Planet Ohio State today. The Buckeyes (6-0, 2-0) are No. 3 in country. They’ve won 18 consecutive games. Iowa hasn’t won in Columbus since 1991, before the internet was a thing. Ohio State has a mega-stadium in storied Ohio Stadium, the “Horse Shoe,” which holds more than 103,000. Ohio State has a mega-coach in Urban Meyer, who spent the 2011 season as an ESPN color commentator after winning two national titles at Florida.
Ohio State has mega money.
OSU’s athletics department leads the Big Ten in total revenue ($142.043 million) and is third in specific football revenue ($63.866 million). Iowa ranks fifth in both categories ($97.902 in department revenue) and ($51.110 in specific football revenue).
In the case of Iowa, Ohio State has mega-stadium advantage.
Since the victory at Ohio Stadium in ’91, Iowa has lost six straight in Columbus and 12 of 13 in the series. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has one win in 15 years — a 33-7 victory at Kinnick in 2004 — with a 1-7 record.
You could make a solid case that a victory for the Hawkeyes, a 17-point underdog, would be the biggest Big Ten win in Ferentz’s tenure.
“They’ve got guys that look like big-time football players, play like them and they’re coached like them,” Ferentz said. “They’re playing at a really high level. I think as much as anything, they’ve got a win streak that’s approaching 20 games right now [a 19th victory would tie Ohio State's second longest in school history].
“You don’t do that by accident. That requires good players, good coaching. It requires good players who understand you have to show up every week. They’ve done a great job of that now for a year plus.”
Iowa orbits Ohio State. A lot of Major League Baseball teams orbit the New York Yankees. A lot of college teams orbit Ohio State. This perhaps is most boldly illustrated in the Hawkeye Ohioans and their engagement with Ohio State coaches on the recruiting trail.
Ohio State called Donnal, who was a U.S. Army all-American, but didn’t offer. It wasn’t his fault, but, outside of the basement remodel, he also had to petition his grandfather to buy into the Hawkeyes. Not really, but kind of.
“My parents were in, but it was hard for some family members,” Donnal said. “My grandpa was a diehard Buckeye fan. It was a little difficult at first, but they all converted to the good side. They all support me.”
No offer from Ohio State for strong safety John Lowdermilk, whose dad, Kirk, was an all-American center for the Buckeyes in the 1980s.
“They didn’t recruit me too much,” said Lowdermilk, a junior from Kensington, Ohio, who’s in his first season as a starter. “They visited my high school once or twice, I think.”
Lowdermilk didn’t mess with the family basement, but he did ditch his Ohio State gear (and he had some, rushing the field as a happy Buckeye fan in ’09 when OSU beat Iowa in OT for a Rose Bowl berth).
“I gave most of it away,” he said. “Friends or Goodwill or something. I don’t have any Ohio State gear anymore.”
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens, from Lorain, Ohio, made it as far as a high school camp in Columbus. He had contact with the OSU staff. That was where it began and ended.
“It was never a ‘We’re recruiting you,’” said Hitchens, who didn’t grow up on OSU fan, so he had no Buckeyes gear to clear out. “I went up there and I ended up getting recruited by Eastern Michigan or something like that. I don’t think I was ever on their recruiting radar.”
Ferentz remembered a quick recruiting trip he took in Columbus during his first stint with Iowa as offensive line coach (1981-89). It was the weekend of Iowa’s game in Columbus in 1985, when the Hawkeyes were No. 1 in the nation (and, oddly, not Ohio State).
“People hardly rolled out the welcome mat,” Ferentz said. “I felt like I was from another country, let alone another state.
“I went and saw Ron Stoops [brother of Hawkeye-turned-coaching trio Bob, Mike and Mark, who then was coach at Canton Central Catholic]. He was very nice to me for obvious reasons, since his brother was on our staff. Outside of that, we didn’t get treated too well. They’re a tight state there.”
And yet, Iowa still recruits Ohio heavily. It has to, the vein of talent is too rich to ignore. Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz recruits the state. The 2013 recruiting class included four Ohioans.
“Everybody recruits in Ohio,” Kirk Ferentz said. “If you look around our league, there are a lot of players on other rosters who have done well from the state. They can’t take them all. It’s a good football state.”
Planet Ohio State can’t take all the players. It only feels like it.