Iowa Western football set to play for national title. How it became a top JUCO in nation

COUNCIL BLUFFS – Iowa Western Community College football coach Scott Strohmeier walks down some stairs to where his team’s offices are located.

Strohmeier points out a wall covered with names and team logos of several former players who have gone on to play at Division I schools across the country.

“This is kind of the thing with our guys,” Strohmeier says. “They’re like, ‘I want to get on the wall.’”

Hundreds have accomplished the feat. That’s part of the reason why the Reivers have turned into one of the premier junior college football programs in the nation.

“When they come back, they’ll come over here and take a picture,” Strohmeier said.

The long list of people lining up to get pictures is growing by the season. But Iowa Western hasn’t just produced some of the top talent in the entire nation. The Reivers have built one of the most successful programs in the junior college ranks. And there’s no sign of them slowing down either.

Iowa Western, which has already won two national titles, will play for a third Wednesday at 7 p.m., at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark. The game vs. East Mississippi will be televised on ESPNU.

“If they start football, you better apply for that job”

Strohmeier didn’t even know where Iowa Western was when Brenda Hampton first reached out to him. Hampton, who was the athletic director for the Reivers at the time, called Strohmeier to get his input on what it would take to start a football program. Strohmeier was working as the football coach at NIACC in Mason City. His brother Mike, who was working on his staff at the time, was doing some recruiting around Council Bluffs. He drove through campus and called his brother.

“He’s like, ‘If they start football, you better apply for that job — it’s unbelievable,’” Scott Strohmeier recalled.

Strohmeier applied for the job, interviewed later that summer and was offered the gig before leaving campus. He had a vision unapparelled to the other candidates. He had plans to turn the junior college into a successful program by filling the roster with top talent that was either overlooked or unprepared to play at the next level. Strohmeier, a former college quarterback who had coaching stints at Concordia and Truman State, knew what coaches at the next level needed when it came to landing a recruit.

So, he came up with a list of three goals:

One: The coaches had to always be accessible. Strohmeier said the biggest trouble he had in his previous stints was getting ahold of coaches. He made his staff vow to return every call and every email from every coach who reached out.

Two: They had to have film of all their players ready to go. Strohmeier wanted to make sure if a coach wanted to see a player, they had film.

Three: Transcripts. The academic part could sometimes be a deal-breaker when looking at a player. Strohmeier and his staff had all the information available on the spot to help coaches quickly decide on a recruit.

Strohmeier understood that by building a reputation as a school that could get players to Division I programs, he could land some of the best players out there. But he had to build a base. Shortly after taking over, Strohmeier and his staff went through the websites of every Division I, Division II, FCS and NAIA school in the country and tracked down phone numbers and email addresses for each team’s recruiting coordinators. They then started emailing out their prospect lists, hoping to get the attention of anyone who would listen.

“Everything was from scratch,” said Iowa Western defensive coordinator/academic coordinator/linebackers coach Mike Blackbourn.

How the Reivers found their talent was key. Strohmeier zeroed in on Iowa high school players. He liked players who participated in multiple sports and had yet to focus on football. Strohmeier figured that by teaching them the basics and getting them into the weight room he could help some of that undersized or underdeveloped talent flourish. He also recruited players who had struggled at their previous college. In the past, players would have to sit out a year before transferring from one Division I school to another. Iowa Western could offer them a place to play right away without having to miss time.

Strohmeier was able to turn the players he recruited into hot commodities who were successful in the classroom and on the field. He made sure his players had the grades to move on by telling them to not only go to class but sit in the front row so they’d get to know their teachers. He also mirrored his program after Division I programs by setting up weight lifting sessions, morning practices, film study and tutors. Knowing that teams were interested in players with more eligibility left, Strohmeier redshirted many of his players and used the time to help them adjust to college and build themselves into bigger, stronger, faster players.

“That’s the one thing … those four-year schools are going to get from the guys that come here is that our guys are going to be prepared for the most part when they leave here,” Blackbourn said. “They’re going to understand what it takes to do the little things.”

It all worked.

Iowa Western went 5-4 during its inaugural season in 2009. The Reivers followed that up with 9-2 seasons in 2010 and 2011. Then, in 2012, they went 12-0 and won their first NJCAA national championship. The team’s quarterback that season was Jake Waters, a graduate of Saint Albert High School in Council Bluffs. Waters had no real interest from colleges when he was in high school. Still, Strohmeier offered him a chance to come to Iowa Western. After becoming a junior college star, Waters became one of the most sought-after quarterback recruits in the nation.

He committed to Kansas State.

“Coach Strohmeier was the only guy that took a true chance on me out of high school,” Waters said.

Waters is not the only player who can say that.

Reivers keep winning and sending players to the next level

The 2012 season changed everything for Iowa Western. The national championship gave the Reivers some street cred with recruits and the respect of college coaches around the nation. That enabled them to keep landing the top talent and sending it to the next level.

During the first few years of the program, Strohmeier and his staff had to make calls on behalf of players trying to find them a four-year school to play at.

But with some success, coaches started coming to them. They know if they needed help at a certain position, Iowa Western likely had someone available. Waters, now a member of Iowa State’s staff, said the Cyclones have faith in any player that Strohmeier has in his program.

“When he vouches for a player and says ‘This guy would help your team,’ we listen, we take it very seriously because coach Stroh will give you the truth, no matter what,” Waters said.

The transfer portal has taken away some of Strohmeier’s recruiting advantages, with players now being able to jump from one Division I school to another without sitting out a year. But he’s still finding players, still bringing them to Council Bluffs and still sending them to the next level.

Strohmeier estimates more than 300 players have gone on to play at Division I schools after leaving Iowa Western. Some, including Dominique Dafney and Rico Gafford, have even played in the NFL.

The talent is so deep now that defensive back Ashlynd Barker, who redshirted in 2022, made so many leaps and bounds in Council Bluffs that he ended up at Florida State in 2023 despite never playing a snap for the Reivers. Defensive lineman Joe Hjelle was barely recruited out of high school. After redshirting at Iowa Western and bulking up from 230 to 290 pounds, he’s gotten scholarship offers from a long list including Tulsa, Northern Iowa and Miami of Ohio.

“Iowa Western definitely changed that for me,” Hjelle said.

The success in recruiting has led to even more attention. Strohmeier says producers from the Netflix series Last Chance U, which goes behind the scenes with junior college programs, have talked to him about focusing on his school. They even spent time filming a practice and meetings but Strohmeier was concerned about potential distractions for his players.

It’s easy to see what drew the producers there, though. The Reivers have become the gold standard of JUCO football. They won last season’s national title with a 10-2 record. The head coach credits the continuity of his staff for the success, but keeping Strohmeier may be the biggest win for the program. He concedes that he’s drawn interest from other levels and has been tempted to take a look. But he’s stayed in Council Bluffs.

“It would have to be something, a no-brainer situation,” he said. “I love it here. I’m totally, totally content with ending my career as a junior college football coach.”

Strohmeier has continually been drawn back to Iowa Western, which has invested mightily in its football program with new facilities. But that’s just part of what keeps Strohmeier there. Perhaps the biggest reason he’s sticking around is the impact he continues to make on players.

One of Strohmeier’s favorite parts of the job is seeing former players come back to the facility to get their photo on that wall.

“We’re in a day in age where people are given a lot of things and they don’t earn it,” Strohmeier said. “To see a kid come in here, question his ability or question some things, question his academics and then graduate and then get a four-year scholarship, I think that’s probably the biggest thing.”

Tommy Birch, the Register’s sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He’s the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at or 515-284-8468.

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