I am not easily shocked. My pessimism knows no bounds when it comes to most things decided by committee’s in college sports.
So imagine my shock to see Iowa State jump both Georgia and Cincinnati in this weeks College Football Playoff poll to number seven. The pessimist in myself couldn’t help but believe this was to help Oklahoma IF they can beat Iowa State on December 19th in Arlington. After all, Iowa State is relatively new to the rare air of company they are hanging around with these days.
But that is the pessimism that has really plagued me all year with Matt Campbell’s Cyclones, and at each turn I’ve been proven wrong. So I began to dwell on what Matt Campbell has done with this program in just five short years.
Many have tried before to resurrect this Iowa State program and in the end came up short. Good coaches too, but there was always a ceiling around mediocrity that couldn’t be shattered.
And so many fans and pundits and other teams accepted this as our fate. We can stumble a really good team now and again, but 6-6 with a bowl game generally was the standard for success in Ames.
So what did Matt Campbell do in five years that was so drastically different?
I’ve made a few observations that I think both show how Matt Campbell changed the process and culture at Iowa State, and how Iowa State and Matt Campbell bucked the system in regards to building a program from the ground up.
1. I believe it starts with AD Jamie Pollard‘s decision to seek Matt Campbell in 2015. Many programs, after they have fired their head football coach, look to find a “name”. It’s the safe play after all. Some coach with past success of winning something big is any easy sell to both anxious donors and fed-up fans.
The problem with this practice is that not all programs and conferences are created equal. Some big name football coaches kicked everyone’s butt because they had the name on the side of the helmet. And when it came time to recruit as a coordinator, they had their pick of four and five-star players. They may have simply been in the right place at the right time. Maybe they were successful due to one of their coordinators being brilliant?
It all started with Pollard buying into what Matt Campbell was selling, and likewise Campbell buying into what he was walking into here in Ames. Both took leaps of faith grounded in the belief they could change such history.
2. I think the most important, and often understated, point of success for Matt Campbell is where and how he recruits talent. If you go back for decades before Matt Campbell arrived in Ames, we had a poor history in bringing talent to Iowa State. Yes, like any team we got a few big-time players who had the raw talent to play quality college ball and even make an NFL roster. Yet those were few and far between. Couple with this the lack of development in a program and that’s how you get Iowa State football, historically.
The old playbook in Iowa State recruiting was to pick up the kids the other Texas and Florida schools hadn’t picked. Good kids, solid athletes but add in the lack of depth and development and you were in for some long seasons.
Having coached nearly his whole career at smaller Ohio schools, Matt Campbell had learned early to recruit kids that he knew had potential, but may be rough around the edges. He didn’t pick a place on the map to recruit, but he didn’t put blinders on and simply head south for his roster either. He understood that his staff would need to find talent by alternative variables and develop the hell out of them once they arrived. This formula is evidenced by where he is recruiting and the offers his recruits get before choosing the Cyclones.
Many of these programs are Big 10 teams that he is squeezing out in recruiting. To the point, the in-state Hawkeyes offensive coordinator was so upset, he began calling out Campbell as offering too many scholarships. Laughable.
The other side of this is that in “old days” at Iowa State, if you were good you were on the field. Underweight? No experience in college ball? Too bad because we didn’t have the depth for holding you back and getting you ready to play in the Big 12 – you learned on the fly. Three years later these same players never grew and developed as they should have. They battled injuries and mental fatigue most of the season because they were all we had.
Campbell has done the opposite since coming to Ames. He’s been holding his young talent on the sidelines to first learn, then get physically ready, then earn Campbell’s trust over the season in practice, THEN you may see the field. Brock Purdy, Breece Hall, Will McDonald, to name a few, all were inserted when they were ready, regardless of loses or pressure to play them, Campbell has his own timing, which seems to work to perfection.
3. I could go on, but I will conclude with the final reason I believe Iowa State has gone from cellar to stellar in just five years. I have to say it’s the rabid fan base that accompanied this program through thick and lean years.
Prior to COVID-19, look at the Kansas home crowd for football games and tell me how any player or coach is motivated to play or coach in that program? When he was the head coach at Toledo, Matt Campbell came to Ames (and yeah he won), and said it was a magical atmosphere.
Translated: I saw a historically losing program with rabid fans still packing the Jack because they were hungry for success. It made a big difference when AD Pollard came to pitch Iowa State to him in 2015. Much like how Campbell is good at recruiting players based on potential, he saw a fan base that was ready for the next step as well.
I cannot say these are the main reasons, only that they are some of the reasons Iowa State has built a program that isn’t a flash in the pan for a few years. Iowa State has been built and developed to compete with the Texas’ and Oklahoma’s of the conference from the ground up.
I don’t know how I feel about next week’s Big 12 championship game, that’s for me to pontificate over next week.
But I will say, most of you are in for a shock in the coming years as the blueprint for success at Iowa State has been found, and it works.
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