No longer a ‘laughingstock’: How Matt Campbell turned around Iowa State
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WHEN MATT CAMPBELL was introduced as Iowa State’s football coach on Nov. 30, 2015, he shared a story about a road trip to Ames the previous year with Toledo.

The team bus arrived at Jack Trice Stadium early, so Campbell, then Toledo’s coach, walked the grounds. He surveyed the Iowa State facilities, soaked in the parking lot tailgates and admired the passionate fan support for what was then a 1-4 team. He called his wife, Erica, after the game to share his impression.

“You’re not gonna believe this place,” Campbell told her. “This is a really special place.”

Given the Cyclones’ history to that point — just 11 bowl games in 12 decades, zero conference championships since 1912 — few would call the school a destination. But Campbell saw potential. When the job opened up a year later, the idea of taking the Cyclones from “the laughingstock of college football,” as he often put it, to a place of national relevance appealed to him.

“There was a lot of hard road and a lot of tough waters that we had to start back over, clean up and get aligned,” Campbell said. “The reality of it is, that hasn’t happened consistently here, ever.”

In just five years, Campbell turned his vision to reality — and a consistent one, at that. On Saturday, No. 10 Iowa State meets No. 25 Oregon in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (4 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), the first New Year’s Six bowl game appearance in school history.

This season has been filled with similar firsts. The Cyclones (8-3) reached No. 6 at one point in the College Football Playoff rankings, the highest they’ve been in any national ranking since their program began in the 1890s. They finished atop the Big 12 regular-season standings for the first time, and their eight conference wins is an all-time high. A win in the Fiesta Bowl would be their ninth victory of the season, a school record that occurred only twice before: 1906 and 2000.

That momentum began under Campbell.

“When I was playing there, thinking about going to the Fiesta Bowl seemed so far-fetched and unreal,” said former Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard, now with the Green Bay Packers. “All credit goes to Coach Campbell and his staff for what they’ve done there from top to bottom.”

WHEN CAMPBELL ARRIVED, Iowa State had won five games over the previous two seasons combined.

His predecessor, Paul Rhoads, took Iowa State to three bowls in his first three years, and his teams developed a reputation for playing hard and scoring the occasional eyebrow-raising win, none bigger than the 2011 upset of then-No. 2 Oklahoma State, which derailed the Cowboys’ BCS title hopes.

But Iowa State went 8-28 in Rhoads’ last three seasons, and athletic director Jamie Pollard made a change. He tapped Campbell, 36 at the time and fresh off a 35-15 stint at Toledo.

The young coach was a football lifer. His father, Rick, was a longtime high school football coach in Ohio.

“Being around the locker room, being around a person of influence impacting and empowering the lives of young people and watching that occur as a young child, I think that had a profound impact on me,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s own high school coach, Keith Wakefield, was another strong influence, along with Larry Kehres, a coach who won 11 national titles at Mount Union and whom Campbell played for at the Division III school. Wakefield, Campbell said, “taught us not only the game of football, but taught us the game of life.” At Mount Union, Kehres’ program was “about relationships and trust and culture.”

That trio of mentors provided Campbell a foundation to help launch his career.

“Had I not had that experience at that point in time in my life, I probably would not have had the opportunity to become a football coach,” Campbell said.

In his Big 12 foray, translating the success Campbell had with Toledo in the Mid-American Conference was a stiff challenge. In his first year, the team went 3-9. But Campbell’s expectations remained nonnegotiable.

“When Coach Campbell and his staff came in, they immediately changed the culture from day one,” Lazard said. “They required new standards, new expectations and held us to a way higher level of accountability than a lot of us — especially me — weren’t usually held to.”

Campbell emphasized details. Punctuality. Technique. “Winning in the margins,” as he calls it. Because the Cyclones weren’t stocked with five-star recruits, they would have to spend time perfecting the little things to have a chance.

“We don’t accept tardiness in this program,” junior tight end Charlie Kolar said. “In this program, you’re on time or you’re not practicing that day, doesn’t matter who it is.

“That bleeds over to practice, running the right route, blocking the right gap, making the right tackle.”

It can get frustrating at times, Kolar said, but something that seems meaningless during a training camp practice “is the difference between a seven-point win and a seven-point loss.”

Racking up victories would take time, though.

“Year 1, we had to learn how to believe,” Campbell said. “In Year 2, we had to learn how to win.”

CAMPBELL’S BLUEPRINT SOON got a boost from the inside. The winter following Campbell’s first season at Iowa State, running back David Montgomery established a Friday night routine.

Instead of going out and enjoying college life, Montgomery — now a running back for the Chicago Bears — began watching film and getting in late-night workouts at the team facility. Soon, the Bailey twins — defensive end JaQuan Bailey and defensive tackle Joshua Bailey — joined in. After a few weeks, a small handful of players had turned into a couple of dozen.

The overtime and focus on the details paid off. In 2017, the Cyclones went 8-5, snapped an 18-game losing streak to Oklahoma, reached a peak of 14th in the Associated Press poll and won the Liberty Bowl. Campbell and the Cyclones were turning heads, particularly with their win over the Sooners, who went to the College Football Playoff later that season.

“Winning a game like we did against Oklahoma showed us and our kids that, ‘Here is what it takes to be successful,'” Campbell said before the 2018 season.

That breakthrough was just the beginning. In the past four seasons, the Cyclones have gone 31-19, making the current senior class — which was recruited off Campbell’s 3-9 debut season — the winningest in Iowa State history. Those teams have won eight games three times and seven in the other season. This will be the fourth consecutive bowl game, a feat never before achieved in the program’s history.

Stability and flexibility have been major factors.

Campbell brought more than a dozen Toledo staffers with him to Iowa State, and many remain on the Cyclones’ staff, including both offensive coordinator Tom Manning and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock.

And he found dependability at quarterback in three-year starter Brock Purdy. Since breaking into the lineup with a win over a sixth-ranked West Virginia team in his first career start in 2018, the junior has provided a steady hand at a position that had significant turnover before his arrival.

Purdy is 22-11 as a starter, 19-7 against Big 12 teams and 12-1 at home. The first-team All-Big 12 quarterback was the first Cyclone to earn that honor since John Quinn in 1981. In the 33 games he has started, Iowa State averages 432 offensive yards and 32 points.

“We’ve grown as a program as Brock has grown,” Campbell said. “I feel like a lot of lessons that we’ve learned and a lot of the growth that we’ve had, it’s been really enjoyable for all of us to be able to do it together.”

Campbell has also built a strong running game around Purdy. In the quarterback’s freshman campaign, he had Montgomery, the Big 12’s second-leading rusher in 2018, and he has had Breece Hall the past two seasons. After a solid freshman campaign in 2019, Hall emerged as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate this season and is second nationally in rushing yards (1,436) and rushing touchdowns (19).

The program stability is complemented by the flexibility Campbell and his staff have displayed. Midway through the 2018 season, Heacock shifted defensive philosophy from a four-man front to three down linemen to better accommodate the defensive roster talent. This offseason, Campbell made changes to the strength and conditioning staff and even adjusted details such as how they structured meetings.

Heacock’s defense has been a strength throughout Iowa State’s run. The Cyclones have been in the top three in the Big 12 in scoring defense each of the past four years and have given up an average of less than than 23 points per game over that span.

The staff has also been open to player feedback in evolving the program, increasing buy-in from the roster.

“A lot of it’s just been the willingness to really listen and understand the input that players might have,” safety Greg Eisworth said. “Our coaching staff … has had a great deal of success and they’ve been doing this for a really long time, so it may be hard to change philosophies or understand what players might be saying.

“But to have the humility to just have those conversations, from coach to player or player to coach, so we can all be on the same page and move in the same direction … I think that’s really helped us tremendously.”

Even as the Cyclones win more and the roster talent improves, Campbell hammers home his message.

“Yes, we’ve gotten maybe older and our talent has been able to develop,” Campbell said, “but I think to become the best version of ourselves, the best team that we can become, the difference is in the details. The difference is in our ability to do the little things.”

HOW FAR IOWA State football can go remains to be seen, but the trend line is promising.

Campbell, whose name gets speculatively thrown around when big-time coaching jobs open up, appears to be content. He signed a contract extension through 2025 after last season, and during the most recent coaching carousel, nothing signified an intention of making a move.

Pollard acknowledged the likely interest during a recent interview on SiriusXM Big 12 Today — “I’m not naïve enough to think he’ll never leave Iowa State,” he said — but he is confident in the trust the two have built and the quality of their relationship.

Campbell, who relished the challenge to build something when he got to Iowa State, has lived up to it.

“Right now, he’s proven you can be successful at Iowa State,” Pollard said.

The level of achievement is unprecedented for the program. At one point this season, the Cyclones were just outside the playoff. They were on the cusp of an outright conference championship, which they haven’t won in 108 years.

Following a November win over Texas, Campbell was asked if he envisioned this success. Referring to his first year at Iowa State, Campbell said he didn’t set goals beyond one: “Can we not be the laughingstock of college football?”

Under his watch, Iowa State hasn’t needed to worry about that anymore.

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