For almost a century, Iowa State football has seen more than its fair share of heartache, agony, and generally frustrating football performances. In many cases, Iowa State is circled as a guaranteed win for an opponent, and to take it one step further is considered the best conference opponent to schedule during Homecoming every other season. The history of Iowa State football has been largely marked with occasional glimmers of hope that were snuffed out by high-octane offenses in the Big 12 south, and the physical defenses of Nebraska and Oklahoma in the old Big 8. The culture of “welp, here it comes again,” reigns supreme, and in all honesty is probably well deserved.
What I’m about to write is not intended to insult any Cyclone fan, or degrade years, decades or generations of sacrifice and loyalty to ISU Football. This loyalty and support is what led to the Jack Trice Stadium transformation into the third largest Big 12 stadium, what led to the increase in overall size and reach of this fanbase, and what has increased overall investment in Cyclone Football that has put us at this pivotal point in the program’s history.
On November 18, 2011, I rushed the field with 52,000 of my closest friends to celebrate the biggest win in school history over #2 Oklahoma State. The scene in Ames on that crisp November evening was of sheer euphoria and excitement. The moment was not only exciting because of what had just been accomplished, but was exciting because such a win could serve as a launchpad for recruiting and future program momentum. That next Saturday morning, Cyclone fans tuned their televisions to ESPN’s College Gameday, who spent the entire first hour of the show dissecting the major upset and its ramifications nationally. Never before has Iowa State been in a position so ready to take a leap forward. Iowa State was on the map following its sledgehammering of the BCS system. Iowa State was about to take the next big step.
The 2012 Iowa State Cyclones featured a talented lineup of upperclassmen destined for NFL rosters and a fan base committed to taking that next big step as a football program. Paul Rhoads, a wanted commodity in numerous coaching circles returned to Iowa State following alleged flirtations with other schools regarding their vacant coaching positions. Aspirations of January bowl games, 9 or 10 win seasons in one of America’s toughest conferences, or even sustained bowl success were not out of the picture or unwarranted. That Cyclone team was ready to take one step further onto the college football stage.
The 2012 Cyclones jetted out to a 3-0 record with wins over Tulsa, Iowa and Western Illinois. A home game against Texas Tech, who ISU had scored 52 and 41 points against in the two previous matchups served as another huge moment for the Cyclones’ rise in college football. A colossal disaster of offensive play calling and inconsistent quarterback play doomed the Cyclones to a 24-13 loss, which featured only one offensive touchdown. The following weekend marked redemption for the Cyclones, as Jared Barnett led the Cyclones to a 37-23 win at #12 TCU. The following week marked the second major disappointment of that season as the 4-1 Cyclones took #6 Kansas State to the wire, losing 27-21 in a generally good performance marked by one or two mishap plays which shifted momentum back in the Cats’ favor. Following this loss, the season hit a tailspin, as the Cyclones finished the season 2-7 with wins over Kansas and Baylor, along with an absolute heartbreaker to West Virginia on Black Friday. The season finished with a rematch loss against Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl, completing a season of missed opportunities and squandered potential.
The 2013, 2014 & 2015 Iowa State Cyclones never regained the traction, poise or momentum of the late 2011 and early 2012 squads. Coupled with frustration and angst over controversial officiating, bad offensive play calling, and overall poor game day performances, the momentum Paul Rhoads once had built at Iowa State was gone. The once proud and confident willingness to leave no stone unturned en route to victory was also gone. The excuses, limitations and pessimism began to creep over Cyclone Nation like fog entering a harbor. Dreams of taking the next big step had disappeared.
“You just can’t expect to win consistently at Iowa State,” many fans remarked. Others commented: “Paul actually wants to be here, so I want him here too,” amidst 64-point losses in Waco or blown opportunities vs Kansas State or Texas, as though no other coach would ever consider coaching at ISU. As referenced above, many in Cyclone nation, including coaches and administration, blamed controversial officiating for the blunders that became Cyclone Football finishes. Confidence in Iowa State’s ability to compete in the increasingly southern-based Big 12 conference dwindled. Those blunders, hits, and losses kept coming, and the toxicity of the situation hit a low we’d have never imagined on that crisp cool night in November 2011.
Following the 2015 loss to Kansas State, the time had come for Iowa State to take a new direction. Paul Rhoads, a man who taught us to believe, had seemingly stopped believing himself. A coach once willing to try anything became conservative and unwilling to take the extra steps to get over the top. Acceptance with a bowl appearance every 3-4 years (if even that) became the norm, and guilt upon fans wanting more became more and more prevalent, as though achieving more simply wasn’t in the cards. Jamie Pollard had no choice but to make a change at the head coach position.
While being introduced as the next head football coach of the Iowa State Cyclones in December, Matt Campbell emphatically stated: “Greatness is a choice.” Every move that each player and coach made from this point forward was a choice towards greatness, or a choice to remain the same. Although too early to tell, this mantra marked the first positive step in regaining the positive momentum we saw five years prior, and in building a winning culture around a program steeped in a losing mentality of excuses and pessimism. Luckily, choosing greatness isn’t a new proposition for Iowa State Cyclones, even if the last three seasons have seemed so distant from great.
Former ISU offensive coordinator (and current Houston head coach) Tom Herman chose greatness when he handed the reigns to Jeff Woody in double overtime, entrusting the hopes and dreams of Cyclone Nation in the running back’s hands on that crisp November evening vs Oklahoma State. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard chose greatness when he pitched the new south endzone project to the Reiman family in 2013, and continues to as he puts together the vision, bricks and mortar for competitiveness in the facilities arm race, of which Iowa State now competes. Matt Campbell and the best recruiting class ever put together in school history have chosen greatness, and continue to work every day, not only to put great football players on the field for Iowa State but to capitalize upon momentum when it arises.
I chose to write this article today because Cyclone Nation is down following an incredibly difficult loss to Northern Iowa, which marked another FCS loss for a program and fan base not needing to see another, and a loss in Iowa City which signified just how large of a climb this rebuild will be in 2016. It is imperative that fans be reminded that Iowa State University has never been closer to rising within the sport of football than on this day in 2016, despite what the win/loss record dictates during this rebuilding season.
My advice to Cyclone fans today is simple: Chin up, and keep your head held high. As bumps and bruises take place on the field this season, as they will as Matt Campbell rebuilds this program, I ask Iowa State fans to take the final step in this process themselves.
When Bill Snyder took over as the head coach of the worst program in Division 1 football at Kansas State in 1989, he embarked on what he called the greatest turnaround in football history and that it would not be taken lightly. Bill Snyder didn’t make excuses for Kansas State, whether it be facilities, fan support, program history, or difficulty of winning in Manhattan. All Bill did was win, and when he came back in 2009 to Manhattan, he won again. He took bumps and bruises early in the process, but at the end of the day, he won despite any and all perceived limitations or excuses. Bill Snyder chose greatness for Kansas State.
In comparison to the tough situation Bill Snyder entered in 1989 at K-State, Iowa State University is of its highest stature ever as a major top tier public institution within its state, and in America. Iowa State Athletics is at its greatest point ever in terms of athletic department budget, funding, donations and financial competitiveness with conference and national brethren. Jack Trice Stadium, once regarded as a glorified high school stadium, is now the crown jewel of the progress and momentum under Jamie Pollard’s tenure at Iowa State. Matt Campbell, an up-and-coming coach within the profession chose to be the head coach at Iowa State, despite any and all perceived excuses and limitations that may exist towards building a solid football program in Ames. The groundwork has finally been laid for a great turnaround to occur. The final step contains ditching previously-held excuses, perceived limitations and blunders within the history and tradition of our football program, no matter how hard the hits and lumps may be in 2016.
As Matt Campbell embarks upon this rebuilding opportunity in Ames, I ask Iowa State fans to not take this opportunity lightly, just as Bill Snyder and K-State did in 1989 and as many other programs in our region have done within the last 15 years. The final pieces are in place for Iowa State to enter the college football stage as a consistent contributor to the Big 12 conference. The future for Cyclone Football is bright as this coaching staff develops its team with some of the school’s best recruits ever landed, in state-of-the-art facilities, at one of the best universities in the country. The days of “welp, here it comes again,” don’t have to reign supreme if our culture takes this leap forward, and the next century of Cyclone Football can be much brighter than the last. This leap forward by our fans and this team will be Iowa State’s next big step.