AMES — It started with phone calls.
There were many things on Matt Campbell’s to-do list when he was hired at Iowa State in November 2015. Meetings with players, staff assembly and recruiting were all high priorities.
Immediately, and personally, reaching out to former players wasn’t too far down in the order of business.
“What makes Iowa State special? It’s the people,” Campbell said. “For us, it’s the former players and people that have sacrificed greatly to get our program to where it is now, and obviously we need them to be involved. It’s something I’ve always believed in.”
The mission Campbell set out to complete at Iowa State was the same one he initiated in his five-year tenure at Toledo. Bringing as many former players as possible around the current team would be a valuable tool. So he started making phone calls.
All of the early seeds Campbell planted are sewed during the weekend of the spring game, when former players return in masses. Last season, Campbell estimated 200 former players returned for an alumni breakfast and the game itself. This year that number doubled.
“It’s huge,” Campbell said. “That means the world to me.”
Former Cyclones David Archer, Reggie Hayward, George Amundson, Leonard Johnson, Todd Blythe and Lane Danielsen were honorary coaches last weekend. The sentiment of Campbell’s goal to include former players isn’t lost on them either.
“I don’t get a chance to come back here during the season, I’m broadcasting games down in the south (for the ACC and Atlanta Falcons),” Archer, a quarterback from 1982-83, said. “The energy Coach Campbell has influxed into this program is phenomenal. You can feel it anywhere. If you’re an Iowa State fan, you can feel it. As a former player, it makes you proud to know the work is arcing up.”
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— Matt Campbell (@ISUMattCampbell) April 10, 2017
In the nearly 10 years since his playing career ended, Blythe has stayed close. He had a stint as a Northern Iowa football assistant, but didn’t lose touch with his Iowa State roots. All of the groomsmen in his wedding were former Cyclones.
Through Paul Rhoads’ tenure, former players were taken in upon their return, Blyhe said, but weren’t sought after to come back. Campbell’s invitations to return were a change of pace from when players would just drop in on their own accord.
“We feel as former players feel like they want us around and want us to come back and be a part of the program,” Blythe, who played from 2004-07, said. “They want us to interact with the kids they’ve got now and see if we can help them. We’ve been through it.”
Campbell also instituted a mentorship program for his upperclassmen, having a handful of former players volunteering as guides to help the older players in the transition from football to real life. Danielsen, a wide receiver from 2000-03, has been a mentor for cornerback Brian Peavy.
“(Campbell’s) first press conference, I was like, ‘That’s our guy. That’s what Iowa State needs,’” Danielsen said on Cyclones.tv. “He is instilling a culture here that (former coach) Dan McCarney did.”
The common thread that binds all the former players is optimism for the future. All of them are hungry to see Iowa State get back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. More than that, they want some sort of sustained success.
Campbell has been successful in every phase of his football life. He won three national championships as a defensive lineman at Division III Mount Union — winning 54 of 55 games — and won two more as its offensive coordinator. Toledo went 35-15 in his five seasons as head coach.
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Iowa State went 3-9 in Campbell’s first season and lost five games by 10 points or less. There was a reason the Cyclones finished where they did — failure to execute in the final minutes and depth largely — but that group also gave a glimpse of what could be.
“All it takes is one thing to go right and then that stuff snowballs and I think it will this year, they’ll figure out how to close out those close games and then you’re looking at all of a sudden 6, 7, 8 wins,” Blythe said. “This place is just so hungry and thirsty for a winner.
“The fans pack the stadium regardless, so as soon as they start really closing out ballgames and winning, they’re going to blow the roof off this place. I can’t wait.”
Campbell is a realist. He tempered expectations last fall, knowing the holes on Iowa State’s roster wouldn’t be a quick fix. The same can be said this spring, particularly with the offensive and defensive lines.
Iowa State has talent at its skill positions, but will need to have a productive summer to not be caught flat-footed like it was in the season opener last fall against Northern Iowa. Campbell and Co. have been putting all the pieces in place the last 17 months, with the postseason being an attainable goal in year two.
“I think all of us would love to see that magic or energy that’s in (Hilton Coliseum) transfer to this building because (the fans) want it to,” Archer said. “This fan base wants it badly to do that.”
Here is what Cyclone Legend David Archer had to say to the team prior to the spring game yesterday pic.twitter.com/tepzspbNgY
— Cyclone Football (@CycloneFB) April 9, 2017
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