116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
OTTUMWA — Bill Fennelly is the longest-tenured Big 12 women’s basketball coach. He built Iowa State’s program into a perennial power — and in 27 seasons he’s led the Cyclones to six Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights.
Before all of that, Fennelly spent seven seasons at Toledo, but he’s quick to point out that he is most definitely not the best former Rockets coach at Iowa State.
That’s head football coach Matt Campbell.
“Not even close,” Fennelly said with a smile during the tailgate tour stop. “Not even close.”
Campbell may disagree, but Fennelly’s quote serves as a testament to what Campbell and his staff have built at ISU.
It started at Toledo, though, where Campbell was elevated to head coach in 2011 at the age of 32. He was the youngest FBS head coach then — and became the youngest Power Five head coach five years later when he joined the Cyclones’ program.
With that relative youth comes enthusiasm, but it’s also accompanied by a fervent desire and need to learn. That’s how Campbell approached the job as a rookie head coach 12 years ago and that facet hasn’t changed.
“I think as a young head coach coming from being the offensive coordinator, you were just really almost daily drinking out of a fire hose,” Campbell said at the Ottumwa stop. “I really felt like that for probably the first couple years of being a head football coach. I think the day-to-day process, trying to stay ahead of the game — you were never really trying to do that because you were just trying to understand what was going on and what was the best pathway forward.”
Campbell found that successful road by putting faith in the people around him. From coaches to players, he’s learned that to collaborate effectively, creating a culture that allows for maximum autonomy is required. Tinkering isn’t done unilaterally. Everyone has a say.
“It’s about the players,” said Campbell, who has posted four wins over top-10 teams for a program that previously went 8-98-2 in such high-profile matchups. “It’s not about you.
“And I think the other piece that was probably a guidepost that hasn't changed a whole lot for us is really the philosophy of how to build the program. The model of recruit, retain and develop. I think those things have held steadfast and even though we've evolved and adapted, those foundational pieces really were with us, and I think that's helped.”
The next — and hardest — step?
Becoming consistently good in “the margins.” It’s been Campbell’s focus throughout his coaching career, but especially during this unprecedented streak of five-straight winning seasons.
Last season, five of the Cyclones’ six losses came by a touchdown or less. That’s why the devil is in the “details” Campbell also references frequently, and it’s also why he doesn’t set a number as a yearly goal for his team. Instead he asks his players to be the “best version of themselves,” which affords them at least the opportunity to be successful.
“You're constantly trying to get to the best routine possible,” Campbell said. "I'm chuckling because one of our great debates has been, ‘How are we better in fall camp? How do we use our 12 guaranteed opportunities?’ There (are) still areas that we maybe haven't mastered. Every year’s a little bit different, but it comes back to that routine and what's the most efficient use of our time?”
Energy meets efficiency. Expectations hinge on execution. Earning wins depends on all of that and more coming together in Campbell’s player-led program.
So there’ll be a new starting quarterback in Hunter Dekkers. There’ll be veterans in receiver Xavier Hutchinson, center Trevor Downing, defensive end Will McDonald, linebacker O’Rien Vance and safety Anthony Johnson. They’ll set the standard for others to follow. And watching them determine the best paths forward is one of the aspects of coaching that Campbell finds most rewarding.
“You’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds in today’s chaotic world to find routines,” Campbell said. “And what we’ve found is our best players, over the course of time, they’ve been able to block out that noise and find a routine in how they go about their weekly process, how they go about their yearly process. Each segment of the football season process, they seem to master that. I think that starts with us as coaches, but it certainly is something that I probably enjoy the most of what we’re doing and what we try to do. (It’s) trying to create a process that allows us to be successful and then finding that routine within the process that is the most efficient and allows us to be our very best. And it starts personally with myself.”
So back to Fennelly. How did he come to consider Campbell to be ISU’s best hire from Toledo in the first place?
“I think he’s shown to be exactly what I think everyone thought he was when he was hired,” Fennelly said. “His presence is unlike anything I’ve ever been around. He walks in a room. He commands the room.
“Amazing character — and I think people trust him. I think he has a belief in who he is and what he wants to represent and he doesn’t waver from that. I think he has great sense of pride in what he’s building and how he does it.”