ARLINGTON, Texas — Three summers ago, Matt Campbell sat at the dais at Big 12 football media days, then held at the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas, as the Cyclones’ first-year head coach.
The final question of his morning news conference asked him to recall a positive experience at Iowa State while coaching Toledo. Campbell relayed how, after that game, he’d told his wife what a special place Ames is and that something could happen for the Cyclones in the future.
Fast forward three years and Campbell, now heading into his fourth season coaching the Cyclones, has accomplished exactly that. He has taken ISU from Big 12 afterthought to a team now on everyone’s radar.
Last week, the Cyclones were picked by league media to finish third after being picked fifth last summer. That’s what back-to-back eight-win bowl seasons will do for you, that and winning a school-record six Big 12 games last fall.
When he was hired, Campbell preached the importance of instilling a culture change, one built on accountability, and a family atmosphere. The program has since made immense strides under his tutelage, but he acknowledges plenty of work remains for Cyclone football to reach its full potential.
“Well, that’s the really fun thing about us, our belief system really hasn’t changed since the day we’ve gotten here,” Campbell said Tuesday during Big 12 media days at AT&T Stadium. “We’ve measured ourselves with the same standard from the time that I walked in the door to where we are today.
“To be honest, there’s a lot of things we’ve left out on the table. We had some really gut-wrenching losses at the end of last year that I think (that) really forced us to look internally. We still feel very unfulfilled and know there’s a lot of areas that we need to continue growing.”
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When asked about the biggest difference in the program today compared to where it was in 2016, Campbell echoed a familiar refrain of the past few seasons.
“There’s belief right now that Iowa State football can be successful,” he said. “That’s probably the greatest change of where we were four years ago to where we are today. Obviously, there’s still a lot of improving to do from our standpoint to sustain that, but having back-to-back years where we’ve been to bowl games and had the ability to have successes has shown at least we have the belief that Iowa State football has an opportunity to play really good football.”
Preaching the merits of culture change is one thing, but such talk can prove shallow if players don’t buy in. Campbell has experienced no such issues at ISU. The Cyclones quickly adopted his message of making everyone tied to the program a family.
“Yes, it’s a family, it’s a brotherhood. That’s the kind of culture he built and the culture that we built,” senior right guard Josh Knipfel said. “We hold each other accountable. Not only does he take care of us, we take care of each other.
“Coach Campbell’s always saying it’s a player-led program. We’re becoming really close as a team. We can still get closer than we are right now, and I think that’s what’s helped us make those big jumps.”