Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State football goes from 'death sentence' to top-10 program

Initial comments about ISU job continue to drive Matt Campbell

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell is doused by his players during the final seconds of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college fo
Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell is doused by his players during the final seconds of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game against Oregon, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz. Iowa State won 34-17. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Iowa State’s football program has been one of two things for nearly its entire existence.

It’s either been a steppingstone for coaches who are gone within four years or it’s been a destination that signaled the end of the road.

When Matt Campbell arrived at Iowa State from Toledo in November 2015, people immediately questioned what he was doing.

“I remember when,” Campbell said and then paused, reflecting. “I remember the comments when we came here. They said, ‘Coaching at Iowa State is a death sentence.’

“I always chuckle at that, and I kind of — those comments always ring in my ears. And I think the thing about it is, it’s probably what’s been a driving force every step of the way for myself.”

Historically, it looked like a death sentence. In the three years before Campbell arrived, Iowa State went 3-9, 2-10 and 3-9. Since 1950, only Earle Bruce had a winning percentage better than .500.

Given the historical context, No. 10 Iowa State’s 34-17 victory over No. 25 Oregon on Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 9-3 this season is almost unimaginable.

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“We recruit all these guys with a hope and a dream,” Campbell said “And then all of a sudden, we’re 3-9 year one. And I think it’s so fitting that, as this senior class leaves here now 9-3, they really flipped the script the entire way.

“Maybe for some programs, that’s easy to do; but I think you guys know the history of this program for the last 100-plus years. It’s not really easy to do here. And this group did it. This group literally rewrote the history books.”

Campbell has said it was a long process. The team had to go “up the rough side of the mountain.” And to him, it might have seemed like a long process being in that grind everyday.

But this turnaround from 3-9 or worse in four straight seasons to immediately make four straight bowls, capped by the program’s first New Year’s Six bowl, speaks for itself.

“Everything we do, we have to learn along the way because there’s nothing that you can go back and say, ‘You know what? We did it this way that time,’” Campbell said. “So every time that we do something new, those are uncharted territory. And it takes a lot of unification. It takes a lot of humility from my end as the head football coach.

“It hasn’t been perfect, and it never will be here. And yet, when you have elite character, elite leadership, great things can happen. And that’s really what we’ve been able to develop now in our fifth year.”

And when it wasn’t perfect this season, the team didn’t fall back down that mountain.

They stopped the fall, picked themselves back up and kept hiking toward the peak.

“We believed in ourselves,” tight end Charlie Kolar said. “And we believed that we’re a real program even before everyone else did. So it’s nice to do it on the national stage and have everyone see it. But this program believed how good we could be when we lost to Louisiana. We believed how good we could be when we lost to Oklahoma State and (Oklahoma).

“That’s what makes us good. It’s not about the outside perception. It’s great to be told you are a good team and win the Fiesta Bowl. But we believe, internally, that we have a chance to be special. And that’s what’s so special about this team, and that’s why we keep bouncing back.”

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That belief, combined with the work ethic Campbell instilled is why this Iowa State team proved to be the best team in school history and likely will finish in the top 10.

“This Iowa State team, we wanted to prove that greatness isn’t just for the chosen few, but greatness is for those who choose to be different and demand that they become the best version of themselves they can become,” Campbell said during Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl trophy presentation. “And what you’ve seen along the way is this group never disappointed.”

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