Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State football, Matt Campbell show what they're made of in Big 12 championship game

Ogden column: A gutty, never-say-die performance comes up short

Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell yells at the referees after he thought an offsides call should have been made du
Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell yells at the referees after he thought an offsides call should have been made during the first half of Saturday’s Big 12 Conference championship game against Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas. (Associated Press)

Matt Campbell, before leaving the field at halftime, had some wisdom to share with the ABC audience watching Saturday’s Big 12 championship game.

“We’ll get it figured out,” he said, even though his Iowa State football team was trailing Oklahoma, 24-7, at the time.

“We’re going to see what we’re made of.”

Well, the Cyclones didn’t leave AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with their first conference championship since 1912, but boy did they figure it out.

And although they weren’t winners — the Sooners captured their sixth straight Big 12 title, 27-21 — the Cyclones definitely weren’t losers.

And a national audience saw just what Iowa State and Campbell are made of — talent, of course, but also guts and a never-say-die attitude.

That’s what champions are made of and, although it didn’t come this year, it will come, assuming Campbell stays in Ames to complete the massive overhaul he started five years ago.

The Cyclones have tons of talent on their active roster — Big 12 players of the year on offense (Breece Hall) and defense (Mike Rose) is a good place to start — and some of the young players waiting in the wings will be just as good. But the engine that makes this team run is Campbell, the conference’s coach of the year for the third time in the last four seasons.

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Campbell’s passion for his team — and the game — were very visible early in Saturday’s game, enough so that his players and assistants had to restrain him a bit.

The first was on a questionable targeting call on the second play of the game that left the Cyclones without Isheem Young for the remainder of the day. The second was on an obvious offsides on Oklahoma’s defense that wasn’t called.

Campbell made his point but also knew his tantrum would do his team no good. But the end of the half?

“You’ve just got to live with it and keep playing,” he said.

Campbell, it seems, was destined to be a coach, to be in this position.

In an Associated Press story last week, writer Eric Olson wrote Campbell’s “back story reads like a movie script.”

Campbell, you see, left Pittsburgh after his freshman year, upset by what he felt was a “lackadaisical attitude.” He found his way to Mount Union, where his father and brother had played.

Playing for — and winning three Division III national titles with — Larry Kehres, the legendary coach told Olson he remembers when he knew Campbell was going to be a successful coach.

During his sophomore season, Campbell intercepted a screen pass in the playoffs against Wittenberg, setting up a key touchdown in Mount Union’s eventual win.

Campbell, the story goes, watched so much film on his opponent he knew what play they were running and exactly where to be for the interception.

“Without that play, we might not have won,” Kehres said in that AP story.

A coach was born.

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Campbell spent a season as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green before returning to Mount Union as offensive coordinator, helping the Purple Raiders win two more national titles. He went back to Bowling Green, then left for Toledo.

He became the youngest head coach in FBS when, at age 32, he became the Rockets’ head coach at the end of the 2011 season. He went 9-4, 7-5, 9-4 and 9-2 in his four full seasons.

That’s when Jamie Pollard found him and asked him to come to Ames and turn the Cyclones into winners. Not just sometime winners looking to get over .500 every year and earn a low-level bowl trip.

This was about becoming a consistent winner, a championship coach.

Campbell is 34-28 in his five seasons at ISU, leading the team to eight-win seasons three of the last four years. This year’s team, 8-3 after Saturday’s loss, has a chance at a ninth win. ISU hasn’t won nine games in a season since 2000, only the second time in school history.

The job in Ames isn’t done. Campbell knows that. But offers have come and more will be on the table soon.

His contract runs through 2025. Will he be around that long? Longer? It’s impossible to know.

Cyclones fans are disappointed their team couldn’t pull off a historic victory Saturday, but they’ll be more upset if Campbell leaves town.

Whatever happens, one thing is sure. What Campbell has done in Ames is “remarkable.”

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“I’m sure deep down inside, after the season, he’ll reflect,” former teammate and Toledo Coach Jason Candle said in that AP article. “How could you not be proud of what you accomplished this year? Getting that program to the Big 12 championship is remarkable.

“It’s not common. When you do uncommon things, you can’t sit back and think about it in the moment because you want to finish it off the right way, which those guys want to do. I’m sure he’ll sit back and have a smile on his face after the season.”

Comments: (319) 398-8416; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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