ORLANDO, Fla. — Iowa State football is on a trajectory it’s never been on before.
The Camping World Bowl on Saturday at 11 a.m. against No. 15 Notre Dame (10-2) will mark the third bowl game in three years for the Cyclones — a feat ISU has accomplished just once before (2000-02).
Coach Matt Campbell has made bowl games the expectation for Iowa State fans. Not the hope.
The Cyclones (7-5) finished tied for third in the Big 12 for the second straight season even after losing players like Joel Lanning and Allen Lazard two years ago and players like Hakeem Butler and David Montgomery last year. Campbell, his staff and the other players proved they could sustain success even when the team’s biggest stars, most productive players and best leaders moved on.
what makes a program sustainable?
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has been a football coach for more than 35 years and has coached under the likes of Bo Schembechler and Jim Tressel and at institutions like Army.
He also coached at Indiana from 1997-99, when the Hoosiers went 10-23 in his three years there as the defensive coordinator.
He’s well versed on both sustained success and sustained defeat.
“I think the continuity of the head coach, I think the continuity of the staff and I think the support of the administration are huge factors in sustained success,” Heacock said. “All of those people need to be aligned. That, to me, allows you to do the things from a football standpoint that you want to do.”
Time for a quick checklist.
Continuity of the head coach: Check.
Before the bowl game, Campbell signed a contract extension through the 2025 season and has shown no indications he has a strong desire to get out of Ames.
Continuity of the staff: Check.
Heacock has been Campbell’s defensive coordinator all four years he’s been at Iowa State and Tom Manning has been Campbell’s offensive coordinator three of those four years. In total, 10 of Iowa State’s 11 coaches have been with Campbell for at least three years. And seven of the 11 have been at Iowa State all four years.
Support of the administration: Check
Campbell has referenced his great relationship with Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard many times. Pollard has supported Campbell and his football program with a brand-new, $90 million, 110,000 square-foot sports performance center, which will be adjacent to the Bergstrom Indoor Football Complex.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“Then, through those concepts — the administration, the head coach and the assistant coaches continuity — that’s when you get continuity in recruiting,” Heacock said. “When you have the ability to continue to recruit with continuity it makes you a better football team.”
At a place like Iowa State without a lot of historical success, the aforementioned continuity is critical to land recruits. If there is no staff continuity and coaches are coming and going, it’s impossible for the recruit to build a relationships because a new person is always recruiting them.
That’s not as big of a deal at a place like Alabama, which cycles through assistants annually because it’s Alabama. But Iowa State isn’t Alabama and it needs to recruit by building relationships through time and it needs to prove it has administrative support by showing the new and ongoing projects that are happening.
Once a program starts landing higher-caliber recruits — like a Breece Hall — and the under-the-radar recruits the staff has identified — like a Mike Rose — it can move onto Heacock’s final piece of the puzzle.
“It allows you to play extra practices once you get to a bowl and with extra practices you get to develop guys,” Heacock said. “That’s the one thing I noticed right away when we didn’t go to a bowl game that first year here. That’s 15 practices your kids should get that they don’t get.
“Those are the things, to me, that are the most critical things.”
The bowl practices aren’t just for development, it also gives the coaches an idea of what a player can do.
“Instead of going into winter conditioning and wondering what a player can do, you’ve gotten a bunch of practices in and you know what he can do,” Heacock said. “You’re not guessing.”
Part of the beauty of college football is, despite the continuity that the staff and administration might have, the players are always cycling through four or five years at a time.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“You lose some veteraness at some key spots but I think the biggest thing we’ve learned from this year are the moments,” Campbell said. “You’ve seen us have great success in some of the moments and you’ve seen us get off to a slow start in some of the moments. There’s so much expectation now on Iowa State football and that’s a great thing, that’s an exciting thing, it’s where you want to be, but you’ve got to go through it to learn.”
Iowa State was picked to finish third in the Big 12, which technically happened but a 7-5 season and a 5-4 Big 12 record was a relative disappointment.
“Even though we wanted to go to the Big 12 Championship and do all of these great things — and we didn’t — we still stood our ground in what we believed in with our culture,” sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy said. “That’s going to translate into next year. A lot of us are looking at this bowl game as game one of 2020 and sending our seniors out the right way.”
The players have to learn as they go and, to an extent. So do the coaches.
Heacock still remembers coaching his first Rose Bowl at Michigan under Schembechler. He said it was a great learning experience for him, professionally.
“In my own mind, I had to learn how to work through it as a coach,” Heacock said. “Those coaches were the ultimate professionals when I was at Michigan and the amount of effort the staff put in — watching the players work. It gave me a good handle as a young coach of how to handle a bowl game and still have fun and still have success.”
But Schembechler had done it before — many times.
Iowa State still is figuring out how to sustain success and how to handle sustained success.
“You go to a program like ours that’s really never been through it like we are right now,” Campbell said. “The success isn’t just going to be at the snap of your fingers.
“I talk a lot about faith and fear. I don’t think we’ve ever been fearful of an opponent or a team or a situation but I think we’re fearful of making a mistake in the moment. That’s hard. It’s hard to be at your best when that’s what it looks like.
“You have to have faith and understanding of what you have to do to be successful in the moment. This team, I think, has really learned some unbelievable lessons and we’re taking what we’ve learned this season, applying it this week and then taking it into the offseason and saying, ‘How do we continue to make a really powerful step forward?’ That part is exciting. I think it’s almost reinvigorated myself, our coaching staff and, in a lot of ways, our kids.”
Iowa State is expected to make bowl games annually under Campbell.
But that’s not the finish line for the young coach. Iowa State has more in it.