AMES — Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell doesn’t show much emotion in public.
In his news conferences, he’s very stoic and matter-of-fact. When the Iowa State football Twitter account posts his postgame locker-room speeches, he shows his passion and you can hear it in his voice. But he still doesn’t get emotional.
Believe it or not, Campbell actually said he’s emotional by nature. Last Saturday, after Iowa State beat Texas, Campbell displayed that.
When asked how he would describe this team, the fifth-year head coach immediately got choked up.
“Oh that’s a really hard, hard thing for me,” Campbell said with a hitch in his voice, holding back tears. “Our senior class, our coaches — we’ve been together through everything. It’s been a great joy.”
On Saturday, those seniors who have been with Campbell since the beginning will play in their last home game at Jack Trice Stadium as No. 9 Iowa State (7-2, 7-1) hosts West Virginia (5-3, 4-3) to end the regular season.
“I have a sense of deep appreciation for the character of this team and up and to this point, this group has been through so much,” Campbell said. “What they’ve had to go through since March, how they’ve handled themselves, the challenge of getting ready to play the season on such short notice and then the ability to navigate this season. I really felt like the leadership and character of this team has been incredible.”
It’s because of how they handled themselves in March at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and how they led the team through the most uncertain offseason in recent history that Campbell named all 16 seniors team captains.
“It made zero sense to single out one player, when I knew that without each of them, leading together, there would be no way we would have had an opportunity to grow as a football team like we have,” Campbell said.
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Lawrence White is one of those players. White is a good player and a leader who makes a positive impact on Iowa State’s team, but he probably wouldn’t have been named one of the four captains in a normal year.
Being named a captain means the world to the senior safety.
“It’s been a great honor to have that ‘C’ on your chest, represent the team and to be looked at as a leader by your peers,” White said. “I’m thankful for it and I’m grateful for it.
“I’m sitting here getting emotional and I really don’t have the words for it but I’m just really thankful for (Campbell).”
Two times a week, once on Sunday and another time later in the week, all 16 senior captains and Campbell meet to discuss the state of the team and how they can move forward.
“I think those things are really important and beneficial in terms of communication because it’s their team,” Campbell said. “And it’s my job to do a great job of serving them and making sure the alignment in our program is right in every area. Nobody’s more effective or more aware of that alignment and where it needs to be than then the seniors in your program.”
White said those meetings have allowed Iowa State to continually improve throughout the season.
That constant improvement has put Iowa State in a spot to win the Big 12 regular season outright with a win Saturday.
“I think this group has got a really special bond as a senior class,” Campbell said. “The conversations that we have weekly and watching how they’ve responded to adversity, whether it’s been positive or negative, and the ability for them to lead not only themselves but their units and the ability to have really meaningful in-depth conversation about leadership and what the expectation and standards that we’re looking for in each phase of the week and each phase of the day.
“They allow us, together, to come up with the standard and then hold everybody accountable to the standard. It’s been a real joy to watch those young people lead and without them and without their demand to be the best version of themselves, we would certainly not be a football team that’s succeeding.”
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When this senior class committed to Iowa State, it was a program that wasn’t succeeding. Iowa State was 3-9 when most of the seniors committed and Campbell hadn’t even coached a game in Ames. They had to commit to Campbell based on his hope and vision of what Iowa State could be. In Campbell’s first season, ISU went 3-9 again.
Then things started to change. And now Iowa State is 7-1 in the Big 12 and is likely headed to the conference championship game in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 19.
“This is a group that came here on hope and has given back hope to everybody else around this program,” Campbell said. “For me, to watch our 16 seniors go through their last home football game here in Jack Trice Stadium, it’s going to be really special for myself, this coaching staff and hopefully everybody involved.”