Iowa State Cyclones

Jon Heacock's humble farm upbringing is evident in work as Iowa State defensive coordinator

Coach credits players for defense's massive turnaround

Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock yells to his players during a 2016 spring practice in Ames. (Scott Morgan/Freelance)
Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock yells to his players during a 2016 spring practice in Ames. (Scott Morgan/Freelance)

SAN ANTONIO — Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock is the mastermind behind one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in recent history.

Before Heacock, Iowa State had allowed an average of at least 400 yards per game for 10 straight seasons. Now, No. 24 Iowa State (8-4, 6-3 Big 12) has held teams under 360 yards per game and under 230 yards passing each of the past two seasons.

Iowa State was the second-best defense in the Big 12 Conference last season and the best this season.

And Heacock takes next to no credit for the turnaround.

“I think watching (the players) change work habits and lifestyles — they were the ones that did it,” Heacock said. “It wasn’t coaches involved. This is player driven. We’re blessed to reap some of those benefits as coaches. But our players changed what’s going on in our program. We gave them some leadership, some guidelines, but these guys did it. It wasn’t me on defense or coaches. It was players.”

Heacock rarely takes credit for anything.

When the 58-year-old is asked a question during news conferences or press scrums, more often than not he’ll sigh, say, “Oh, I don’t know.” And then he’ll give an answer that eloquently details that he definitely knows.

“I grew up humble, I was raised on a farm, I played Division-III football — I was never these guys,” Heacock said, referring to his players who will play No. 13 Washington State (10-2, 7-2 Pac 12) at 8 p.m. Friday in the Alamo Bowl (ESPN).

Heacock’s whole life has revolved around humility — starting on the 150-acre farm where he grew up outside the tiny town of Beloit, Ohio, which has less than 1,000 people. The family farm was run by Heacock’s parents, his older sister, two older brothers and himself.

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“My dad started out as a school teacher and took over his dad’s farm and raised potatoes and Duroc hogs,” Heacock said. “My dad worked full time as a school teacher, so the farm was nights, early mornings and weekends. I look back at how hard my dad worked, and he never had a minute off. If he wasn’t at school working as the principal or superintendent, he was home farming — and so were we.

“We were either playing sports, going to school or farming. It taught me work ethic, how to treat people and all of those things. It was a pretty cool way to grow up. I’m not sure I loved it at that point, but I really respect it now and I have great respect for what the Iowa farm is about.”

Heacock played football at Muskingum College — a private liberal arts college in New Concord, Ohio — and when his playing career was over, he got into coaching. Thirty-five years of coaching later, he’s still doing it.

Through it all, he’s kept that same farm-humble mentality.

“As a head coach I’ve been coach of the year, I’ve won bowl games — I’ve been all of that,” Heacock said. “I’ve also been fired.

“When you’ve been that guy, you take everything for what it is, you try to treat people with respect and that would start with growing up on a farm. You treated people with respect and you respected everything that was going on and you were humble and that’s how you grew up.”

Heacock said the longer he’s been in the profession, the more he wants to be a players’ coach and not a coach who acts like he had all the answers.

“I’ve been blessed to be around coaches who were like that — Bo Schembechler, Jim Tressel, Jim Young at West Point,” Heacock said. “I’ve been around some really cool guys that, that’s how they acted. Our kids were always first, and egos were left at the door. I enjoy that part of it. It’s about (the players). My job is to make them be better than they think they can be.

“I can’t allow them to be just average — it’s my job to be average. They’re the ones that do it all. They’ve made it easy.”

Heacock’s players appreciate his humility and the respect he has for them.

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“Oh, that’s big,” All-Big 12 cornerback Brian Peavy said. “He’s experienced so he doesn’t need the accolades or (validation) to boost himself up. He knows who he is and what he’s capable of doing. Even when people say we have the No. 1 defense, (to him), that’s what we should be.”

Read more: Cyclones who didn't transfer rewarded with program's turnaround

Because Heacock is comfortable in his own skin, it allows his players to be comfortable in their own skin and play more freely.

“That challenges us to be comfortable,” Peavy said.

Don’t get it wrong, Heacock isn’t a pushover who lets his players do whatever they want. He demands a great deal from them, but it comes from a place of respect and humility.

“Like I tell them, sometimes I have to be the bad guy. That’s OK,” Heacock said. “If you want to be mad at someone, you can be mad at me, but that’s my job. My job is to make sure that our defense and our kids reach their full potential. Sometimes you have to be brutally honest and you have to be you. I’m very comfortable in my skin because I know ultimately that these kids, when they get an opportunity to play, they’re going to play with everything that they got.

“That’s why I’m comfortable with it all. I’m very transparent, I am who I am. I’ve changed a lot over the years in certain ways that I coach because I think you have to, but I still don’t think that settling for being average is an OK thing. These kids know that I don’t settle and know that I’m not going to let them settle for average.”

Peavy went to Heacock for advice after last season about whether he should jump to the NFL or stay in Ames. Heacock and Peavy talked for nearly an hour. At the end of it, Heacock said Peavy should do what’s best for Peavy, not anybody else.

“Coach, he has the wisdom, man,” Peavy said. “That’s a guy that can tell you about your life before you live it. He’s helped me with decisions when I didn’t know where to turn, and he’s a guy with experience, a guy that knows how to lead you down the right path.”

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Heacock hasn’t just led Peavy down the right path, he has led the whole defense down the right path, whether he wants to take credit for it or not.

Heacock revolutionized the way the Big 12 plays defense in one bye week. Last season after the Akron game on Sept. 16, Heacock sat down with the other defensive staffers and came up with a new game plan that nearly the entire Big 12 has copied to some extent.

“It was players (that turned it around),” Heacock said. “They led with love in their hearts and strong work habits and perseverance and all the things that it takes when things aren’t going good.

“That’s when you really measure what kind of people they are, and that’s why you’re looking at where we are today is because of the kind of people that they are. Very talented on the football field, winning in the dark, all of those things. But what these guys have done is based on what happens outside those lines that you all don’t see.”

Heacock’s defense will face one of its biggest tests of the year against the No. 1 passing offense of Washington State on Friday.

And, like a farmer tends to his crops all summer so he’s able reap the harvest in the fall, Heacock has readied his player so they can reap the rewards they’ve cultivated all season.

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