AMES — It’s easy to measure growth in physical things.
Take humans, for example. As children, we step up to the door jam, stretch out our necks, maybe get on our tippy toes and our parents put a neat, horizontal line on the jam.
After several months, we’re able to see how much we’ve grown by looking at each line.
It’s harder to measure non-physical or non-material things — like football programs. Sure, you can look at wins and losses but that doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Matt Campbell went 3-9 in 2016, his first year as Iowa State’s coach, which was the same record Iowa State had the year before Campbell’s arrival. Even though the record was the same, it was obvious Iowa State was improving because it started to show a belief in the fact it could win and could compete.
So something else is sometimes needed to measure growth in a football program.
For Iowa State, Oklahoma is its door jam and at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the Cyclones (1-1, 1-0) will see how they measure up this season when they host the 18th-ranked Sooners (1-1, 0-1) at Jack Trice Stadium.
“Year one, we really had to learn how to believe that we could win here,” Campbell said. “In that second year, we had to learn how to win. Belief is really hard. It may sound really easy but it’s really hard to do, especially when there is a culture of (not believing) that’s infected around you. The one thing we had that year were some seniors that were really invested in wholesale change that were sparked with some youth with David Montgomery and JaQuan Bailey.
“It’s been about getting a belief that we can not just just play with the Oklahomas of the world, but that we can beat anybody. I think that’s where our growth has come from year one to hopefully we’re trying to get to in year five and that’s as big of a challenge as anything.”
In 2016, Campbell’s first season, Iowa State lost to Oklahoma 34-24. The year prior, Iowa State got thumped to the tune of 52-16.
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In 2017, Iowa State was able to upset Oklahoma 38-31. That win signified Iowa State’s arrival as a team that can’t be overlooked anymore.
“Going into that game, we had high-end adversity,” Campbell said. “It had nothing to do with our opponent, it had everything to do with what was going on in our own locker room.”
The adversity Campbell mentioned was quarterback Jacob Park leaving the team, thrusting walk-on Kyle Kempt into the starting role.
“Guys like Joel Lanning, Allen Lazard, David Montgomery, Trever Ryen that really sparked the cultural turnaround,” Campbell said. “Those are the guys that led the way and sometimes coaches get too much credit because people think it’s about the pregame speech or the postgame speech and that’s not it. It’s about the investment of the kids.
“We were fortunate to have unbelievable leadership. And Kyle Kempt stepped in and took advantage of his opportunity, not just in that game, but as his career went on.”
Every player Campbell mentioned is either in the NFL (Lazard and Montgomery) or is a coach on Iowa State’s staff — Ryen is a strength and conditioning coach, Lanning is a defensive graduate assistant and Kempt is an offensive graduate assistant.
It takes great leadership to grow a program and in 2018, Iowa State lost some of that leadership.
Kempt went down with an injury, forcing Zeb Noland into the mix. Iowa State played admirably with its backup quarterback in but lost to OU 37-27.
Last season, Iowa State mounted a 20-point comeback in the fourth quarter thanks to tremendous quarterback play from sophomore Brock Purdy, scoring its last touchdown with 24 seconds left.
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“Being on the side that Brock threw the ball for the touchdown, it was like a movie,” running back Breece Hall said. “I saw the ball in the air and I saw Charlie (Kolar) go and get it and it was crazy. And then once I saw Campbell signal for two, I mean, I was like, ‘Oh yeah we’re gonna win the game,’ so I was really excited.”
Iowa State’s two-point conversion was unsuccessful and the Cyclones lost 42-41 but it showed Iowa State was still right with Oklahoma.
“I thought it said a lot about the character of last year’s team,” Campbell said. “Last year was gut wrenching in a lot of ways and that loss was gut wrenching as well. I thought how our kids responded throughout the game was impressive.”
On Saturday, Iowa State will step up to the door jam, crane its neck and get on its tippy toes again.
But no matter what, it’s easy to see the growth Iowa State has made.
“Oklahoma is a very, very good program,” ISU left tackle Sean Foster said. “They’ve been a good program since I’ve been really young and for us to even be mentioned with them as getting close, that’s a big honor for all of us because we know what it was like during my freshman year when Iowa State was the laughing stock of the Big 12. Now, we’re being compared to them.
“That’s pretty self explanatory because we feel we have the senior leadership that believes that we’re able to compete every single Saturday.”