CEDAR RAPIDS — Remember when four schools fled the crumbling Big 12 Conference in 2011 and 2012 and it looked like Iowa State might become an oprhan forced to downsize to a less-prestigious league like Conference USA or the Mountain West?
Remember how Iowa State was so frequently a football doormat?
That’s all ancient history. Had you been at the Cedar Rapids Marriott Tuesday night, you’d know this word describes ISU athletics:
The hotel’s ballroom was packed with cardinal-clad fans of all ages there to salute their Cyclone coaches and be saluted by them. As they did last year, people waited in a long line to get football coach Matt Campbell’s autograph and to convey their warm feelings about Iowa State football to him.
Football drives the bus in college sports, of course. In this case it was the bus that took Iowa State’s coaches across the state the last two weeks for 12 stops on the 13th annual Cyclone Tailgate Tour.
But the number of “loyal sons (and daughters) forever true” to ISU athletics began growing well before Campbell came to Ames. Jamie Pollard has been Iowa State’s athletic director since 2005, and immediately began trying to broaden its fan base. He succeeded. It’s become a given that the Marriott’s ballroom will be full of Cyclone fans on a May weeknight every year.
“We used to do the golf outings,” Pollard said. “What we realized was people at those were males 40 to 60. We never had any wives, never had any kids. We just felt like if we’re ever going to grow our brand and change our future we needed to think differently.”
So he came up with this barnstorming tour with free admission. It was an event for fans to have one-on-one contact with the coaches and the AD and feel connected.
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“A big focus was on children,” said Pollard. “There are students at Iowa State today that come up to me and say they came to one of these with their parents 12 years ago,” Pollard said.
“We needed to start growing our own fans. Using the agriculture analogy, we had to plant some seeds … watch them grow.”
The Big 12 slammed the brakes on its crumbling when it added TCU and West Virginia in 2012 and got a lucrative television deal with Fox. The league divided $373.9 million in revenue among its 10 members for the fiscal year 2018. That isn’t Big Ten or SEC money, but chicken feed, it ain’t.
Success in men’s and women’s basketball and other sports isn’t new to Iowa State. There’s nothing, however, like having a football team the red-hots feel warm about. After two seasons of winning and bowl trips under Campbell, the perception of Cyclone football is different inside and outside Iowa.
“We just need to keep investing in football,” Pollard said. “We have a very, very special person leading our football program right now. We need to continue to provide a foundation that allows him to be as successful as he can possibly be at Iowa State, from facilities to a lack of bureaucracy to compensation for his staff.
“We’ve got to continue to fuel the fire.”
At Tuesday’s event here, Campbell brought 17 of his players to the front of the room and told the fans good things about every one of them. I asked a player if they were there voluntarily, and he insisted they were.
“A lot of guys are excited,” he said.
They ranged from stars like quarterback Brock Purdy and linebacker Mike Rose from out-of-state to Conner Greene, a fifth-year senior from Iowa City West who walked on at ISU and got as much praise from Campbell as anyone during his introductions of each of the 17.
When that part of the program was done, several hundred fans felt even better about their team than when the night began.
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After a decade of being the AD of a program in which football had almost always scuffled, Pollard knows he has to seize this current moment.
“Iowa State, I would argue, has been in this spot only one other time in the history of the institution,” he said. “That was 40 years ago with Johnny Majors and Earle Bruce. For whatever reason, they didn’t capitalize on that. We have a responsibility for the future of Iowa State University to capitalize on Matt Campbell and his staff.”
Campbell has two straight eight-win years, twice the number ISU had from 1979 through 2016.
“We’re in an intersection,” said Pollard. “Forty years ago, we went left or right, I don’t know, but we didn’t go straight. This time we need to go through the intersection and find out what’s on the other side.”
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