I'm an Iowa State grad, and a Cyclone fan, going back to the Troy Davis era. I've been following the Cyclones ever since then and like many others, I feel something special has been going on in Ames lately, and its not just the aspiration of getting back on the plus side of .500, but something bigger.
I've had many people tell me it could never happen...the Iowa State Cyclones becoming a national championship contender in football. Why? The reasons range from "There is no program tradition of success" to "They just can't recruit the level of talent needed due to the location, climate, etc." to " There isn't enough money involved in the program to compete with schools like Texas, Oklahoma and like." And although the observations of the critics are valid, it doesn't mean its not possible, but its going to take something, or someone, exceptional to do it, and since the second coming of the savior hasn't been prophesied anytime soon, it may be a task left up to one Paul Rhoads and his supporting staff. But what will be most exceptional about the feat will be if Rhoads doesn't follow suit like so many before him, taking off for a big time program in the SEC and instead, decides to take a much less traveled path.
Many coaches go into a program like ISU and think of it as a testing ground and opportunity to make it to the 'big time', jumping ship like former ISU coach Gene Chizik who slipped through the back door straight into Auburn University becoming the 7th highest paid coach in college football. Don't get me wrong, I have no hard feelings for Chizik, he did what most college coaches do...left a loosing program with lower pay and a history of very little national attention for a winning program, big bucks and constant national attention (although its not looking so friendly to him as of late), but, like I said, he's hardly the first. But there is a rare breed of guy that comes along every once in a while that isn't in the game for the same reasons..and you don't even have to leave our conference to find him.
In 2008 Bill Snyder returned to a struggling Kansas State University with the goal of once again turning the program around http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=3722908 . He had done it once before, taking Kansas State from a total of 127 wins and 1 bowl appearance, accumulated in the previous 50 years of his predacesors, to 136 wins and 11 consecutive bowl appearances in his own 16 year reign as head coach from 1989 to 2005. And if that wasn't enough of a historical accomplishment, he came back 3 years after retirement to, once again, a struggling wild cat team, but this time at the ripe age of 69, and all you had to do was see his smiling face as he walked off the field in Norman, Oklahoma this past weekend, after just beating the nationally 6th ranked Sooners on their home field, to know why he came back.
It wasn't for the money. On his glorious return, Snyder signed a five-year contract for a base salary of $250,000 and a total compensation of about $1.85 million annually, hardly what a coach at his level of accomplishment should be able to demand and it ranked 33rd in the nation, even being out compensated by Turner Gill at the interstate rival, Kansas (interesting side note, the 5th highest paid coach in the country is none other than the Iowa Hawkeye's Kirk Ferentz). And it wasn't for the fame since Kansas State was once again, not only out of the national championship contention, but not even in the top 25 when he decided to return. So what was it? I believe its the same reason that someone looks at Mount Everest and sets out the plan to travel there and climb it (although many more have scaled Mount Everest than have brought a college football program to national heights from the utter depths.) I believe its to challenge what's possible.
Snyder is one of those rare breeds of college coach. I believe he didn't just want to go where most guys go, he wanted to go were very few have dared to go (and even boldy go where no man has gone before;) Sure, it's logical to go for the bigger paying, celebrated programs and I don't really blame the guys that do, but I have a special place in my heart for guys like Bill Snyder who decided to blaze their own path... and call me crazy, but I think Paul Rhoads is that same type of guy.
It's not soley due to his recent and evolving success, but its the methodology of how he's doing it. No, he's definitely not like Snyder in many ways, especially his 'on field' demeanour (I can't even imagine Snyder in his younger years jumping around like the wild man that Rhoads turns into on the sidelines or giving the same type of firey, almost feature film'esc speeches that Rhoads has delievered after beating Nebraska AT Nebraska, Texas AT Texas and then overcoming and beating the 3rd ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys last year and knocking them out of the BCS national championship when most odds makers would have given you much better odds of an actual Cyclone doing it than the Iowa State Cyclones.)
But he's like Snyder in... (I don't know how else to put it), that 'special something' sort of way, and as further proof, he's been accomplishing a lot more than just the speeches and the wins. He's actually changing minds.
In case you haven't noticed, Jack Trice is busting out at the seems. At roughly 55 thousand capacity, ISU home games have sky rocketed, approaching capacity various times throughout last season and even exceeding capacity (ISU vs Norther Iowa) last year where attendance was 56,795. Attendance means attention as well as dollars and the media coverage has been booming due to the speeches and the 'Money Ball' type of story going on in Ames (heck, for all I know, Rhoads could have taken the Bill James approach when he came in...I can just hear the behind-the-scenes, secret conversations now..."The problem we're trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there's fifty feet of crap, and then there's us. It's an unfair game. And now we've been gutted. We're like organ donors for the rich. Nebraska's taken our kidneys, Iowa has taken our heart. And you guys just sit around talking the same old "good body" nonsense like we're selling jeans. Like we're looking for Fabio. We've got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies. Guys we can't afford a Robert Griffin the 3rd, I tell ya we can't do it! Now what we can try to do, though, is recreate him in the aggregate". )
Of course, I kid. I think Rhoads is authentic...the real deal, and ready to walk the path less traveled, building a program to national prominence instead of leaving for a program of national prominence...but only time will tell. But if he can do it, I can't wait to look at all the neigh sayers and see what they say then, but even better, I can't wait when he retires after his years of national success, ISU falls into turmoil again, and he comes back through the gates of Jack Trice around age 70...and does it all again.