Few coaches in the country have endeared themselves to their respective fanbases like our very own Paul Rhoads. His passion and fervor for achieving success at lowly Iowa State has made him a YouTube sensation and garnered the respect and admiration of his conference and national peers alike. A perpetual college football doormat, the Cyclones' history on the gridiron hasn't exactly manifested a storied tradition (and that's being incredibly generous), so it's easy to see why we can all get a little carried away with even the most modest gains and victories here in Ames.
In college football, the most recognized measure of success is bowl games. In over 100 years of organized football, Iowa State has only been invited to 12 bowl games and of those dozen post season trips, only three times has Iowa State triumphed. As far as Power 5 schools go, the Cyclones hold company with the following group:
In the cafeteria of college football, that group sits at the loser's table in the corner, praying that the blue-blood bullies are too preoccupied with their own popularity to steal our lunch money.
Year after year, it's a struggle just to survive and success is as fleeting as it is frustrating. As Cyclone fans, we're all too familiar with the script of being an annual underdog, so going into the 2013 season, anyone in the Cardinal and Gold was thrilled that Iowa State had been to three bowl games in Rhoads' first four seasons. Sure, they were lower level bowl games and ISU won just one of them, but hey, at least we could all make post-Christmas plans to watch a 13th game!
This was the life we enjoyed entering 2013; one of scraping by on upset wins and playing .500 football. It was a dangerous formula with a thin margin for error, but it was our thing and it was working. And then, the 2013 season happened and we all witnessed just how razor-thin that margin for error actually was.
It started in the most deflating way possible, suffering an embarrassing setback to our in-state, FCS cousin, Northern Iowa, and ultimately, reached the lowest of lows in a 71-7 slaughter at Baylor. When the dust settled, Iowa State endured its worst season since 2008 and all of sudden, we all began to doubt our beloved head coach.
Even the most ardent supporters in the Cyclone fan base will admit to letting the doubts in the back of their minds enter their daily conversations about Paul Rhoads and his future in Ames. "Dan McCarney 2.0" was a popular phrase thrown around last fall. Others wondered if Rhoads had reached his ceiling in those first four years and now, it was time for the other shoe to drop. After all, it's not like Iowa State has history on its side.
Personally, I don't think I ever really recovered from that opening embarrassment against UNI. If you've followed this site for any extended stretch of time, you probably have realized that I'm more the college basketball guy, but I hold a special place in my heart for college football. Counting being a student, I've had season tickets since 2003 and have only missed two homes games during that span. I've seen some awful teams during that time ('03, '07 and '08 come to mind), but like many of you, I toughed it out through the rough years and my loyalty to the program never wavered.
With that being said, I don't ever recall being as deflated as I was leaving the stadium against Northern Iowa last year. I tried to get excited about the 4th quarter come back against Iowa, or the road win against Tulsa, and when Iowa State lost in controversial fashion against Texas, I tried to muster up some piss and vinegar, but the truth is I just didn't have the heart for it. All hope of a successful season packed up and left town after four lackluster quarters against the Panthers and as a fan, I pretty much went through the proverbial motions for the rest of the year. Simply put, college football just wasn't fun last year.
The scary thing about that is that I know I wasn't alone. Sure, Jack Trice Stadium was packed every week and we tried to look for the bright spots (Quenton Bundrage, E.J. Bibbs, Luke Knott, Nigel Tribune being a few that come to mind), but any momentum Rhoads had established with the program had come to a screeching hault and that passion was slowly seeping out of all of us, whether we want to admit it or not.
That brings me to the crux of the matter; Paul Rhoads has two years to prove that should be Iowa State's coach.
Ballsy and perhaps even foolish words coming from a lowly blogger and a Century level donor, but hear me out.
For reasons that our rivals and perhaps even ourselves can't understand, Iowa State fans turn out. In fact, we don't just turn out, we pack our stadium to capacity every damn week. More than that though, we travel in droves to mediocre bowl games so much so that our reputation as a fan base has led to us receiving better bids over schools like Missouri ('09) and multiple Big 5 schools in 2012.
Since Rhoads took over in 2009, Iowa State has seemingly shattered the season ticket sales record nearly every year and Jamie Pollard has noted that record donations have flooded in during that time. The football program has committed millions of dollars to massive projects, including the Bergstrom Football Complex and that enormous video board that we've all come love.
Most important, however, is that after this season, Jack Trice Stadium will undergo a colossal renovation, bowling in the south end zone and putting the seating capacity somewhere in the neighborhood of 65,000, which will make it the third highest in the conference behind super powers, Texas and Oklahoma.
Iowa State has emerged from the Stone Age of college football history and survived conference realignment and whether you realize it or not, is now playing with the big boys on the block. The fan base is committed, the money is finally creating competitive balance and the facilities have gone from an excuse to a selling point. Everything is lined up and now Rhoads has to deliver.
On Friday, we published our 2014 season predictions and I put us at 5-7, which was regrettably, an optimistic prognostication on my part. I don't see a bowl game happening this year and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if 3-9 or 4-8 happened. There's just not enough experience and talent defensively and who knows if Mangino is going to be able to shake off the rust when it comes to calling plays?
That's okay. Iowa State doesn't have to go bowling this year, but there has to be signs of improvement. We as fans have to see that there's reason to be excited about 2015, when the Cyclones will be bringing back a wealth of talent and experience (if we're going off the current 2-deeps). If there's not going to be a post season trip this year (and I really don't think there will be), 2015 will become a do-or-die season for Rhoads and his staff.
It's hard to predict the future, but imagine yourself in December, 2015. Iowa State has just wrapped up its sixth straight losing season. The facilities look great and the fans are still showing up, but ISU hasn't been to a bowl game since the turd against Tulsa in Memphis in 2012. I mean, how does one not question what the hell is going on and why we're continuing to accept this from our football program?
If it sounds like I'm digging the grave for Rhoads prematurely and perhaps even irrationally, that's fine, but all I'm trying to say is that when you make the decision to play big time college football, fan support, money and facilities only go so far. At the end of the day, you gotta win.
I noted back in July that I thought Rhoads responded brilliantly to the disaster that was the 2013 season. He overhauled his staff and brought in one of the more celebrated offensive minds of the last 15 years in Mangino. He created a player leadership council to allow for better communication and trust between the players and the coaches. He went heavy on junior college transfers to plug a few of the more gaping holes on the defensive side of the ball. Hell, he even managed to keep the commitment of Allen Lazard, who's among the most decorated recruits Iowa State has ever reeled in. Changes had to be made and Rhoads dealt with the adversity beautifully.
So that brings us back to where we are now. It's been nearly nine months since this team last took the field in that triple-OT win at West Virginia. It hasn't been an off season void of mishaps and challenges, but we're hearing that the attitude and atmosphere around Iowa State's fall camp is different. Rhoads described his team as "hungry" this past week and we're all ready to put the 2013 season behind us once and for all. Despite perhaps our better judgment, we're all behind you, Coach. But that support comes at a cost and the bounty is on the head of the Bison.
The team, the fan base and Rhoads especially simply can not afford to drop the opener against an FCS school for a second straight year, regardless of how good that program on the other side of the ball might be. The stakes are too high, the psyche of the fan base is too fragile and well, the consequences likely won't be kind.
So yeah, I give Rhoads and crew two years to make me look like a fool. The proving ground is set and the first bench mark comes on Saturday. Your move, Paul.