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Developing a Stiff Upper Lip Culture at Iowa State

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It’s time the “woe-is-me” attitude leaves the Iowa State football program for good.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

THE PROBLEM

Campbell has noticed hints of that woe-is-me vibe over the course of his first eight months in Ames. He can spot this at times when he watches film from the past few seasons.

The Cyclones held fourth-quarter leads against Kansas State and Oklahoma State last year and lost. They gave Iowa and TCU battles in the first half and were shut out in the second. They were outscored 203-113 after halftime and 118-58 in the fourth quarter in 2015.

“There’s times where they’ve started out playing really well for a quarter and a half or two quarters,” Campbell said. “Then all the sudden adversity hits and, boom, they really struggle. There’s times when they got off to a bad start and they could never regain themselves.”

http://www.espn.com/blog/big12/post/_/id/114117/iowa-state-learning-to-embrace-chaos-under-matt-campbell

“The woe-is-me vibe...” has been a hallmark of Iowa State Football for as long as I have followed the team. It is evident in every season and in every game. Iowa State is universally considered one of the toughest coaching jobs in the FBS due to perceived and real shortcomings in location and financial support. A significant part of that disadvantage is a mentality and culture that is reflected in the sentiments of Coach Campbell quoted above.

My best friend and I have had a banter during games for 15 plus years. We expect the team to fold, we wait for the other shoe to drop, we hope it won’t happen, but it always does. We refer to it as hearing the bleat of the sheep. Distraction comes and it is time to put it in the barn and go home. Our opponents know it, they take advantage of it, and listen intently for the soft baaa of that sheep drawing the Cyclones to the barn.

Funny for us to discuss. Not so funny for the man in charge, the players on the field, or the many hopeful fans that long for a team with a firm backbone.

Call it pride, character, or mental toughness, but it amounts to the culture of your program. When players arrive to fall camp and begin the drudgery that is practicing until your first game, the culture of the program is instilled. It is instilled by the coaches, by the juniors and seniors, and by the atmosphere among the ancillary parts of the program. It is hard to change, it doesn’t involve talent or recruiting stars, but instead is focused on the mental makeup that is expected, taught, tolerated, and embraced.

Football is hard. Put that in the obvious category. Everything you do hurts. It is counter intuitive to launch yourself into a brick wall or catch a speeding bullet. It is easy to embrace a mentality that loses its edge when things get really hard and hurt more. It is easy to say “we aren’t talented” or “we can’t beat this team,” and play out the string.

That is what I see in our culture and it drives me nuts.

Coach Campbell has identified and shared with us that the culture here has to change. I suspect that is the biggest obstacle he is facing. So, what does the culture we desire look like? How is it developed? Can it change?

WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE

I HATE to provide this example, but I can’t avoid it. Our dastardly neighbors to the east. ANAL U has what we want and has displayed it regularly through the years. None more so than in the glorious loss to Michigan State last year. Michigan State also has “it” and exudes the type of culture that we desire.

Iowa and Michigan State are respectable recruiters, but do not appear in the top 10. Yet, both are tough to beat, even in down years. They maintain a baseline of performance and toughness that sets a foundation for being hard to play against, and when things turn their way, they will put up a 10 win season. Bowl games are a given, having a chance against top level competition is a given, and playing tough to the end of the game is a given.

So, let’s get a visual of what it looks like. Re-watch the last 12 plays of Michigan State’s epic drive to beat ANAL U (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrEXA_CSWx4). Two heavyweights in a do or die situation. Adversity is everywhere. Penalties, overturned catches, third down conversions.

The opportunity to fold on both sides was there. It was an epic battle of wills, maybe the best performance of the 2015 season. A championship was on the line. But, these teams played to their character and in line with their culture.

Just a teaser. 3rd and 8 at midfield. A first down was just overruled. The defense is playing inspired and tight. MSU has to have a first down. We see a pinpoint throw, a gutsy, no-fear catch, and a solid resolve. Every player did their job, even the defense. There is absolutely no give up, no excuses, no wilting, just a tough adherence to accomplishing the task and executing the play.

We skip ahead to the penultimate play of the drive. The true freshman running back takes on 4 defenders who do everything they can to stop him. His individual effort is remarkable here. The replay shows him avoiding a defender with the ball in order to get it over the line. He would not be denied and the defense gave no quarter in executing the play.

So, let me illustrate it in another way. Michigan State ran 13 plays from the 50 yard line to the end zone. The first was the pass we saw above. The second was a scramble that put them at the 27 yard line. From there, they ran 11 plays. The true freshman running back that scored the touchdown carried the ball 10 times. Including 7 times in a row. Each run was well defensed, and don’t kid yourself, the defense showed just as much character in defending this drive as the offense did in executing it. The running back was hit hard every play, but made yards by pure effort.

In this drive, we see two teams that have won 10 plus games with athletes that are considered less than those on the other participants in the playoffs. They are two of the most difficult teams to play against because week in and week out they play with great resolve and toughness and never yield. In my feeble opinion, this is what a winning culture looks like. This is what a winning culture can produce.

HOW DO YOU GET THERE

These teams have long tenured coaches who have implemented a culture that produces players that put it all on the line, all the time. They exceed their recruiting rankings due to development, system, and attitude. There are other locales that enjoy the same type of culture. Oklahoma and TCU come to mind in the Big 12. Other teams have lost their culture, or had it exposed, and are trying to change it... Texas comes to mind.

I have never done it. I don’t know how you change a culture on a team with a long standing tradition of wilting under pressure and playing without any real grit. But, it seems to exude from a few sources.

First, some coaches exude their own confidence and grit by the force of their persona. We can think of the great motivators and coaching competitors. A coach with the ability to convince and will his players to share in his drive is invaluable in changing culture. But, it isn’t the only way to do it.

Second, we see coaches who have a “process” (Saban) and track record that command adherence to the type of play and mental toughness that is required. If you aren’t on board as a player, you will be replaced by someone who is. The buy in is automatic because a full buy in is required to be able to play for that team. I think this is reason for the culture at Michigan St, Alabama, and Ohio State. The pinnacles of college football.

Finally, the culture is strongly affected by the leadership of the upperclassmen. It is much harder to tune out player leadership than it is to tune out a coach. A team with a culture of winning has player leaders who compel players and impose the culture and the “stiff upper lip” upon those that are younger. Make no mistake, if a young player sees the older players and hears the older players exuding an attitude that is less than the all in, all for one mentality, they will follow it.

A combination of tenure and process from the head coach with strong senior leadership can instill a culture that can overcome adversity and rise above expected athletic performance.

STRIKES AGAINST THE CYCLONES

Do I really need to point this out? Continuity in the coaching position is a glaring weakness. But, more than that, the consistency of the programs we have had in place have led to our culture. Coordinators have been poached and ISU has desperately changed its schemes to catch an edge. Moves made in a panic as losses mount.

I would offer that no staff has established an identity here. Ever.

Second and third go hand in hand. When you walk into a program without an identity, you lose identity as a player.

A player will play to get through his expected level of production versus working to a specific goal and taking on the identity of being a Cyclone. The identity of being a Cyclone lineman, or a Cyclone linebacker, or a Cyclone running back. The mantra of “this is what we do and who we are” (WE ARE MARSHALL — tear, sniffle) is lost. ISU has had an absence of cohesive player or unit leadership. Every Cyclone team has had outstanding individuals who play their guts out every week, but for some reason, that mentality remains isolated and does not permeate the program.

Recruiting and financial deficiencies are myth. Ames and the campus are a revelation to players who are convinced to visit. Our facilities are attractive, expanded, and competitive. Those two factors do provide a baseline in recruiting, but many players want to be a part of something. Part of a program and part of a process that will lead to success. That is what we lack.

That is what our new coach is tasked with building from the ground up.

WINDING UP THE RANT

Coach Campbell must be eaten up with this dilemma to have spoken about it publicly in the way that I illustrated. He inherited a Toledo program that had some “program” characteristics and he took it to a new level. It is a stark reality to come from a place where the culture is a given and realize you have to start one from scratch.

Coach Campbell comes from Mount Union of the DIII ranks. He knows what it feels like to expect excellence and to have a team that impresses its identity on its opponents. He was able to carry over that identity to his short tenure at Toledo. I have no doubt that he will give his all to instill an identity and a culture of toughness in the face of adversity. I have some hope that it will stick.

However, here is the rub. Assume that in 5 years ISU has been to four bowl games, has an infusion of higher level talent, and has an identity as a power running, tough defense, never give up team that no one wants to play. Now, assume that James Franklin is done at Penn State and they tab the hottest 40 year old coach in the country with ties to their recruiting base. Campbell leaves.

Will all be for naught?

Not necessarily. It will then be up to the administration to embrace the culture and make a hire that continues, not changes, the culture that has been built.

For instance, Toledo. Where Campbell put the building blocks in place and his understudy and Mount Union compatriot Jason Candle is now the coach. I suspect we will see more of the same from Toledo under Candle and the culture has been maintained. Boise State has maintained a 20 year run by hiring from a coaching tree that knows and expands upon the base culture that they have in place. Stanford did the same thing in transitioning from Harbaugh to Shaw. Minnesota hopes they have done the same thing in going from Jerry Kill to Tracy Claeys. Northern Illinois has been a stellar program by embracing the Jerry Kill coaching tree.

It can and does happen, if you can get that first guy to implement and build the foundation for cultural change.

For that first building block, need we look any farther than our stadium namesake? Do we forget the sacrifice and heritage of Jack Trice? Shouldn’t every incoming player memorize and recite his letter? We have built-in culture, honorable culture, motivation to play worthy of the man whose statue adorns the very facilities the Cyclones call home. I hope for a team and culture that embraces that man, those sentiments, and brings it to the field.

Is Matt Campbell Hayden Fry? Is Matt Campbell Jim Harbaugh? Is Matt Campbell Nick Saban? I sure hope so. Mostly, I hope he is MATT CAMPBELL, and he impresses his identity on the Cyclones. Iowa State needs that identity to break the mold, break the patterns of the past, and to lay the groundwork for long term success worthy of the fine institution, the passionate fan base, and the stadium namesake that are already in place.

Stiff Upper Lip U.

[An homage to the entrance song contest — one of my favorite AC/DC songs]