To put it kindly, we’re sort of in uncharted waters here. You’d be be hard pressed to find any previous season in Cyclone football history that carried a weight of expectations similar to the 2019 season. Even during the best of previous seasons, the Cyclones never garnered the level of national media attention they’re getting right now (aside from the beginning of the 2002 season when Seneca was getting some pretty real Heisman hype, though that attention was more individual than team-based).
“I think one of the greatest things that’s been known when I first got to Iowa State all of the questions were what color uniforms are you wearing, what’s your entrance song, people cared about stuff that really doesn’t matter, and now we’re talking about a football team, we’re asking football questions and we’re concerned about what’s really important,” said Campbell at Big 12 Media Days in Dallas.
Now, to be fair, the uniforms were...something, and the entrance song was an atrocity. And with as terrible as the football team had been, most of us fans just wanted something to focus our attention on besides a bad football team that wasn’t getting better.
Needless to say, fans are pretty much universally happy to be talking about recruiting and scheme instead of making GIFs of Paul Rhoads’ sideline outbursts and debating whether or not our average-at-best quarterback had been utilized properly (as if that would have mattered).
Never to fear, though. Instead of instituting some archaic ban on social media to keep his players away from the outside noise, Campbell’s culture of player-driven leadership teaches players to how to tune out or contextualize the expectations they see from outside the program, and counter them with their own greater expectations.
“You know, I think that’s what’s been really fun about from the starting point is building it with player-driven leadership in mind and building it from the inside out, with humility and character. Not really kind of worried about what anybody said outside of our walls but creating a belief and sense of unity inside our walls. I think what that’s allowed us to do is navigate the highs and the lows that have come our way,” said Campbell.
“..if we worried about what the expectations of our football program were outside of our walls, the first three years, I think we would have crumbled really fast. So what we’ve been able to do is handle our own expectations and making our own expectations way loftier than anything that could be said outside of our walls.”
So where do those expectations come from?
Building from the Center
It’s not exactly a state secret that Campbell has been building his team from the center out, directing the team’s most significant recruiting and development efforts towards position groups in the center of the field, especially the offensive and defensive lines, tight ends, and linebackers.
While all four groups needed a ton of help (like pretty much every position group) at the beginning of Matt Campbell’s tenure, the stunning transformation of the defense over the last couple seasons has given the staff a foundation to build their program on.
“It’s really great to be able to build on a powerful and strong front seven for us and we feel like not only to have Mike (Rose) back up the middle and Marcel (Spears) back up the middle, but some of those interior defensive linemen when you talk about Ray Lima, JaQuan Bailey, Eyioma Uwazurike, I think those are great pieces and those are building blocks and what we have done is tried to do a great job, and it’s like anything you want to be strong up the middle, in any sport, is continue to create great depth around the strength in the middle of us.”
Finally, the offensive lines and tight ends are catching up to the progress of the defensive units. The tight ends flashed lots of potential last season, and the talent is young. Charlie Kolar, Chase Allen, and Dylan Soehner form an enormous and talented trio with a versatile skill set that will give Brock Purdy, Campbell, and Tom Manning lots of options on offense.
“Well, I think the realization for me is just like what we’ve always wanted to be in any offense, defense or special team and that’s to have the ability to be multiple and to be able to create match-ups and the one thing that I think tight ends give you is a chance to have some multiplicity to what you do offensively,” said Campbell.
“I think for the first time we feel that we have that ability to go into a season and have some multiplicity, have a chance where you can create match-ups for those players to be successful.”
However, the biggest question mark heading into next season is without a doubt the offensive line. The group is returning a ton of starting experience, but they’ve still got a ton of growing to do before they can push the offense to new heights.
“Four seniors, five starters coming back, seven guys that have had playing or starting experience in that group as well so there is a lot of commission right now. It’s an area for us to be honest with you that has been an Achilles heel as we continued to build our program. It was probably the farthest away area when we got to Iowa State of rebuilding and it’s great to be four years later.”
In a time of unprecedented expectations, Matt Campbell’s culture-building philosophy has given the staff, players, and fans confidence that the winning is here to stay, no matter how much we like to talk about it.