On the rise
Matt Campbell has once-woebegone Iowa State football on comeback trail
AMES — Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has seen pretty much everything in 35 years of coaching.
In that time, Heacock has come to view head coaches as artists charged with painting a winning picture that everyone in a program can see.
Ask Heacock and the rest of the Cyclones, and they feel like they’ve finally found their maestro in third-year coach Matt Campbell.
Compassionate, fiercely driven and intensely competitive, Campbell has put a program that suffered through roughly a century of mediocrity in position to win big in the Big 12 and beyond.
“I think that’s what great leaders are, I think they are (artists), and I think he’s tremendous at that. … I think he believes in what he’s doing. He trusts in it,” Heacock said. “The vision that he sells for the people behind the scenes, everybody can see it.”
The school and its surprisingly rabid fan base have gone all in on Campbell, who has elevated the once-inept Cyclones with a roster of overlooked recruits he lovingly refers to as “the island of misfit toys,” according to quarterback Kyle Kempt.
Those players love him back, from star running back David Montgomery to the last walk-on on the roster. That mutual respect and adoration was crucial when the Cyclones went 8-5 — and yes, 8-5 counts as a big year at Iowa State — and beat Memphis in the Liberty Bowl last December.
“He’s selfless. He’s special. He’s more like a father figure than a coach. Sometimes, that’s what kids need,” Montgomery said.
The program needed more than that when Campbell, 38, first arrived from Toledo to a school long known as a coaching graveyard.
For years, coaches had come to Iowa State determined to be the one who finally fixed the Cyclones. Most of them left with a pink slip and their career in tatters. The ones who didn’t — Johnny Majors, Earle Bruce and even Gene Chizik — got out of Ames as soon as they could.
Like many of his predecessors, Campbell quickly realized he didn’t have a ton to work with.
His first game in 2016 was a mistake-riddled loss to Northern Iowa of the FCS. A week later, the rival Hawkeyes humiliated the Cyclones 42-3. But after that loss to Iowa, Campbell displayed perhaps the first true sign that his Iowa State tenure would be different.
Instead of being upset, Campbell appeared more perplexed than anything. It was as though he couldn’t possibly fathom how a team of his could go down without a fight.
The following week, the Cyclones didn’t quit despite suffering another blowout loss to a far superior TCU. They carried that momentum home, clobbering a bad San Jose State team by 34 points for Campbell’s first win.
The losing didn’t stop there, as Iowa State would drop five relatively close games in a row. But it finally all came together in November when the Cyclones, as a slight home underdog, clobbered Texas Tech 66-10.
“In the second half of that (TCU) game I saw our team actually fight, and I thought that was a turning point,” Campbell said. “We came home, we won a game, and then all of a sudden our kids were starting to say: ‘You know what? Maybe we can have some success here. Maybe this thing can turn in a positive way.'”
Iowa State’s emergence as a team to watch came in 2017, when it stunned Baker Mayfield’s Sooners 38-31 on the road in the first start for Kempt, a backup quarterback. The Cyclones got their revenge on the fourth-ranked Horned Frogs three weeks later, beating them 14-7.
Iowa State wound up ranked as high as 14th and finished fourth in the league a year ago. That was the best Big 12 finish in school history, a fact that’s perhaps more telling than anything of the challenge Campbell inherited.
In Campbell’s view, the program’s turnaround has come in part because it’s built on a culture in which the players hold one another accountable instead of waiting for the coaches to do so.
“When you become an elite-level program, 90 percent of the time it’s the players leading. Ten percent of the time the coaches are leading,” said Campbell, who was named the league’s coach of the year in 2017. “I know all these coaches across the country think we all have all the answers and the kids want to hear us. But really, they don’t. They want to hear each other.”
Campbell could’ve been the next guy to use Iowa State as a launching pad. But instead of weighing his options, Campbell sat down with athletic director Jamie Pollard for dinner and hammered out a new six-year contract worth $22.5 million just days after the regular season ended in November.
New deal or not, it’s unclear what the future might hold for one of the brightest young stars in his profession. But there’s no doubt that Campbell’s focus will be solely on the Cyclones for as long as he’s their coach.
“Great leaders have the ability to paint the vision and … sometimes those pictures don’t get painted very good. That’s real. He has the ability to allow you to see what his dream is, be part of it, and then he works extremely hard at it, and you in turn want to work extremely hard at it. He’s very genuine in what he does,” Heacock said. “Who you work for is a lot more important than where you work at.”
Iowa State opens its season on Sept. 1 at home against South Dakota State.