AMES, Iowa — The Best Story In College Football hit the pause button on Monday.
Iowa State stood down from shocking the world because even karma needs a day off. Nine weeks into a college football season that was devolving into a study of the usual suspects, here come the Cyclones.
A program whose last and only conference title was 105 years ago is tied for the Big 12 lead with five weeks to go. A program that had beaten one top-five team in its history has beaten two in the last three weeks. A program with its former quarterback playing middle linebacker has seen its current quarterback (a walk-on) beat both Oklahoma and TCU. A program that might be the most polite in the country. A program that doesn’t allow its players in bars during the season — and whose players largely obey that edict.
“It’s hard,” said senior linebacker Joel Lanning, “but it’s a team rule.”
Far from a powerhouse, Iowa State is no longer a punchline having smacked both the Sooners and Horned Frogs in the mouth this month.
“You talk about coming out of nowhere,” said Dan McCarney, the program’s longest-tenured coach from 1995-2006. “It’s incredible. This whole story is one of the best in college football.”
The Best Story In College Football is guided by the current Hottest Coach. Matt Campbell came here two years ago after five seasons at Toledo. He’s a Midwestern guy with Midwestern values who brought nearly his entire staff to a program that won its last conference title in 1912.
Twenty-one games into his stay here, the Clones are bowl eligible for the first time in five years.
More than that, Campbell’s cell number has to be on the list of every athletic director contemplating a coaching change. If a 37-year-old former Division III player can turn things around at Iowa State in less than two seasons, what could he do at a place like Florida or Tennessee?
“I’m sure there are schools that contacted him,” Lanning said. “I’m sure that Iowa State was not his dream school. He’s from Ohio; I’m sure he’s a big Buckeye fan.”
Reminded that Ohio State has a fairly secure coach in place, Lanning added, “I don’t think [Urban Meyer] is going to be leaving for a while, but I’m assuming schools are going to want [Campbell].”
They’re not to the point of being nervous here just yet; they’re still reveling in their relevance.
The Clones have been, well, cuddly for most of their existence. Not threatening, certainly not winning. When the cold and wind whipped up in November, every once in a while Iowa State could be flat out annoying for teams south of here. In every conference Iowa State has ever played, that has been everyone.
These Clones are charter members of the old Missouri Valley, having survived conference expansion from the Big Six to the Big Seven to the Big Eight long before the Big 12 came along.
But coaches seldom stopped for long, usually passing through on their way to bigger and better things — or they got fired in the process.
The list of former assistants is more than impressive — Pete Carroll, Mack Brown, Jimmy Johnson, John Fox, Jackie Sherrill and Tom Herman. They just didn’t make their bones here.
Campbell is where AD Jamie Pollard intends to make a stand — or as much as a stand that can be made with the 53rd-highest paid coach in the country.
“Are we going to modify his contract going forward?” Pollard asked. “Yeah, we should because he earned it.”
But that’s as far as it goes for the moment. Pollard, in his 13th year, is in the process of drawing up a list of coaches that begs the question, “How did that guy get fired?”
Somewhere near the top of the list is Florida’s Jim McElwain, who “mutually split” with the Gators on Sunday.
“Let’s face it, the Florida coach is 22-12 and was in the last two SEC Championship Games, and he’s in Year 3, and it’s not good enough?” Pollard asked rhetorically.
At some point, he may even show the list to Campbell as sort of a grass-isn’t-always-greener reminder.
For now, Campbell makes $2.6 million per year with a $9.3 million buyout. That is a significant poison pill, Pollard suggested.
“I’m not aware of any school in the country that has paid that much to buyout another school,” he said. “I’m not naive enough to think it’s never going to happen.”
Campbell doesn’t have an agent, which is almost unheard of at this level. Instead, he relies on a financial advisor and an attorney. That, Pollard said, is one reason he was hired.
“At the point in time you think there’s a better opportunity somewhere else, I’ll drive you the airport,” Pollard said he tells his coaches.
“There’s a growing number of football coaches who would tell you, ‘I wished I didn’t chase the almighty dollar.’ I think that number is going to grow exponentially.”
If that trend starts here, good for the Clones, Campbell and, well, good for college football. It would be nice to make more trips here where almost inexplicably there is a 44-game streak of at least 50,000 in the stands. The top 10 most attended games have all come since 2011 when Iowa State has been mostly terrible.
When asked if he expects to get calls from bigger schools, Campbell said, “I don’t even think about that … I put zero thought into that.”
Not even if super agent Jimmy Sexton calls you to be a new client?
“Probably right,” Campbell said.
For now, on the field, these Cyclones look destined. Not necessarily for the playoff but for pertinency. With all the crap we the media have to cover each week, it’s nice to find something good and pure.
Campbell takes Nick Saban’s book-smart, polished, New York Times best-selling version of The Process and adds a Midwestern earnestness.
“If you fall in love with the process, then eventually the process will love you back,” Campbell said on this postgame video from Saturday that went viral.
Fall In Love With The Process!
Do the Unremarkable With Remarkable Detail! #RaiseTheStandard
— Cyclone Football (@CycloneFB) October 29, 2017
Love is not the first thing you think of with Iowa State football. The program hadn’t had an undefeated month in 80 years. It went 4-0 in October.
“I didn’t even know that,” Campbell said. “I had zero idea that existed. That’s honest.”
Campbell gets his advice from his dad, his former high school coach and his college coach, the retired Mount Union icon Larry Kehres.
“A guy I constantly talk to,” Campbell said. “We’re getting ready to play a rain game, I’ll say, ‘Coach what kind of advice do you have?'”
At Mount Union, he won three Division III national championships as a player under Kehres, losing just one of his 55 games. The Toledo turnaround included winning less than nine games once in five seasons. In his first season here, the Clones went 3-9.
“The humility piece,” Campbell said Monday, repeating a familiar mantra, “is not something our society as a whole is good at.”
To counter that, Campbell favors defense, team over self, precision and sacrifice. The Cyclones are one of two teams yet to lose a fumble this season. In the last 14 quarters, the defense has allowed only 27 points. Walk-on quarterback Kyle Kempt has the most Big 12 wins by a Cyclone quarterback (four) since 2010 — all this month. Lanning was asked to switch to middle linebacker after starting 14 games at quarterback over two seasons.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be a quarterback,” said Lanning from nearby Ankeny. “I was going to be an NFL quarterback someday. Wasn’t having the greatest success doing it.”
Playing both ways against Oklahoma, Lanning was on the field for 78 snaps. He recovered a fumble, posted a sack, passed for 25 yards and rushed for 35 yards. Kempt’s backup under center that day was named the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week.
Every coach in some way teaches core values, but Campbell codifies it with signs regarding manners throughout the facility. He calls it the “Cyclone Code of Conduct.”
“It’s always ‘yes sir, no sir’ around coaches,” Lanning said. “And Miss Erica out there.”
That would be assistant to the head coach Erica Genise, literally the first face you see entering the facility. She was only the former director of football operations at Stanford and Notre Dame.
Who knew there was a 44-game streak here of at least 50,000 fans? Or that one of the first texts the coaching staff received was from NFL rookie sensation Kareem Hunt. Yup, this Iowa State staff helped develop Hunt at Toledo.
And so we’re left, for now, with an old-fashioned feel-good story. Campbell is 37, looks at least 10 years younger and spits values that suggest he’s been around for 30 years.
The big TCU win was celebrated at home Saturday night with Campbell meeting the new family dog, a goldendoodle puppy named Rex.
“Only we would take on that in the month of this,” the coach said.
This month has been life-changing. It took McCarney five years to get above .500. That 9-3 record in 2000 tied the 94-year old school record for wins. Needless to say, Iowa State hasn’t been as good since.
Campbell invited McCarney back two springs ago. The beloved former coach spoke to the team in August and was back in town Saturday to witness a field storming following the TCU win.
“He sure as hell doesn’t catch your eye much,” McCarney said of Kempt, “because he wasn’t getting many reps in August.”
The first meaningful snaps of Kempt’s career came when he started three weeks ago at Oklahoma. Starter Jacob Park had taken a leave for personal reasons.
A 343-yard, three-touchdown performance was capped by a nine-play, 75-yard game-winning drive. Kempt threw a 25-yard scoring pass to top receiver Allen Lazard with 2:19 left.
Where exactly did that come from?
“The entire game I felt we were going to win at some point,” Kempt said. “I felt like that the night before. I’ve never felt like that. It wasn’t confidence, it was calmness.”
This from a kid who didn’t know what Iowa State was until he arrived two years ago. Actually, Kempt thinks less of his accomplishments than those of his father. Mychal Kempt grew up in a trailer park in Aloha, Oregon. He was adopted. His father left the family. His adoptive mother died while Mychal was in high school. Mychal played football at Montana State, and he’s now a high-ranking official at a banking technology firm.
Kyle bounced from Oregon State to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas to Cincinnati to here. Three years out of high school, he hadn’t taken a college snap in a game.
“My dad is a phenomenal example of perseverance,” Kyle said. “He prepared me so much for his moment. His thing was, ‘You gotta be ready for your moment when it happens. Take it and run with it. Never look back.'”
There are few around here who remember Marv Seiler. In 1992, Seiler was a fifth-year, walk-on quarterback making his first start — just like Kempt.
Seiler had been forced to play against mighty Nebraska. The slow-footed quarterback somehow broke free for a 78-yard run for the game’s only touchdown. Iowa State won 19-10.
Seiler never did anything before that day or after. That pretty much is an embodiment of the program. The only other top-five win came over No. 2 Oklahoma State in 2011, knocking the Cowboys and Big 12 out of the BCS title game.
Since that day, Iowa State is 23-49.
“The fans have not been spoiled,” McCarney said.
But once again, Iowa State may be responsible for sticking a pin the conference’s national title hopes.
Ask the Cyclones if they care. They are resilient at their core. Running backs coach Lou Ayeni has been with Campbell for six years. As the field flooded with fans Saturday, Ayeni needed a police officer escort. Not because anyone recognized him but because he had been coaching in recent weeks with a debilitating disc problem in his neck. Ayeni couldn’t afford to be jostled wearing a neck brace post-surgery, which kind of fit the scene around him. The Iowa State coaches nursing a fragile program.
“It was unbearable,” Ayeni said of the pain. “I wasn’t sleeping at night. It was on that nerve, 24 hours a day.”
The coach was getting shot up with painkillers just to be on the field with his position group.
“I’ve got to be there for him, give it to me,” Ayeni told doctors when he considered the likes of sophomore David Montgomery.
Montgomery is second in Big 12 rushing and leads the nation, according to Iowa State, having eluded 70 tackles.
“He’s been the catalyst, basically for this whole thing,” Ayeni said. “His desire to not be average and be the best has trickled down.”
“Best month of my life,” Montgomery told reporters Saturday.
There is a trickle-down effect all through the Cyclones. It’s hard to be selfish when those around you are sacrificing.
“What went through my mind first was, ‘Can I tackle?'” said Lanning, who hadn’t played defense since eighth grade. “I know I can find the ball and do all that stuff. Am I physical enough to go tackle somebody every single play? I hadn’t form tackled anyone in eight years.”
Pollard has already laid out his pitch for Campbell to stay. He likens this moment to a baton being passed.
McCartney built a foundation. Gene Chizik stayed for two short years (2007-08) but season tickets went from 27,000 to36,000. The likeable Paul Rhoads created everyman energy from 2009-15 but not enough wins. On his watch, though, there was a $100 million upgrade in facilities.
“If those three guys don’t do their part, Matt’s not even here,” Pollard said. “He had other options that were easier and probably would pay more. I remember challenging him in the interview. ‘Is your next job a transaction or a calling? If it’s a transaction, go somewhere else … but if you’re up for a calling that nobody has never done or has failed trying to do, then come do our job.
“‘They’ll build statues for you if you can do it.'”