Bottom-line business nixes affable leader

With 91 seconds of game time left in what should have been Iowa State’s 35-28 win at Kansas State on Saturday, cameras captured an elated – and undoubtedly relieved – head coach Paul Rhoads jumping for joy on the sidelines.

Nine seconds later, the Wildcats had the ball back after the Cyclones inexplicably ran an actual play instead of taking a knee to bleed the clock. Forty seconds after that, Kansas State tied the score with a touchdown.

On the next play from scrimmage, Iowa State again opted against kneeling and heading to overtime. Quartberback Joel Lanning scrambled and fumbled at his own 22-yard line. K-State recovered, and with three seconds left, kicked a field goal to somehow prevail, 38-35.

Less than 24 hours later, Rhoads was out of a job.

It happens that quickly sometimes in sports. Fortunes change not just overnight, but often after one improbable sequence of events. Rhoads’ tenure at ISU had been wobbling for some time, given the Cyclones’ 8-29 record in their last 37 games. The Manhattan meltdown may have simply expedited the inevitable; there seemed to be no turning back after the latest rash of coaching blunders, which almost single-handedly turned a breakthrough victory into another incomprehensible defeat.

Iowa State led the Wildcats 35-14 at halftime, then disappeared in a 24-0 second-half fog. It’s a trend that had become ugly in recent weeks; despite effort not being at fault, the Cyclones were out-scored 76-14 after the intermission in recent losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. That’s not just an execution, but also, an adjustment issue. Rhoads bears the brunt of the blame for that, fair or not.

The affable Rhoads is a good guy. A local guy. Heart on his sleeve guy. He bleeds Cardinal and Gold. Players love him. Fans always applauded his passion and connection with the program.

By and large, this won’t be a good-riddance farewell. People are more disappointed than angry, frustrated that such a good fit on paper simply wasn’t a good fit at the end of the day.

In 2015, the Iowa State football program is walking a tightrope with virtually zero margin for error as a member of the Big 12. The Cyclones have the upgraded facilities and the passionate fanbase to stake their claim, but four of the other nine schools in the conference are currently ranked in the Top-15 – and that’s not even taking Texas into consideration.

Iowa State is 3-8 right now. In four of those losses – against Iowa and Oklahoma State and at Toledo and Kansas State – they were either ahead or tied with under four minutes remaining in regulation.

I’ve always said major college football coaches must either be gifted recruiters or tactical experts. Cyclone supporters gave Rhoads the benefit of the doubt for a lot of intangible reasons, but the leader of a program is ultimately judged by wins and losses. In the end, Rhoads simply didn’t produce enough on the field or the recruiting trail.

In the last nine years on the gridiron, athletic director Jamie Pollard has now hired Gene Chizik, lost Chizik, hired Rhoads and fired Rhoads. His next move, given the rising expectations and tangible investment the school and its donors have made in the program, will likely determine his own future at Iowa State moving forward.

Cutting ties with Rhoads is a risk, not a solution. Hopefully for ISU, it will soon represent a step in the right direction. Given the patience, pain and heartache this school has endured through the years, it deserves more than just a puncher’s chance at sustained success.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net