The last laugh
What separates Matt Campbell from the rest? Other coaches preach it — the Cyclones live it
Fitting, wasn’t it?
The Iowa State football team staked claim to a piece of school history Friday, securing at least a share of its first regular-season conference championship in over 100 years on the field of a program expected to do just that annually.
The Texas Longhorns are known as one of college football’s true bluebloods. Thirty-two league titles. Four national championships. Top-5 for all-time program victories. Enough stars on their roster to create a new galaxy. State-of-the-art $7 million football locker room, with custom-designed individual lockers pushing $10,000 per stall.
It’s “rich” enough that the Little Cyclones That Could knocked off the privileged Longhorns, 23-20, in Iowa State’s biggest game ever. Which sets up the Cyclones’ biggest game ever. Which could be followed by their biggest game ever.
The sweet poetic justice didn’t stop there. Texas head coach Tom Herman was basically Matt Campbell around the Jacobson Building before the real Matt Campbell arrived. A sharp, young, dynamic leader who won Cyclone Nation over as the program’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11, Herman left Iowa State to join Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes — he was later named national assistant coach of the year — before taking over at the University of Houston in 2015 and Texas in 2017.
Normally, Cyclones everywhere would support Herman’s career path elsewhere, even claiming him as one of their own. But a few years ago, speaking to an audience of Houston business students, Herman quipped, “Did a three-year sentence in Ames, Iowa. Anybody been to Ames, Iowa? Yeah, it’s awful. Siberia.”
Well, thanks to Campbell, “Siberia” is now ostensibly the epicenter of Big 12 football.
Iowa State running back Breece Hall went viral after the Texas win with his, “it’s five-star culture vs. five-star players” analysis. So much truth in such a succinct statement. It may sound folksy, colloquial, hokey or cliche-ish. Campbell has captured the simplest, yet often most elusive, formula in sports, though: his program, collectively, has bought into each other. They truly believe in him. They believe in his vision. And the results are catching up with the concepts.
Herman, by comparison, appears to say and do all the right things — just like Campbell. He has the knowledge, pedigree and references. The motivational signs and sayings are plastered everywhere. He even once said, “players will get you above average. To get to the elite, you need culture and leadership.”
Yet somewhere along the way — maybe it’s always been like this and he just masked it well until he hit the big payday — Herman stopped heeding his own advice. Hubris caught up to him. The Longhorns lost six games in his first season, four in his second, five in his third, and are now just 5-3 in 2020.
Going 8-4 may be acceptable for most programs. At Texas, it puts you directly on the hot seat. And if Herman is let go after this season — he currently makes close to $6 million annually, with a $15 million buyout — the loss to Iowa State, ironically, may be the final nail in his tenure’s coffin, his contract shipped to Siberia.
We have no way of knowing where Campbell’s career goes from here. Last December, ISU extended his contract through 2025. His buyout is large relative to numbers normally seen in Ames.
The school has done everything it can to keep him. At some point, though, Campbell’s name will be at or near the top of every coaching search list, both among college football powerhouses and even in the professional ranks.
Ultimately, Campbell and Campbell alone must decide if he’s a Cyclone for the long haul.
He is no longer building something special at Jack Trice Stadium. This isn’t about potential or hope or the future anymore. Iowa State is 7-2 and ranked 12th, with victories over both Oklahoma and Texas. A win at home over West Virginia would officially send the Cyclones to Dallas on Dec. 19 for the first time ever as the outright Big 12 regular-season champions.
Their time is now. Iowa State has arrived. You don’t have to fantasize about it anymore, Cyclone fans. The “process” Campbell has relentlessly preached over the last five years has yielded results beyond your wildest imagination, and the best could very well be yet to come.
ISU fans waited for the other shoe to drop all season long. The “moment” that brings everything crashing down and back to some kind of old reality, where unfortunate bounces or unforeseen circumstances were an inevitability on the gridiron.
That mentality has been eradicated by Campbell. His program makes its own luck through hard work, preparation, and intangibles you just don’t get to see very often in football. Oh, it’s talked about every day — just ask Herman or any of the other sexy names who now find themselves on thin ice at programs across the country. While they talked the talk, though, Campbell and his players were quietly walking the walk.
An ego by itself drives coaches to dream big and land Power-5 positions with massive contracts and donors hanging on their every word. At some point, though, they must produce. When the rubber hits the road, the game’s elite leaders — contrary to popular opinion, there aren’t many — find a way to divide and disperse said ego, which spreads confidence, heart and belief like wildfire in the program.
Campbell had the audacity to picture Iowa State as a championship contender. But he didn’t just dream big: he worked on a formula behind closed doors that would one day actually bring something like this to life.
After Saturday’s postgame handshake, Herman had to walk away thinking to himself — as Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley likely did earlier in the season — “how did THEY beat US?”
It’s both the easiest and most complicated answer in football. And that secret is safe with Matt Campbell. Just be thankful he’s still sharing the fruits of his labor with Cyclone Nation.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @MessengerSports