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The unconventional way Matt Campbell ended generations of futility at Iowa State

Pete Thamel
·17-min read

The black Ford Ranger rumbled through Northeast Ohio back in the summer of 1999. Matt Campbell doesn’t remember the truck’s year, but its real-life value as a hand-me-down from his grandfather (“the greatest gift”) transcended the Blue Book value ($3,000).

Driving home from a week of workouts following an underwhelming freshman season on the football team at the University of Pittsburgh, Campbell’s truck pulled up to an intersection in Alliance, Ohio. There on State Street, he came upon a crossroads in both the road and his life.

Campbell’s journey to becoming one of most successful young coaches in college football can be distilled to that moment near the Mount Union campus. On that day back in 1999, he saw a group of 40 Mount Union football players walking down State Street after a voluntary workout for the Division III juggernaut. Campbell gazed in envy.

“They looked like they were having a blast,” Campbell said. “And I was leaving a place on scholarship where it’s miserable, half the guys are showing up for workouts and half the guys aren’t. I think back on that moment to this day. Man, that made such a big impact on me.”

The lesson of that moment ripples through the most improbable story in all of college football, as the 40-year-old Campbell is helping Iowa State transcend generations of football futility. In Campbell’s fifth season, Iowa State finds itself in contention for its first-ever Big 12 title and first league title since 1912. And Campbell credits his transfer to Mount Union and coaching stint there for forging a philosophy based on the connection he missed at Pitt.

Campbell has elevated No. 17 Iowa State (5-2, 5-1) to first place in the Big 12 by building a program channeled from the spirit of Mount Union’s 13 national titles. Despite Iowa State’s limited history, recruiting base and tradition, Campbell has them on track for a fourth consecutive bowl game for the first time in school history for a simple reason — he’s ensured an environment that mimics the camaraderie he witnessed that day on State Street.

“We’re not a football factory here,” Campbell said. “In a lot of ways, from the ground up, we’ve been able to create a life factory.”

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell reacts on the sideline during the second half of a college football game against Texas Tech on Oct. 10, 2020. (AP)
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell reacts on the sideline during the second half of a college football game against Texas Tech on Oct. 10, 2020. (AP)

Campbell knows the difference firsthand. When he came to play for Hall of Fame coach Larry Kehres at Mount Union, he appreciated defensive coordinator Don Montgomery constantly checking in on him. His parents were going through a difficult divorce and Campbell felt comfort at a school that valued him beyond his place on the depth chart. He relished teammates that cared as much about winning as he did. “For me, I needed that,” he said. “That part was missing [at Pitt], and it was missing at such a critical time in my life.”

Campbell authored a stellar career as a defensive end at Mount Union, winning three national titles, racking up 55.0 tackles for loss and his teams went 54-1. But he recalls most vividly the connection with the staff and his teammates. “I don’t know where some of the rings are,” Campbell said. “But the greatest thing [from my time there] is that these have been pivotal people in my life every step from there.”

That taught Campbell to set out on his career with a clear objective to be that kind of coach to his players. And that manifests itself with relationships where the players are so close to Campbell they’re unafraid to playfully tease him and know the jabs will be returned. Cyclone tight end Chase Allen jokes about Campbell’s penchant for all-black outfits – “He’s Johnny Cash.” Campbell wears the same black hoodie so often that senior defensive back Greg Eisworth will ask: “Do you wash your clothes?”

Campbell has built the program’s foundation on deep relationships, which have shown up on the field after a 3-9 debut season in 2016. He is the only coach in school history to defeat every team in the league during his tenure. This is, after all, a place where the school's first bowl win didn't come until 2000. (Thanks, Sage Rosenfels.)

By going 28-18 over the last four seasons and leading Iowa State to a flurry of historic firsts, Campbell has left a blueprint for what the future of coaching will look like – energetic, love-based and intricately connected.

“That’s the most important thing about the connection,” Eisworth said. “Just the humility, to be able to talk to him about anything and everything. The door is always open.”

After figuring out his direction two decades ago at his own crossroads, his latest puzzle looms. Can Campbell lead the historically bedraggled Cyclones from good to great?

How Campbell’s players feel about him

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh showed up at Chase Allen’s house in Missouri with a sleeping bag a few weeks before signing day in 2016.

At the time, Harbaugh’s willingness to sleep at a recruit’s house doubled as a recruiting gimmick that also illustrated how badly he wanted a prospect.

When Harbaugh attended one of Allen’s basketball games that winter, a buzz went through the gym in Nixa, Missouri. So much buzz that when Matt Campbell and some Iowa State coaches arrived a weeks later, a fan approached them.

Fan: You guys from Iowa State?

Staff: Yes we are.

Fan: Did you know Jim Harbaugh was here last week?

Staff: Cool.

The Cyclones coaches tease Allen, a redshirt senior in the program, about that game all the time. It resonates as the anecdote that synthesizes one of Campbell’s early recruiting coups.

While the fans in Nixa didn’t recognize Campbell, Allen had a clear vision of what that anonymous Iowa State staff could become. He shocked the recruiting world by signing there over established brands like Michigan, Nebraska and Florida State. Allen chose Iowa State based on people, not logos — which he learned by growing up the son of Terry Allen, his father who was the head coach at Kansas, Northern Iowa and Missouri State. (And, yes, a former Iowa State assistant.)

“I’m really lucky I had the opportunity to grow up the way I did or had the people in my life that I did,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t have made the decision based off the people.”

The Tao of Campbell is that he’s so engaged with his players, spends so much time with them and builds such a strong relationship that they feel like they are working with him every day, not for him. While all the players stress that clear authority lines remain, the strength of the relationship means comfort and the occasional exchange of verbal jabs.

A few weeks after Allen got to campus, he got hit by a car outside the facility. It was not a serious accident and would have been a long-forgotten freshman foible if not for the many months of “look both ways” jokes from his head coach.

So Allen can tease Campbell about not owning any other clothes than his all-black ensembles. (You’ll notice Iowa State often wears black uniforms, too.) And Eisworth relishes the smack talk that bounds around the practice field, with Campbell taunting the defense after a big play and a collective rebuttal coming from the entire defensive unit to Campbell after a fourth-down stop.

“The good thing about Campbell,” jokes redshirt junior tight end Charlie Kolar, “if you miss his message once, you’ll get it the next 10 weeks.”

Campbell became the youngest head coach in the country at 32 back in 2012 when he replaced Tim Beckman at Toledo. And along his path there through Bowling Green (twice), Mount Union and Toledo as an assistant, he specialized in the personal touch he sought during his playing days.

Matt Campbell of the Iowa State Cyclones looks at the scoreboard during a game against Baylor on Nov. 7. (David Purdy/Getty Images)
Matt Campbell of the Iowa State Cyclones looks at the scoreboard during a game against Baylor on Nov. 7. (David Purdy/Getty Images)

Former Bowling Green star quarterback Tyler Sheehan recalls building such a strong bond with Campbell, who coached offensive line there at the time, that he had a hard time rooting against Toledo when Campbell became the head coach. That’s the MAC equivalent of an Ohio State fan struggling to root against Michigan.

A few years later, when Campbell heard that Sheehan’s father got cancer, he called and checked in on him. Sideline passes are always available. More than a decade after Sheehan played for Campbell, a box of Cyclone gear arrived unannounced at his house in the Cincinnati area.

“In college, you are old enough to understand and truly see who cares about you and who is there for the paycheck,” Sheehan said. “You could tell he cared about you as a human being as well as wanting to win.”

As the offensive line coach at Toledo from 2009-11, Campbell managed to make enough of an impression on the entire roster that a group of players – many of them from the defense – delivered athletic director Mike O’Brien a simple message after his interim coaching stint in the Military Bowl: “Our head coach is here. You need to hire Coach Campbell.”

Toledo offensive lineman Zac Kerin, who went on to a long NFL career, described the relationship he built with Campbell as “big brother and little brother,” or “fun uncle and nephew.” Campbell had a unique way to motivate, including playing AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” on repeat before playing Ohio State and motivating Kerin by pointing out players he would struggle to block, stirring his competitive spirit one film clip at a time.

That connection, of course, shapes back to what Campbell realized he needed at that age, what he found at Mount Union. And what he’s continued to deliver since that time. “That relationship, to me, is why you coach,” Campbell said. “You can have those conversations and laugh at yourself and they laugh at you. But when it’s time to have a real discussion, you can have that, too. It’s not clichés or hype. It’s just real.”

Going down the ‘rabbit hole’ with Matt Campbell

At most major college football summer youth camps, the head coach serves as sort of a ceremonial figure. Hundreds of campers wait in line to take pictures. Top prospects are whisked to the coach’s office for the honor of face time. The coaches do little actual, well, coaching.

But at Iowa State, Matt Campbell is among the first coaches to arrive for camp. Former Cyclones assistant Alex Golesh recalls Campbell setting up tables before sunrise and hanging around after the day was done to make sure everything is properly cleaned. You can take the coach from Division III, but you can’t take the Division III from the coach.

Campbell makes nearly $3.5 million annually now, but hasn’t lost the mentality of when he earned minimum wage at a cement company after college. And that everyman spirit overflows to the staff and program.

When the team went to Marshalltown, Iowa, to help clean up after a tornado in 2018, it was Campbell who moved so vigorously to clear debris that Allen admitted the team felt pressured to work harder.

“That’s what sets Matt apart is that everything he’s doing is the most important thing in the world,” Golesh said.

Each day, he dives into what athletic director Jamie Pollard calls Campbell’s “rabbit hole.” It’s a place where all of Campbell’s energy, enthusiasm and connection are directed to his team. He rarely checks his phone and keeps that day’s next task, player meeting or interaction as the most important thing in front of him.

In an era where it’s not uncommon for coaches to struggle to remember players’ names – Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy famously called his players by number in the media for years – Campbell asks about a player’s brother, their high school coach or their academics. Campbell’s door is open, not just as a policy but as a way of life.

“If you went in and asked him the price of gas or who won the election, he may not know,” Pollard said. “But he’ll know everything about his staff, football and family. What he’s done, and I commend him, he’s got priorities. Those priorities are true priorities.”

When coaches move up levels, they are sometimes tempted to bring in veteran coordinators, ace recruiters and other flashy résumés that are available at the price point of a Power Five salary pool. Campbell’s staff is wired so differently that Golesh, a former Ohio State student assistant, jokes that he’d catch flack for having a silver spoon for having never coached in Division III.

Campbell’s staff is an assembly of his life experience, as he hosted offensive coordinator Tom Manning on his recruiting visit to Mount Union when Campbell was a player. Offensive line coach Jeff Myers played for Campbell on the line at Toledo, and running back coach Mick McCall was the offensive coordinator at Bowling Green when Campbell was line coach. Campbell took a majority of his Toledo coaches, including innovative defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, with him to Iowa State, and they’ve repaid him by sticking around.

“Most of his staff were born in the dugout, not on third base,” Pollard said. “They weren’t a great player that got to start at Ohio State as a graduate assistant. They had to start at some high school or DIII program.”

With unprecedented success comes inevitable attention, as Campbell declined interest from the Jets two years ago and spoke to Florida State last year, but didn’t have interest in the job. If Michigan opens this season, Campbell would likely be on the short list.

“If Michigan opens up and they come after him, I think Ohio State better start worrying,” said Don Montgomery, his old defensive coordinator from Mount Union. “That’s just my opinion, but the sky is the limit with him.”

Campbell’s daily “rabbit hole” trips give off no vibe that he’s eager to leave, as he’s appreciative of what he and his staff of fellow bootstrap coaches have been given the freedom to create. After a century defined by losing at Iowa State, Campbell’s formula has trumped all the stigmas.

“It’s your only chance to win there — the love between the staff and players,” said Golesh, now UCF’s co-offensive coordinator. “You want to succeed for Matt because you don’t want to disappoint him. It’s not a lead by fear, as is common at times in our profession. It’s lead by example, it’s a lead by motivation. It’s leading by saying, ‘I’ll help you and do everything with you.’”

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, center, walks off the field with QB Brock Purdy after a game against Notre Dame on Dec. 28, 2019. (AP)
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, center, walks off the field with QB Brock Purdy after a game against Notre Dame on Dec. 28, 2019. (AP)

How Matt Campbell’s approach has evolved

In the predawn darkness of a 5:30 a.m. winter workout in Northeast Ohio in March of 2008, Tyler Sheehan ducked into the Bowling Green weight room to see a surprising face.

Sheehan knew that Campbell’s wife, Erica, had gone into labor the night before with the first of the couple’s four children. She’d delivered Katie around 2:30 a.m., and there was Matt Campbell three hours later, on no sleep, coaching the team through a winter workout. He’d driven directly to the Bowling Green football facility from the hospital.

“It’s the middle of winter, 15 degrees and snowing,” Sheehan said. “And he’s standing there with his whistle in hand to get you fired up.”

Sheehan relayed the anecdote as a window into Campbell’s dedication, as the history of college coaching is filled with lore forming around the obsessive work habits of coaches. When asked last week about that day, Campbell’s voice caught with regret. “I don’t know if I’m proud of that today,” he said. “As you grow you learn.”

Campbell pivoted from that story to talk about his evolution as a coach, as a new approach is one reason why he’s optimistic that Iowa State can close strong against Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia the final three weeks of the season.

After beating top-five teams Oklahoma and TCU in 2017, Iowa State lost three of its final four regular season games. Last season, the Cyclones lost three of the last five. Campbell took some time reflecting on how he’s ran the program, and he came to the uncomfortable conclusion that the same Division III grind that drove him to this point in the profession eventually boomeranged back against his current program. In other words, more hours in the office, tape study and practice reps don’t always yield better results.

“My leadership allowed them to work themselves to the bone,” he said. “By the time we got to the end of the season, there was no gas left in the tank.”

Campbell used this year’s spring quarantine as a rare elongated window of self-reflection after being on “fast forward” for his first nine years as a coach.

“You don’t get that in this profession probably until you get fired,” he said. “That’s the reality of it. I was trying to prove myself at Toledo, trying to prove my legitimacy here at Iowa State. I think a lot gets lost.

“One of the things that I never want to lose is what’s important to me – my family, my wife and my kids.”

Campbell turns 41 at the end of the month, and he’s the rare coach who is young in the profession but wise enough to identify weaknesses and evolve. Campbell overhauled the schedule so his coaches could go home an hour-and-a-half earlier every night. He’s more comfortable ducking out for his own kids’ sporting events. And he’s more in tune with the workloads of the players, as they said mental reps have been used more this season to help stave off wear and tear.

Campbell still arrives at 5:30 a.m. every day. And he’s still quirky enough that his longtime operations ace, Greg “Skip” Brabenec scurried to find him cotton candy-flavored Bubblicious, Campbell’s gameday go-to, after the flavor got discontinued. They’ve since settled for Cotton Candy flavored Big League Chew.

But some things are non-negotiable – including the chopped-up Peanut Butter Cups at the ice cream bar at Friday night meals and the graduate assistant who brings a laminator on the road for Campbell’s hand-written gameplan.

But by backing off the staff and the cancellation of spring practice leading to fresher bodies, Campbell is excited to see how his team reacts. Against Baylor on Nov. 7, Iowa State trailed 24-10 in the third quarter before junior quarterback Brock Purdy and star sophomore tailback Breece Hall led a furious comeback for a 38-31 victory.

“I don’t know if the last couple years our teams have the gas in the tank at that point in the season to make that run late in the game,” Campbell said.

Campbell is amid the finishing kick of trying to refine the same thing with himself and his program as he attempts with his players – maximizing production and talent.

With Iowa State on the precipice of history, the coach Pollard calls “an old-school football coach, with contemporary packaging” may end up blossoming into one of the faces of coaching future.

“He’s the best version of himself and that forces others around him — the coaches and players — to be the best version of themselves,” Golesh said. “In turn, that place has become the best version of itself.”

At Iowa State, Campbell is helping redefine that school’s version of best-ever seemingly every week.

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