AMES — Paul Rhoads began this summer’s tailgate tour with these frank words:
“When we got here (in 2009), we created the culture that we wanted quite quickly and the result of that was a bowl championship,” Rhoads said in May in Ottumwa. “For this reason and that reason, we hiccuped and we dropped with that and we’ve worked hardest in this offseason to recreate that. And I think through the kids, through the staff and so forth, we’ve done an excellent job of doing that. They feel that and you can feel that around them right now. That’s one piece.”
It’s no secret that cracks and fissure formed in the Cyclones’ identity as the losses piled up during a 2-10 trudge through a painful 2014 season.
Some were barely discernible — a broken spirit here, a lackadaisical approach there, sprinkled in among plenty of still “all in” players.
But a few breaks from the ranks led to the slow erosion of an ISU football culture marked by a blue collar work ethic, a collective sense of confidence and accountability in all it’s forms, both personal and comprehensive.
So call it renew, recreate or rebuild. The descriptive word or words don’t matter.
Winning begins with a culture shored up by those former hallmark underpinnings. The lack of them last season, led to retrospective comments such as these from second team (AP) all-Big 12 cornerback Nigel Tribune:
“I think a lot of the times last year, we came into the games knowing we were going to lose,” Tribune said Thursday night. “That was just the culture we had last year. I think the mentality of the whole team has just turned around.”
That transformation had to occur, otherwise another long season would be assured, not just a possibility.
Now new and talented JUCO players talk about “shocking the Big 12.” The top trio of inexperienced running backs — with a total of 24 career carries between them — grind through drills with “a chip on their shoulder.” So it’s clear players and coaches alike take this culture reboot extremely seriously.
“We just want to show that we’re all here right now,” said sophomore tailback Tyler Brown, who owns all of those 24 Division I carries among ISU ball carriers. “We’re ready to go.”
That’s as a unit. Not merely a position group. Several players have pointed to the prevalence of “cliques” on last year’s team. Now they’re making it a point of emphasis to work and play together, across segments of the team, on and off the field.
“I’ve been around some pretty good offenses, some pretty good running games and there was just cohesiveness with the O-line and the running backs,” Cyclones running backs coach Lou Ayeni said. “They kind of thought with one brain. The big thing for me, is I want to have the same cohesiveness.”
They watch more film together than they did before. They hang out at times. That “one brain” concept seems to be taking hold.
“A lot more speaking’s going on, really, on what we want done for each other,” Brown said of the exchanges with the O-line. “Communication is definitely what’s changed around here, so we know how to get on the same page as an offense.”
Rhoads likes what he sees — and hears — during this revamp, too.
One word has changed (recreate has become rebuild) as he describes the process, but the message remains on point.
“I haven’t called it starting over or building our culture, I’ve called it a rebuild because our culture was exceptionally strong in 2009 and it was put together fast and it was a part of three bowl games in four years,” Rhoads said. “The hiccups that we’ve experienced and the loss in the strength of that culture, as I look back, it’s easy to talk about and identify now. It’s not always that way while you’re going through it. But we have enough Brock Dagels and Sam Richardsons and Oni Omoiles and so forth that were a part of that and those are the guys that have really elevated. When we cleaned up the football team the second time (spring dismissals), that culture was quite present again. We’ve just been rebuilding it since then.”
As for anyone taking the field this season doubting a victory can be attained …
“I think we’re already changed that," Rhoads said. "I think the attitude is far beyond that with what we’ve promoted with our culture and what the kids have put together by definition and by action. Their focus is squarely on practice days right now and we’ll certainly get to UNI preparation and game week fast enough, but there’s nobody on this football team that has anything remotely close to that kind of attitude right now. I’ve stated before — and I’ve openly stated — our football team deteriorated last year and it was in the form of our culture. It was in the form of things happening behind the scenes and things happening in the locker room. They, as kids, have done a great job to clean that up and certainly I’ve been there to enforce it.”