“Who is this guy? Does Jamie Pollard think he’s being clever?”
I remember it vividly.
That was the first text message from my brother after the announcement that Paul Rhoads would be the next head coach of the Iowa State football team. That’s the response the hire incited from a close follower of the program. Few remembered the name, many had no idea who he was; but how odd was it that Jamie Pollard replaces the Iowa State head coach that bolted for Auburn with the defensive coordinator from the staff that was recently fired at…Auburn?
We didn’t really know what to make of this guy. He had been on staff in Ames before when Dan McCarney was building but he left for Pitt before it could all come to fruition. He was an Iowan but he spoke with an almost southern drawl and a booming yet rough voice that was filled with passion.
He had a clear passion for Iowa State, passion for the game of football, and passion for his family as we were introduced to his emotions at his opening press conference. He spoke of bringing pride back to Cyclone Nation. He spoke of rolling up sleeves and getting to work, together. He spoke of hitting teams when they were getting off the bus. And, he spoke of his mom who was sick with Alzheimer’s and couldn’t be in attendance through choked up words and tears being held back.
I think it was then that many of us knew that he was at the very least, one of us, one that we could relate to, one that knew what he was getting into, and one that was in it for the long haul after we had all been jilted by the previous guy.
The early success
We didn’t really know what we had for a football team when he arrived, but his first season was a wild success. A 7-6 season with a bowl victory doesn’t register with most fan bases like it does with us and it did after what we had been through. He had the benefit of the old Big 12 schedule and the “light rotation”, so to speak. Back when Baylor was not Baylor and Texas was Texas.
He opened with a convincing win over North Dakota State, a bludgeoning by Iowa and rebound wins over Kent State and Army. Consecutive close and gut-wrenching losses to the Kansas schools left the Cyclones at 3-3 and a home date with Baylor. A game that would be won, but with a price as Austen Arnaud and Alexander Robinson were injured and forced to sit out the game the following week.
A game at Nebraska where the Cyclones had not won since 1977. But this was when the story really began. Overwhelmed and outnumbered against a Nebraska team that didn’t live up to their expectations, Iowa State found a way to win. Eight turnovers, a fake punt, and a bomb to Jake Williams were enough to win the day; and a legend was born.
John Walters described it best as the win was sealed, “Eric, 70,000 people are going to walk out of here today talking about how ugly that game was. But other than the first time I saw my wife that was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
We were allowed to again see the side of Paul Rhoads that we could all relate to, the part of him that we truly fell in love with. The pride he had in his players and the passion he had for his school. It was a locker room celebration that, honestly, may have started the trend of releasing locker room videos. Raw emotion oozed as he spoke to his team, and we all felt like we were building something special.
Iowa State went on to the Insight Bowl that season and a victory over Minnesota where Cyclone fans must’ve outnumbered Gophers on the streets five to one for the majority of the week. Guys like Jesse Smith, Christopher Lyle, Nate Frere, and Austen Arnaud had reinvigorated the program more than they’ll ever know.
In a seven year span Paul Rhoads has given many impassioned speeches and memorable quotes, but one was given after that bowl victory over Minnesota that has always resonated with me more than others.
“I’m not just a football coach. I’m not just here to win games and neither is anyone else (in our program). I could not be prouder of who you are and what we are becoming together…(doing things the right way every day) is our culture, that’s what makes us Cyclones.”
The 2010 season did not offer up a bowl game for the Cyclone faithful but it did offer up a win at Texas which was the first win over the Longhorns football team in school history, a shootout win over Texas Tech in Ames, and a glimmer of despair as the gambling man failed to convert a fake extra point try in overtime to upend Nebraska.
2010 was a 5-7 season that came up short of a bowl game against a daunting schedule but it was the year where Paul Rhoads cemented himself as a no holds barred coach to grind out a victory in any way possible. Fake punts, fake field goals, onside kicks, or whatever else it took; any small opening for exploitation had to be considered and executed.
It was also the season where two young linebackers in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein began to emerge as one of the best tandems in the league that Rhoads could build his defense and program around.
Unprecedented wins and missed opportunities
The national landscape was changing with conference realignment and the Cyclones were building toward the 2011 season, if only they could find a quarterback to fill the void on offense and compliment what should be a strong defense.
What resulted was a season with three of the most memorable wins I can recall as a Cyclone football fan. Not just for the teams they beat but for the way that they unfolded.
After squeaking by UNI in week one, Iowa State played Iowa to a triple overtime thrilling 44-41 win to give Rhoads his first victory over his in-state rival, en route to starting 3-0 on the season. The conference season opened with a bang as the Cyclones hosted Texas and looked to make an impression on the league race. But the offense sputtered to start and Iowa State was victim of a missed opportunity.
The next three games were losses against tough opponents and all of the sudden Iowa State was 3-4 with a looming trip to 20th ranked Texas Tech. What we didn’t see coming was a 41-7 thrashing of the Red Raiders. A win that is not only the largest on the road over a ranked team in school history, but also the largest no matter the venue. There have been just 19 occasions in the history of the program where ISU won a road game by any team by 30 or more points and the vast majority of those are against teams like Cornell, Drake, Eldora, Grinnell, William Penn, and Washington (Mo.) and 15 of the 19 happened before 1960.
Of course, those wins were just appetizers for the main course to the epic, unparalleled win that shocked the world of college football and played a role in developing the playoff system that we have today. It was a 37-31 victory in double overtime over the #2 team in the country that was nationally televised for all to see. Iowa State was previously 0-57-2 against teams in the top six of the AP Poll. It was capped with another memorable speech and I wrote of my own raw emotions from the win and what it meant to me.
But the Cyclones finished the season with tough losses at No. 9 Oklahoma and at No. 11 Kansas State. Nothing so shocking as to use those in facts about the program slipping off the tracks, but, an abysmal outing in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers was a sour defeat for Cyclones
Amidst all of that was Tom Herman leaving as Iowa State’s offensive coordinator to join Urban Meyer at Ohio State, but, he attempted to fill a duel role leading up to the bowl game. Serving two masters is never a good idea, but was it a factor in the paltry offensive showing in New York?
2011 was ultimately a success, but they had a championship defense and missed opportunities that left them short of their goals.
Tom Herman leaving was the first domino to one of Rhoads’ decisions that began the demise of what he had built in his first three seasons; the promotion of Courtney Messingham.
That alone probably wasn’t the beginning of the end, but offensive shortcomings have been the majority of the downfall during the Rhoads tenure. I personally believe that two of the largest contributors to that struggle were the aforementioned offensive coordinator and the offensive line strategy.
From my vantage point, early on in the Rhoads tenure they tried to build the offense with smaller, athletic linemen that could keep pace with the up-tempo pace that Iowa State liked to try and exploit. It was either that, or general offensive line development because since Austen Arnaud and Alexander Robinson left and before we all met Mike Warren, the running game was a struggle.
Nevertheless, the 2012 season was still full of hope because much of the strength of the 2011 offense was returning and the defense was still looking primed for a strong showing. The Cyclones again started out 3-0 and were looking to enter conference play with a bang at home against a solid Texas Tech but the offense again sputtered in a home opening loss.
But, this time Iowa State responded with another “Paul Rhoads Special” and his third win on the road over a ranked team at TCU. If you’re counting, there are just six of those in the history of Iowa State football and Paul Rhoads owns half of them. But the next game was a home date with Kansas State and we all know how those have turned out in recent history. The Wildcats were really good but Iowa State had chances that they couldn’t capitalize on.
After another loss in Stillwater the following week, ISU hosted Baylor in what is now known as the “Jake Knott Game” (or, the “Steele Jantz Five Touchdown Game”, or, the “Jarvis West Three Touchdown Catch Game When He Entered the Game With Zero Career Touchdowns Game”).
After that, the Cyclones couldn’t make much more hay in the season. They walloped Kansas on the road and had a chance to top West Virginia, but they fell short. And, they followed it all up with a bad showing against Tulsa in a rematch game.
The downward slide
That 2012 team had high hopes from fans and from Rhoads; championship level hopes. It never came to fruition and more traction was lost.
I’m far from an insider, but from what I have gathered as the season slipped away and disappointing losses piled up, Rhoads pushed harder. It was all he knew. Work hard. When things go wrong; work harder. When more things continue to go wrong; keep pushing and working harder.
This ultimately ground the team down as the trend continued through the first couple of months of the 2013 season. That was a team that was lacking talent again on offense but pieced together ways to stay in games and lose many of their close contests. They fought hard but the wins were even fewer than in years past.
In the end, 2013 was a 3-9 season that ended with replacing Courtney Messingham with Mark Mangino. Then and now I look at the Mangino hire with admiration for Coach Rhoads. He brought in a guy that had an esteemed resume, gave him full control, and put his job on the line with the hire.
Though we all know how it turned out.
Rhoads’ last campaign
This season, Rhoads was again bitten by close losses but in many instances he may have been his own worst enemy in turning those close losses into emphatic wins.
There were no offensive adjustments made against Iowa, which resulted in a lousy second half, simple adjustments, such as hitting on quick slants against the pressure. They weren’t crisp at Toledo but did enough to have a game winning field goal lined up (or even keep pressing to go for the touchdown), but the ball wasn’t centered for the kicker (an easy coaching decision).
Against TCU, trailing by 10 late in the third quarter, Rhoads elected to punt from the TCU 45 on 4th & 3 when ISU’s defense had rarely provided stops on the night—the Frogs had already amassed four touchdowns and a field goal in their first seven possessions. There was the gaffe at the end against Oklahoma State and another failed second half for the offense. And then, there was Manhattan.
Typically, Iowa State football teams are fighting uphill battles against schools with more tradition and more talent that you just can’t make those mistakes. There were just too many costly coaching errors that gave away chances to win or forfeited a chance to make things interesting against TCU.
I’ve developed a way of thinking over the years. Not one that is meant as, “be careful what you wish for” but perhaps something similar. I don’t think you should fire a coach as a punishment, I think you should fire a coach to make your program better.
Rhoads definitely deserved to be fired for how the last three and a half years unfolded. However, he also allowed the argument that the program can be improved with a new coach to enter everyone’s minds because of big mistakes in 2015.
The picture of Rhoads walking outside next to his wife after hearing the news on Sunday has been going around and around with every article that gets written about him now. It’s a picture of a man that gave everything he had to a program and did a whole lot of good, but like many before him, he couldn’t capitalize on his small window of opportunity to do things that we’ve never seen in Ames before.
He was the man that we needed when he arrived.
I won’t remember Paul Rhoads with that picture though. I’ll remember his sideline celebrations, his relationships with his players on display in locker room videos, his honesty, and his brunt emotions that were always on display.
We often get stuck trying to label a coaching tenure as a success or as a failure. As if it can only fit into one of those neat little boxes. It often appears to me that a “success” is only labeled for coaching tenures that end before they go bad because the coach skips town or hall of famers that coach until they retire. That is an unfair barometer to judge his tenure and to judge his hiring by Jamie Pollard.
Looking back now, his final resume won’t look much different than his predecessors like Jim Walden or Dan McCarney but he made his own impact that will always resonate with me off the field and his first four seasons were filled with unparalleled successes. It didn’t last, it didn’t grow further but the program made strides as a whole because of his early success on the field. Paul Rhoads helped to advance the football program as a whole forward.
Under his watch the indoor facility was revamped and needs were met for football offices, meeting rooms, and weight lifting facility. Without him, would the south endzone be bowled in by now?
There have been 29 games in the history of Cyclone home games that has brought in 54,000 or more fans, 20 of them happened with Paul Rhoads roaming the sideline as the head coach. The modern era of college football and Cyclone fandom has something to do with that but a large portion of that have more to do with Paul Rhoads.
His excitement was contagious and he piled up wins that were unexpected. He ran trick plays with confidence, beat teams he shouldn’t have, and did things that Iowa State has rarely done before. For a great deal of his tenure, we felt like we had a chance to jump up and win any game.
It just wasn’t working out anymore. It’s sad because everybody wanted it to work out so badly and it would have been in the best interests of all involved.
I’m reminded again of a quote from Dan McCarney at his resignation press conference that he re-stated and attributed to Bobby Kennedy that has always stuck with me because of how it ties to the Cyclone football program.
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Paul Rhoads actually accomplished some of those dreams that previously “never were”, just not enough of them.