AMES — Erica Campbell’s phone rang.
Her husband, Matt, was on the other end.
The Toledo Rockets’ head coach had just lost 37-30 to Iowa State on Oct. 11, 2014 at Jack Trice Stadium and he wanted to talk.
The subject of the discussion, however, surprised his high school sweetheart. Campbell wanted to talk about tailgates. Game day atmosphere. The vibe that permeated every parking lot as fans prepared to cheer on an ISU team that stood 1-5 during his pregame tour, and 2-6 when he surveyed the scene later.
“I go out to that parking lot and nobody had left,” said Matt Campbell, who was introduced Monday as the Cyclones’ new football coach. “They’re still having a great time and I just said, ‘This place is really neat.’”
Now he’s a part of it.
Campbell spoke broadly, freely and convincingly Monday about his vision, the appeal of the job, and how much he’ll lean on the term “process” to describe his well-plotted path.
He said we reporters will be annoyed by how much he brings that word up, but it aptly applies to his future plans — as well as how he ended up in Ames in the first place.
“The support, the energy, the fans,” Campbell said. “I couldn’t have been more impressed with what was going on. Then the game started and every seat was full. The energy, the spirit, the culture that sat around this program was incredible. As the game ended we left and I got on the bus and before we got on the bus. … I made that phone call.”
Campbell went 35-15 as a head coach at Toledo. He thought he might never leave — and he looks before he leaps.
“He’s a pretty good judge of things, so I knew if he felt that way, it was a feeling, it was just something that pulled him really strongly,” Erica Campbell said of the call and what it portended. “And when all this started happening, I don’t know, it kind of felt like fate.”
ISU simply felt right, just as it had to trusted friend and assistant Lou Ayeni, who joined the Cyclones’ staff in January of 2014.
It’s Ayeni’s departure that made Campbell want to embark on the fact-finding foray between the smoke-belching grills and good-natured souls who populated the Jack Trice Stadium tailgate lots on that fateful October day.
“He wanted to know why,” Ayeni said.
And eventually it made him yearn to reunite. Even while guiding the Rockets into the top 25 this season and their current 9-2 mark, it was hard to shake the sights and sounds that formed that long-sought “why.” Ayeni, Campbell said, is his first hire. He also happens to go by the nickname “Uncle Lou” when he’s around the Campbell’s three young children.
“It’s just one of those things where you meet someone for the first time and you feel like you’ve known them for a long time,” Ayeni said of the bond he’s forged with Campbell. “That’s how it was when we first met at Toledo about six years ago and it’s just grown and grown until we’re like two brothers, you know? It’s crazy for me to see him up there now, here, and us back together. It’s exciting.”
Add another layer of fate in the person of ISU star running back Mike Warren. He committed to Toledo before Ayeni left for Ames. He then followed. Now he’s reunited with both Campbell and Ayeni — and smiled as the story of the tailgate stroll circulated.
"Definitely the guy from two years ago," said Warren, who rushed for 1,339 yards and five touchdowns in his redshirt freshman season. "It fits everything. He hasn’t changed one bit."
He’s ambitious. Driven. Calculating. "Selfless," Warren added.
Campbell said he enjoys and thrives on navigating the recruiting trail. He’ll try to assemble the remainder of his staff at breakneck speed. He’ll inherit a Cyclone team that went 3-9, but showed signs that success may be just around the bend.
“Chaos,” Campbell said in describing what he expects the next few weeks to be like. “That’s probably the best answer. It’s going to be chaos. Not a lot of sleep. We’re going to hit the ground running as fast as we can go because I don’t want to miss an opportunity to go out and go in the homes and sell what we have to offer. So we’re going to get it done. It’s about work ethic and our coaches are going to work as hard or harder than anybody in the country, so we’re going to get it done.”
How the deal got done that ended in Monday’s news conference falls under the rubric of “fate,” as well.
Campbell had told Cyclones athletics director Jamie Pollard he absolutely would not meet to talk about the ISU job if Toledo won Friday’s game against Western Michigan, thus propelling the Rockets into the MAC title game. The Broncos then pulled off the upset, making it possible for the duo to meet the next day.
“Fate came into play because he was available to meet on Saturday morning and we didn’t give up,” Pollard said. “We were ready. We had (search firm) Parker and Associates strategizing. We were in Detroit. We were there. We were in position A and ready to meet with him if he was able to meet.”
So they met. Pollard had heard the tale of Campbell’s impromptu tailgate tour from Ayeni. He hoped Campbell would share it in person, and he did.
“When he told that story, I’m not going to use the word, well, I’ll use the word surreal, but it was just like, wow, it’s really happening,” Pollard said. “One of the things that we did on Sunday morning is I texted Erica and Matt and said, ‘Congratulations. Yesterday really happened right?’ Because that’s how it felt, I think, for both of us that these two ships out in the ocean found each other that were supposed to find each other.”
Now they’re sharing the rudder. All because of a chain of events too improbable to concoct, too perfect in their moving parts.
“This is the biggest move that we’ve ever made and to be honest I always thought that at this point I would be the one crying, kind of holding back and not wanting to leave,” said Erica Campbell, who is expecting the couple’s fourth child in February. “But when we sat in the room with Jamie, it was, it really happened that way. He looked at us, Matt kind of looked at me and said, ‘What do you think?’ And I just said, ‘I’ve heard everything I need to hear. I feel like this is meant to be.’ It just felt right. We’re excited. We’re really, genuinely excited to be here. It feels kind of like home to us. We’re from a small blue-collar town and I feel like we fit right in.”