AMES — “Defense wins.”
Those words stuck out from my phone conversation yesterday with new ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock.
Why? It’s not like it’s a novel pairing (a.k.a. “defense wins championships”), but the 32-year veteran coach said those two words with an intensity that somehow could be sensed over a cellular network.
Heacock knows his stuff. He’s coached defenses under Jim Tressel — then succeeded him as Youngstown State’s head coach for nine seasons. He’s worked under Bo Schembechler as a graduate assistant. Now he’s coming off a successful two-season stint at Toledo, where the Rockets led the MAC in scoring defense last season and boasted the league’s best rushing defense in 2014.
So, yes, “defense wins.”
“I think it’s evident what it takes,” Heacock said during yesterday’s interview, which is reproduced below in Q & A form. “I like challenges where people don’t think you can do it. That’s what’s kind of fun for me. I think it’s a great opportunity. It’s a tremendous conference. You see everything that you could imagine with the conference and with the in-state rival so it’s a great challenge, a tremendous challenge and I love these opportunities.”
Cyclone Fanatic: How did coach (Matt) Campbell approach you about the opportunity at Iowa State? I know, based on talking to him, that family/timing was the most important factor.
Heacock: “I think first and foremost, and I shared this with one of the other guys, when this all broke Matt and I had visited. I was named interim there for a little bit — two days. Jason (Candle) was named head coach and we had a bowl game to play and I was involved in one of the a couple years ago at Kent. And, there were some guys that Matt needed to come here and I’m kind of old school. I just really believed I needed to help, stay there, help those guys have a chance, help Jason to have a chance to win that (bowl) game. When I chose to do that, I told Matt and Jason that I was not going to be involved in any other jobs. I wasn’t going to be over there worried about being here, or I wasn’t going to be doing different things. I was going to be focused on helping those kids and that staff and Toledo win that game and I did that.
“The negative about that is, as I shared with Jason and Matt at different times, is it was the Christmas holiday and trying to get people all in the same sentence and trying to moved forward a little bit in what direction we were going and these kind of things — then it became New Year’s, so it got drawn out a little bit.
“Ultimately for me it was a family call. I have a daughter that just is a junior and a son that’s a senior now and my wife back there, I was not really thrilled about leaving my family to be honest with you. It’s probably the only hesitation I had about coming here. There were great people in both places. I respect both coaches. The guys are both talented young coaches, great opportunities, but my family is the most important thing to me. So early on Monday morning I actually got an early call that we tried to get into the school and my daughter’s going to be able to graduate. She actually was incredible. She’s done enough things in all the different moves that she actually could have graduated this June with my son, but that being said, she’s a volleyball player and she wants to stick out here senior year, so they’ll be here in a year, so that was a huge load off my heart, because I did not want to be away from those guys for a year and a half and i wanted her to finish her high school career where she started and play volleyball and do her thing. All of that being said, it was ultimately a family call and then for me personally where I am in my career and profession and an opportunity in the Big 12 and the challenges that this conference presents are probably second to none. That part of it for me personally, was very exciting: a chance to try to do something and see what we can do.”
CF: Moves — family’s used to those to some degree, right?
Heacock: “My kids, when they were younger, we were blessed. We were at Youngstown State and really quite a while, them growing up, and then we spent two years at Kent and a year at Purdue and then two years back at Toledo, so the last five or six years have been crazy for them. But they’re awesome. They’re the best. They were fired up about it. We are a close family and they were all for it. They struggled with the same things I did — and we were at a pretty cool place, and they knew it. Toledo, we had some success and a lot of fun. It was Ohio and family, a lot of different things, but I’m excited about the opportunity here and they’re fired up.
"We actually got our son applied and he’s been accepted at Toledo and is ready to go to school there and coach Candle has asked him to be a student coach there. Coach Campbell got on him the other day and he wants him to be a student coach here, so we had to get online late (Monday) night and get him applied and see if we can get him admitted here. So he’s going to be recruited to be a coach. I’ve tried to talk him out of it but he won’t listen.”
CF: Coach Campbell, based on my limited exposure to him, seems to be a consensus-building guy — as in, he has a clear vision, but always seeks the input of those around him. Is that an accurate portrayal of his leadership style?
Heacock: “I think you’re probably pretty close. He has an extremely clear vision of what he wants, but he is not, in my mind, a guy that thinks he has all the answers. He is sorting for whatever is best. Knows what he wants, but is willing, certainly, to listen if there’s a way and that’s what I respect about him. That’s what’s been fun for me. We talk a lot about a lot of things other than xs and os, he and I, over the last couple of years. I have a great amount of respect for the fact that he’s willing to listen — now he might not agree with it and we may not do it, but he’s going to listen. And he’s going to sort out how does that get him to the vision that he sees. If it helps to do it faster or more efficiently, then that’s what we’re doing. If not, if he doesn’t see it that way, then that’s the way it goes. So I think that’s what I appreciate about him.”
CF: What’s the most exciting thing about this opportunity at Iowa State — and how did the Cyclones impress you the past two seasons?
Heacock: “I was with Matt when we came out here (in 2014). I saw the environment. I’ve hear nothing but (good things) about the people on this campus. The environment, the surroundings, the caring, the interest, the passion, those things are obviously exciting. I’ve coached a couple places where that is not evident, but here it is. So that part of it and then I think from a defensive standpoint, I think it’s a great opportunity. When we went to Toledo it was a little bit similar.
“Defense wins. No matter — I don’t care what anybody says. I’ve been in this business a long time and defense wins and helps win championships. In this day and age, all you ever hear about is offenses and for me personally, it’s kind of one of those challenges where, you know, statistically defense here hasn’t been up where you want it to be. Oklahoma I believe has been in the tops and they’re playing for the biggest games. I think it’s evident what it takes. I like challenges where people don’t think you can do it. That’s what’s kind of fun for me. I think it’s a great opportunity. It’s a tremendous conference. You see everything that you could imagine with the conference and with the in-state rival so it’s a great challenge, a tremendous challenge and I love this opportunities.”
CF: Do you expect to favor a four-man front for your base defense and how multiple are you in terms of defensive philosophy?
Heacock: “Personnel will determine a little bit of everything. When I first went to Toledo, they were playing the same front (3-4) that these guys put together last year — and a lot of people play this front. We’ll use and incorporate some of what they’ve done. We’ll create our own four-man front and then obviously in some of these games, in teams that we’ve watched, we’re going to have to play a five-man front. We’re going to have to put some bodies up there and put bodies on bodies, but you have to have the flexibility and the personnel to do that. I haven’t been here long enough to know exactly — I haven’t been here long enough, 24 hours I guess, to have studied enough or seen any of our players per se to really know what we’re going to do. We’re going to do whatever allows our guys to play the fastest when that ball’s snapped. That’s what we’re going to play. Whatever that is, coach (Jim) Tressel used always have a saying that, ‘Our team plays fastest when they know what they’re doing.’ That’s what we’re going to do and that’s how we’re going to try to play.”
CF: How much did working under coach Tressel at Youngstown and then becoming the head coach there when he moved on to Ohio State mold you as a coach?
Heacock: “I learned a lot from coach, from managing a team and a lot of things during those early years at Youngstown. We’d won four national championships in a row and you learn a lot of things. I think I was just around really good people. All of my career I’ve been really blessed, from coaching high school in Stuebenville, Ohio. I started out (as a grad assistant) at Toledo. I’ve just been around some really cool people and I’ve had some really neat experiences. We won a state championship. I’ve been to two Rose Bowls. I’ve been to the Army-Navy game. Coached in Ohio State-Michigan. Just, I’ve really been blessed. And those years with coach were special. I think it taught me a little bit because I always wanted to be a head coach — how to do that. Then it was interesting, I got to be the coach where he was at, which was a tough act to follow, but it was a blast. So they were very important years. I think the thing I’ve learned the most is he’s been a tremendous impact on my decision-making. I think he could always take all emotions and those things out of decisions and I think that’s what he was really, really good at. He’s kind of taught me a little bit how to do some of that.”
CF: Any plans/hopes to attend a few volleyball matches back in Ohio during an open week, maybe?
Heacock: “It’s during football season, so I’m hoping that I get to see a couple. We’ll get them on some video. My daughter will give me the play-by-play. Sometimes I think she plays better when I’m not there because she tries too hard, so that might not be all bad, either. … It will work. We’ll make it work and we’re excited about it.”