As A.J. Klein scanned the locker room and prepared to speak, a word entered his mind: “Awesome.”
Iowa State’s former all-Big 12 linebacker and current Carolina Panther relished the platform to share his simple, yet demanding credo with the 2016 Cyclones.
“Attitude, preparation and effort,” Klein told the team before last week’s spring game that played out before more than 15,000 fans at Jack Trice Stadium. “Nobody can take that away from you.”
Klein personified those qualities for four years, helping — along with fellow standout Jake Knott — form ISU’s best linebacker corp in recent memory.
Klein exceeded external expectations and for a time the Cyclones did, too, reaching bowl games three times in former coach Paul Rhoads’s first four seasons before fortunes changed. Klein played a part in ISU’s only bowl win in the past 11 years and helped the Panthers reach their first Super Bowl in February (a 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos). So he’s eminently qualified to provide an attention-grabbing assessment of the Cyclones’ new head coach, Matt Campbell, and as you’d probably guess, it’s glowing.
“Very personable, very excited, very knowledgeable,” said Klein, who was one of about 200 former players who returned for this year’s spring game. “He has this presence about him. He controls a room, controls the conversation and I like that confidence. He knows what he wants to do with this program and I think that’s the most refreshing thing right now. Give the fans and give these kids something to be excited about and working toward a common goal and I think he’s laid out the goal very clearly for this program to become successful, so that’s exciting to see.”
Campbell said bringing back players such as Klein, Seneca Wallace, Sage Rosenfels, Matt Blair, Dennis Gibson, J.J. Moses and many more was integral to his plan of building a program. They’ve done it before. Their stories can and should inspire his first group of “culture changers” as the prepare for the Sept. 3 season opener against Northern Iowa.
“Each (honorary) captain told their story,” Campbell said. “And you’re talking about Super Bowl champions. You’re talking about guys that have won bowl games. Guys that have been co-champions in the Big 12. You’ve got guys that have been the elite of the elite surrounded by so much of the glue of what has built this program. I want our kids to understand the value of you put that jersey on it means something. It’s not just about me going out for me. It’s me going out for this program and for Iowa State football and trying to build a culture here and build a program rather that just a football team.”
That’s why he brought former coach Dan McCarney back to speak to the team earlier this spring. If you can’t get jacked up when Mac’s entered rapid-fire inspirational mode, you probably shouldn’t be playing football. Heck, you might barely have a pulse.
“You’ve got to realize there’s a lot of guys under the Dan McCarney era, we went to a lot of bowl games and we put a lot of hard work into this place,” said Rosenfels, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL and quarterbacked ISU to its first bowl win in 2000. I think a lot of those guys still want to be involved in the program and we talk to each other all the time. I think we do finally have a coach who really wants us to be involved. Wants (us) to come to practice, because he understands the hard work and the dedication that we (brought) to this program to bring it to where it is today.”
The same sentiment drives players from the Rhoads era, even though that ended on a downbeat.
That’s why Klein was eager to be an honorary coach. It brought back memories and made him smile a bit. Guys like Pierre Aka and Mitchell Meyers, they were former teammates; on the way in as he was on the way out. Bonds exist and can be maintained — more links to the chain that Campbell’s trying to expand, stretching it as far back as it can go.
“That was kind of weird, me stepping in front of a group of young men that I was with, that I was teammates with,” Klein said. “I hope that they see with hard work and dedication and doing the right things, that will pay off. I take a lot of pride in working hard and trying to do things the right way and being a positive example for this university and not only for myself, but my family and now for the Carolina Panthers. So I hope that they see that doing the right things and being that type of person, they can achieve any goal that they want — in life or football.”