AMES — The national attention spikes. The accolades pile up. Matt Campbell’s name is spoken adoringly across the far-reaching, but fickle college football media landscape, from ESPN and FOX, to CBS and Sports Illustrated.
The consistent drumbeat: Campbell’s made Iowa State football “relevant again.”
The second-year ISU coach is the reason the Cyclones are now the talk of college football.
He, it seems, can suddenly do no wrong.
That’s flattering, of course. True to an extent and overwhelmingly positive, too. But it’s also dangerous. A cult of personality can emerge that threatens to overshadow the humility and discipline-based “process” the 37-year-old Campbell cultivates and harvests from on a daily basis. The process that rewards steadfast devotion by “loving you back” can’t function if individual glory rises above the all-for-one struggle that unfolds moment to moment, from the practice field to the Big 12’s most hallowed venues.
In short: Success never boils down to “you” or “him.” It’s always about “us.” And ego is the biggest obstacle to keeping that collective mentality from devolving into a mishmash of suddenly unlinked puzzle pieces.
“When you start to have success and good things start to happen and people start to get recognition for that — 18 to 22-year-olds, and it’s even hard with coaching staffs and everybody involved, that is it really about the team? Is it really about me — can I handle when positive things happen?” said Campbell, whose 14th-ranked Cyclones (6-2, 4-1) take on West Virginia (5-3, 3-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown. “And it is — it is ego. Ego is the enemy. And ego is one of those thing that, it can crush everything that you’ve worked hard to to get. Thats why I think you always have to constantly be educating and talking about (that) with your team. It’s not just about football. It’s got to be about life and everything in general. So we work really hard at that and try to constantly bring those value systems into play.”
That’s detail. That’s accountability. That’s the “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine” promise permeating the Bergstrom Football Complex.
*** How else to explain ISU’s astonishing turnaround in turnover margin?
The Cyclones stand plus-10 through eight games — good for eighth nationally, after collecting just 12 takeaways total in each of the past two 12-games seasons.
*** How else to explain ISU’s wide-ranging success in the passing game?
Four Cyclones boast four or more touchdown catches, a feat just one other team in the FBS can match.
*** How else to explain the defense allowing just one touchdown drive spanning more than seven yards in the last 12 quarters?
It’s not magic. It’s discipline and dedication to craft that began building last winter, spilled into the spring and summer, and continues to swell now.
“I feel like we’re the same from the beginning,” said linebacker Marcel Spears Jr., who earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors after sealing last Saturday’s 14-7 win over No. 10 TCU. “We went into this season pretty strong and I feel like we’re just continuing to get better.”
Explosive West Virginia quarterback Will Grier — coming off an unprecedented four interception game — will test ISU’s secondary and Justin Crawford will challenge the front seven in the ground game, but this defense has stared down each conference crucible so far and emerged with a good, if not great performance.
And it’s a shaky effort in the week two 44-41 overtime loss to Iowa at home that helped propel the defense to loftier heights. The Cyclones took stock, dug deep, and found answers that continue to come.
“I think (that’s) when we took the turn,” linebacker Joel Lanning said, “I just remember sitting in the meeting room at the hotel and (defensive coordinator Jon) Heacock was fired up at seven o’clock in the morning right before we were heading to Akron to play them. We had a great week of preparation and since then we’ve been rolling.”
The offense has mostly rolled, too — despite a scoreless second half against TCU.
Quarterback Kyle Kempt has tossed nine touchdowns to just two interceptions since replacing Jacob Park.
He’s played his best ball on the road, throwing three touchdown passes in each of the wins at Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
But has he been the key — along with bruising tailback David Montgomery‘s amazing knack for YAC — to ISU’s relative success on offense?
His answer would please Campbell.
“I’m just in the right place and making the right throws and the right reads,” Kempt said. “It’s just good to know we have a really cohesive team.”
It’s not even an “us” vs. “them” equation. It’s truly, simply “us,” and never “me.”
Campbell’s guarded against that since day one, regardless of any accolades he or anyone else might receive. Ego is the Enemy — which happens to be the title of a 2016 book by Ryan Holiday. High praise is nice, but deflected and shared.
“I’ve known him since he’s been a college student and he’s literally the exact same guy every single day since the day that I met him,” Cyclones offensive coordinator Tom Manning said of Campbell. “I think in this profession that’s maybe rare sometimes. I think it takes a really unique and special guy to do it and he’s just a guy of character. He’s fun to be around and I don’t know if there’s anybody that works harder than he does and I think if you’re a player and you’re a coach you see the way that he works and I think certainly from your end it’s, ‘Man, if he’s working like that, what do I got to be doing?’”
Answer: Your part. Nothing more, nothing less.
“When you have to go up the rough side of the mountain sometimes like we have and like our kids have, I think humility — you learn that along the way,” Campbell said. “You learn it through having to face the tough times and then understanding that when positive things happen, why they’re happening and not just because they happen or because of one person or because of anything other than really that process and that work ethic that’s given you a chance to be successful. That humility piece is something that, again, our society, we’re not real good at. That’s one of the things that I think if we can instill that and that’s part of our foundation, then you’re going to allow yourself to continue to have success.”