GRAY: No spring game, no problem (because we know what’s coming)

Dec 30, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell before the game against the Memphis Tigers in the 2017 Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — As we all know, there won’t be an Iowa State spring game this Saturday because of yet another spate of inclement weather.

So there’s nothing to preview in a real sense, which is why I’ll start this piece by looking back to Cyclones coach Matt Campbell’s first spring game — and specifically, the impression he made on former ISU and current NFL star linebacker A.J. Klein, whose words then seem prophetic now.

 “He has this presence about him,” Klein said of Campbell in 2016. “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.”

 Isn’t it, though?

No, we won’t see David Montgomery surging through holes this weekend, or Kyle Kempt and Zeb Noland slinging passes downfield. We won’t see JaQuan Bailey spinning and stunting into numerous “touch sacks,” or Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne making pinpoint plays on the ball.

And that’s fine (though less than ideal from a fan’s perspective), because we know what’s coming in the fall.

It’s built each spring and seeps into summer, that vital time spent simultaneously in the sunshine and in the dark, “when no one else is watching.”

It’s training redefined by a culture that’s now established. And now the players are setting the expectations. Coaches merely set the stage so they can rise, meet and possibly exceed them.

“Today was our 12th practice,” Campbell said Monday night. “I don’t think we’ve wasted a practice yet. I think our kids have really come out with great intent. The one thing I really like about our football team is they like football. They like to get better and I know that sounds very bland, but the reality of it is, in this sport, in this time of year, when there’s not fans in the stands when people aren’t out here, that’s really hard to wake up every day and compete. We shrunk our spring schedule from five weeks to four weeks and of those four weeks, you’re practicing four days a week and three of those practices are really intense, where you get in the fall, you have one day that’s maybe like that. And it takes a really mature group to come out and understand why and then have the ability to come out and get better every day. I really think this group has done that so far and I just got done saying that to our group today. I think it’s hard. We scrimmaged Saturday, bounced back, had a really hard practice today and our kids did a great job. That’s where I think we’re at and again, I think that was set in stone by that senior class last year.”

Then the underclassmen “moved the rock” — and continue to do so, as fresh-faced leaders pop up and demand more from themselves and their teammates. It’s a never-ending cycle that breeds, but doesn’t guarantee success. Sure, the Cyclones went 8-5 last season and notched their first bowl win since 2009. 

That means nothing now as the process gathers progress and spring snowstorms dissolve into bright, sunny days.

“I date that back to January, February and March leading up to that,” Campbell said of spring-to-summer advances made last season. “It was great to have some seniors but it was great to have some guys like David (Montgomery) and Marcel (Spears Jr.) and (Brian) Peavy and some of those guys who were as much of an anchor as that as some of those seniors. So I think their knowledge of what needs to get done and when it needs to get down and how you prepare for moments like this is big, but we’re still — I’ll continue to say this — our margin for error is always gonna be very small. So our ability to do the little things and be a really good practice team and have the ability to not turn the ball over and win situational football, that’s going to be our niche to be really successful here and when do you do it? You do it now. So now we can identify it and leave spring practice and say, ‘Hey, these are our best players. How do we make sure as we go into fall camp we’re building offense and defenses and special teams around these guys that have shown that they can consistently do it in January, February, March, April, May. So, interesting.”

Yeah, it is. Looking back, it’s happily predictable, too, that expectations have shifted from external demands to internal drives — to cries of “never settle” and now tangible goals of chasing championships, not mere improvement.

“It’s getting your guys to believe that you can do it,” defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “What do you want to become? And, again, I don’t ever spend time on the what stuff, like the xs and os and the three-man front and the four-man front. To me, that’s null and void. It’s all about how you do things. and I think that’s true as a coach — how you practice, how you set your meetings — and I think it wears off on players. I think they learn the how part is the most important and you can show it. There’s videotape evidence of us running to a football, swarming the ball, tackling guys for loss, getting turnovers on the two-yard line going in. All those things are hows. Those aren’t xs and os. Those are how you do stuff … You can show it to them on film. It works. It works.”

 And on it goes. With or without a spring game. Bring on the summer/fall and let the chips fall where they may.

So I’ll end this piece with Campbell’s words delivered that spring day in 2016 that ended with a game.  His words seem pretty darn prophetic now, too.

“I want our kids to understand the value of you put that jersey on it means something,” Campbell said three springs back. “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 than just a football team.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.