AMES — Football can take you places.
Both physically and professionally — and sometimes the lines blur between the two.
Case in point: Iowa State’s first-year quarterbacks coach, Joel Gordon.
One year into coaching at his alma mater, Shepherd (W.V.) University, a chance to revive his playing career surfaced.
It just so happened to be based in Switzerland — and his window of opportunity just so happened to fit within his coaching calendar.
So Gordon went from quarterbacks coach for the Rams to star quarterback of the Winterthur Warriors.
It was a whirlwind moment — and foreshadowed an array of twists and turns that helped chart Gordon’s highly-adaptive ascent through the coaching ranks.
“I was good with being retired and just out of the blue, had an opportunity,” said Gordon, who’s been leading the Cyclones’ quarterbacks room for about three weeks after serving on Coach Matt Campbell’s staff two seasons as an offensive analyst. “There was a player that had played in the conference that I played in at Shepherd and had went to Europe and never left and they happened to be looking for a quarterback. It was literally a Monday morning. We had our spring game that afternoon because it had gotten rained out on Saturday and I thought it was a joke, but it turned out to be a real deal.”
So was Gordon, who boarded a plane, settled into his summer in Switzerland more than a decade ago and promptly won a “Swiss Bowl.”
“I was fortunate enough to have a head coach, you know, coach (Monte) Cater — I was gonna leave in two weeks and be back for training camp and he let me do it,” said Gordon, who’d previously played in Arena 2 Football. “I hadn’t played for three or four years so I was in pretty bad shape and it was a pretty quick turnaround. I was rusty but we got it together and ended up winning the national championship in Switzerland for the first time ever and went back a second year and we ended up getting beat in the finals, so that was a bittersweet ending.”
That ending tracked alongside his nascent coaching career.
Gordon remained at Shepherd until 2007, then became the offensive coordinator at Emory & Henry (Va.). He returned to Shepherd in 2011, moved on to Ferrum (Va.) as offensive coordinator in 2016, then snagged a spot on Campbell’s staff.
Three weeks in and another adaptation is in full swing.
“It’s completely different from the coaching standpoint,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t really coaching anybody (the past two seasons). I was listening to what everybody was saying and going out there and watching, for the most part. But it’s been two seasons since I’ve been out there coaching and it’s been really fun. Knocking some rust off every day, trying to get back in the swing of it, but it’s been great. There’s a great offensive staff that I get a chance to be around every day. Coach (Jim) Hofher laid a great foundation with all the quarterbacks that were already here in this program and I’m fortunate for that and just trying to go out there and pick up where he left off and kind of move it forward.”
Gordon enjoys the luxury of returning two quarterbacks with starting experience.
Kyle Kempt — who went 5-3 as a surprise starter last season — was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA and currently sits at the No. 1 spot.
Zeb Noland, who said he gave Kempt a “big hug” when he learned he’d be returning, also boasts starting experience and is expected to make a strong push for the top spot, as well.
But don’t call it a battle. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.
“We don’t even think about that,” said Noland, who threw for 533 yards, two touchdowns and an interception last season. “We just go out to practice and try to complete as many balls as we can and do everything that coach asks. That’s really all we go out there to do. The ‘battle’ is the last thing on our minds. That’s irrelevant to Kyle and me.”
It’s irrelevant to Gordon, too. Regardless of which quarterback attains the starting role, both of them — as well as dynamic newcomer Re-al Mitchell and rapidly recovering Devon Moore — will improve their respective games as the competition intensifies.
“To have those two guys who have been out there and done it is way better than having one and way better than having none,” Gordon said. “It gives us a great starting point right now and obviously halfway in, I think those guys are really growing.”
So is Gordon, whose ability to flourish in a variety of roles augments Campbell’s all-hands-on-deck approach to formulating and implementing offensive schemes.
“It’s been great,” said Kempt, who threw 15 touchdowns to just three interceptions last season. “We’ve had our relationship the past two years when he was in quality control so it’s been a smooth transition. He’s done a great job and we’re all really happy to have him on board.”
Another plus: It wasn’t that long ago that Gordon was still playing. Whether in Switzerland, or Ames, Iowa, football is football. Plays are tweaked, venues change, but the fundamentals are etched in stone.
“Having played, even though it was a while ago, there’s still a lot of recall,” Gordon said. “The plays haven’t changed tremendously since that time. There are some changes for sure in how things get done, but curl flat is still curl flat. There’s a lot of plays that are still the same and being able to use that experience to teach those guys and help these guys through it, I think, is huge to be able to use that.”