ISU head coach Matt Campbell led his team onto the field for their first practice of fall camp Friday in Ames. (Rob Gray photo)
AMES — The defense bowed up.
Iowa State basked in the aftermath of a 21-20 Liberty Bowl win over Memphis in the Tigers’ home stadium.
And in that crowning moment 217 days ago, Cyclones coach Matt Campbell carefully — yet quickly — crafted his locker-room message.
It began with a flicker, but now it’s more of a flood light.
Just like that, a concept, philosophy and Twitter hashtag was born: #WinInTheDark.
But what does it mean?
“Our conversations in the locker room after that bowl game were really direct, really honest — knowing that the challenge moving forward for this football program, that noise, was only going to continue to try to creep in,” Campbell said Friday as his team kicked off fall camp. “Because when you haven’t sustained success for a long period of time in a football program that the ego of all the noise outside of it can start to creep in, whether it’s coaches or players. And I think the one thing I’m really proud of (in) this group, from the day we came back, and we came back in January, they have gone to work. Our mindset has been there was a lot we left out on the table. There’s so much area for us to continue to grow. How do we make up those margins that we still need to fill?”
No distractions. No resting on laurels. Only work — which was out in the open today, but crafted behind closed doors on most others.
Summer proved a key proving ground for the #WinInTheDark maxim.
Guys are required to be most self-accountable in this less-supervised time of the season. They also need to ensure they’re accountable to each other — bridging spring’s learning phase, with weight room growth, and the final developmental stage that’s just beginning with the onset of camp.
“To be honest with you, the summer is such a nice segue from spring, where you’re so hands on, to now, as coaches, you’re a little bit more hands off,” Campbell said. “And the neat thing for us is, I think, you look at our leadership group at each position, from specialist to every position group, our best players are our best leaders at those position groups. And when that happens, then real things can really start to mature and start to come to fruition. You talk about what was huge about getting Kyle Kempt back, having guys like Ray Lima — you guys see a player. I don’t see that. I see the leader. I see the work and I see the hours put in of getting the receivers there, or getting the D-linemen there; making sure guys are where they need to be when they’re supposed to be there. That, to me, is way more powerful than playmaking ability. Yes, you want all those things. I’m not naive to say that, but it’s those other characteristics that (are) huge.”
Leadership at every position? That’s developed as much in meeting rooms and team trips to the pool as it’s honed on the practice field and game days.
Brian Peavy’s shown it. Kempt and Lima, too. David Montgomery, Willie Harvey, Hakeem Butler, Julian Good-Jones … the list is an exhaustive one.
Does it ensure a successful season? Of course not. But it does provide a favorable platform from which to bound toward heightened goals after an 8-5 season that could have been even more of a breakthrough.
So #WinInTheDark is now locked in and tightly-focused. Now it’s time to sharpen it further, and make sure it’s snug around all the edges.
“Honestly, and wherever i read it or saw it, I don’t know, but that was my message, literally, in the locker room after that bowl game. Knowing that win or lose, expectations were going to rise in our football program — and that’s what we set out to do a year ago. But also knowing that, the downfall for us, can be all of a sudden we think we’re something we’re not, or we think we’re better than what we really are. And if you look at those games, there’s a lot of close football games. And to be honest with you, that’s how it’s going to live at Iowa State. That’s how it’s going to be. And we have to understand what allowed us to win some of those games and what really allowed us to fail in some of those games. Learn from it and then become the best version of us. So it was great to hit on that in an emotional moment after that game and it was also great to reaffirm that when those kids came back. They’ve taken to it and I appreciate it, because I really feel like that was our only chance, if we want to have the ability to take another positive step in our football program.”