Sep 2, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Mike Warren (2) runs for a first down against the Northern Iowa Panthers at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Panthers 42-24. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Mike Warren smiled shortly after Matt Campbell became Iowa State’s head football coach.
Not because he didn’t deeply respect and appreciate former ISU coach Paul Rhoads.
And not because he’d been assured of expanding upon his well-earned status as a 1,000-yard rusher and rising freshman All-American star.
No, Warren knew that Campbell would bring a certain sensibility to the Cyclones, one rooted in both humility and ambition — a standard that would both upset, and uplift, the existing order in the Big 12.
“That selfless attitude that he has,’” Warren said upon learning of the coaching change in late 2015, “it’s going to draw people to him.”
Almost three seasons later, Campbell’s demanding, yet all-inclusive approach has vaulted ISU (6-3, 5-2 Big 12) to No. 16. in the College Football Playoff standings in advance of a titanic tilt Saturday at 7 p.m. against the burnt orange and white of traditional power (and No. 15) Texas in Austin.
Warren remains a forerunner for the program, even though he has no carries in 2018.
“I’ve gotten a chance to see Mike on both ends of it,” ISU receivers coach Bryan Gasser said. “When we first got here, he was kind of the guy and now the one thing that you can say is the way he’s practiced hasn’t changed. I think that says and speaks a lot to the younger guys, other guys that maybe feel like they should be getting a role, or they should be getting touches, or they should be getting things. Mike just keeps working.”
When a green, eager and driven newcomer named David Montgomery joined the program two years ago, he credited Warren as being a supreme leader. A beacon of sorts. A sounding board for what worked and what didn’t. A friend and a competitor. A walking and running human resource that bridged the past and the present — and pointed hurriedly toward the gleaming path ahead.
“This is also a big thing that I learned, coming in the start of this season, or even before that, like the summer, when I gave my speech I was just, ‘You know, I know football is everything to some people, but, you know, it’s gonna end someday, so I just want to make a bigger impact off the field,’” Warren said. “It’s not all about the touchdowns, or the numbers or anything like that. It’s just being a good teammate and being someone that people can come to whenever.”
Warren has been that ground-based encyclopedia. He’s seen — and endured — it all.
The Cyclones went 3-9 the season of his “breakthrough,” so watching others come up in this more fertile wake has proven to be exciting, not deflating. Warren’s got as fair a shot as anyone. It just so happens that his translates more to special teams opportunities than offensive snaps at this point.
“It’s been pretty tough,” Warren said in terms of seeing his playing time dwindle. “You can’t sail with it though. You can’t get too high or too low. You have to stay even. That’s the biggest thing since I’ve learned here. You’ve just got to keep on chuggin.’ Really, if things do get hard, just turn to the guys next to you. They’re a lot of help, and even the coaches, as well.”
Warren’s proved to be a pillar in much the same way.
He’s been there.
He’s been on top as an individual while the team struggles to find any footing.
It’s a lonely perch — and whether or not he ever carries the ball again as a Cyclone, he’ll continue to lead, because that is simply what he does, regardless of the personal outcome.
“I just want to remind people that if things aren’t going your way, it doesn’t hurt to stay and help the next person,” Warren said.