GRAY: From Memphis to San Antonio, “identity” set the stage for the Cyclones

Dec 30, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Iowa State Cyclones players celebrate after the game against the Memphis Tigers in the 2017 Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.Iowa State Cyclones defeated the Memphis Tigers 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

SAN ANTONIO — The ice descended, then crystalized. The planes and buses left. The sun set and Cyclones fans’ hearts leapt.

 It’s been almost a full year since Iowa State turned the Liberty Bowl into its home field and shut down the high-powered home team’s offense in a 21-20 triumph — the Cyclones’ first postseason win in eight years.

 Seniors such as Joel Lanning and Allen Lazard took pride in the moment, then moved on,  certain their showing in Memphis — along with their horde hungry (and thirsty) fans — would serve as a springboard, not a crowning achievement.

 “Obviously if you go out with a win it keeps guys hungry and motivated for the next year wanting to get better and come back to winter workouts with a great attitude as opposed to, I think if you lose that, it kind of drains people a little bit,” Lanning said at the time.

 No one, of course, came back in January drained. Instead they were fully energized. Those seniors laid the groundwork for these stalwart seniors such as Brian Peavy, Willie Harvey and Kyle Kempt.

 Leaders. Winners. Filled with hope, not mired in doubt as Friday’s 8 p.m. Alamo Bowl matchup against No. 13 Washington State (10-2) swings into view.

 “I believe in God,” Peavy, a PFF first team All-America cornerback, said. “And he didn’t bring me this far to leave me. I think knowing that, that I have that foundation, it’s kind of easy to show the light; to show the fruit. There have been challenges, but like I said, I think it’s worth it.”

 It always has been. Even while toiling through three-win seasons. Especially when responding to the pain caused by being beaten up before of rising up.

 Bottom line: No. 24 ISU (8-4) is now fine-tuning its pattern of success instead of desperately searching for any semblance of one. The process lights the path and forks are suddenly (and happily) hard to find.

 “I think you reflect on it a little bit because you see this senior class and you’re gonna be with them for two more days,” said Cyclones coach Matt Campbell, whose team could match a program record with a victory over the Cougars. “It’s a group, just like last year’s group, that really went through some really hard moments during the early stages of their football careers. I think coach (Mike Leach) hit on it a little bit ago — you get to a place and you want to give young men hope. And you want to create an identity and give them a chance to become the best versions of themselves they can be.”

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 That mission’s already been accomplished. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, a true freshman has joined the seniors to lead the way.

 Today is quarterback Brock Purdy’s birthday. Tomorrow will mark the biggest game of his young career. The stage is set and brightly-lit, but sized just right for the shifty and uncannily accurate play-caller joining fourth-year and fifth-year guys in a leadership role defined by performance, not pressure. 

 “I think the best thing he’s done impressively is he’s been effectively able to take the reins at a young age and elevate the players around him,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said of Purdy. “I think that’s the hardest thing. I think sometimes a young guy doesn’t feel entitled to lead because everybody has been there longer than they have, things like that. 

 And … 

 “It appears to me just watching film from the outside, he’s kind of embraced that role as being the guy that guides the offense there,” Leach added.

 That’s saying something. Seniors such as Peavy and Harvey have continued to shine on the field while preparing to hand the program’s baton on to successors. Fellow seniors such as Kempt and running back Mike Warren have seen playing time sharply diminish as younger players step up. But they’re every bit as important is preparing the team for success on Friday — and once winter workouts hit — as the starters.

 That’s leadership defined. That’s why they drew some of the loudest cheers on senior day from the Jack Trice Stadium crowd nearly five weeks ago — at least 25,000 of whom have turned the San Antonio Riverwalk into a nonstop Cyclones pep rally.

  “That’s what’s really been rewarding about watching these last two senior classes really take ownership in the program and really start leading from the inside out,” Campbell said. “So, to me, it’s been really rewarding to watch the young men be able to have success and be able to create an identity for this football program.”

 That identity formed before last season’s bowl win and will endure well beyond Friday’s big game — win or lose. Success never sleeps and comes brick-by-brick. Then, as Campbell often says, “winning or losing will take care of itself.”

 “We owe everything to Cyclone Nation, being with us through the two and three-win seasons, and not so much the wins, but just the fact that Coach Campbell came here and he really changed the process and he changed what we thought as players,” Harvey said earlier this week. “He changed my life forever.”


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.