AMES — Iowa State Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard sees a lot of himself in his football coach, Matt Campbell.
Both are fierce competitors.
Both delight in proving people wrong.
And both take absolutely nothing for granted.
The list of similarities could extend far beyond those three, of course, but boil it down to this general list: Growth is a mindset. Progress is an ongoing process that never ends. Character drives success — and helps one navigate through challenging moments in life.
“I didn’t come to Iowa State thinking well, ‘We’re gonna do this and then?’” Pollard told Cyclone Fanatic this week during a wide-ranging conversation that is reproduced below, in Q and A format. “I didn’t come here thinking, ‘Well, if this happens, then we’ll get to go do that.’ I have been a competitor all my life and I want to be the best I can possibly be and so when we got here, that was just the goal. The goal was, we’re gonna try to be the best we can possibly be. And we’re still trying to do that. There was no time frame on it and there was no, ‘Well, once you do it, then this is what happens.’ Once you do it, then you figure out what happens, right?
“That’s one of the things Matt and I have talked about, is it’s not to say you’re gonna be here forever, but there’s no time period you’re gonna only be here for either. Let’s just go do what you’re setting out to do. As long as you can keep trying to do it and there’s some dream to chase? Then you’ll be motivated. And if that dream, in my particular case, has lasted 14 years, that’s awesome, then, right? It could have lasted five years. It could have lasted seven years.”
Pollard was gracious and candid and as insightful as ever during our 33-minute talk. He answered all of my sometimes rambling and often inelegantly-phrased questions with typical aplomb.
And one quick note: If you read long enough, which you’d be wise to do, you’ll see that Pollard is begrudgingly “OK” with the loss to Texas in football this season. He explains why perfectly, in my opinion — and points to how it likely points to even brighter days to come.
I hope you enjoy the Q and A, below, as much as I did.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk lately about possibly expanding the FBS playoffs, and obviously, this conference wants to add this, this conference wants to do that. How do you view the state of college football and, most important, Big 12 football in the closing days of 2018?
A: “I think the landscape of college football is still really strong. Next year we’ll be celebrating the 150th year of college football and one of the things that I think we all can learn from by taking pause at that is we live in an era of immediate judgement on everything now. So we either indict or confirm things that should be baked over a lot longer time period, but we do it in such a condensed period and we’ve lost sight for the historical perspective. So I look and go — the College Football Playoff, whether leagues should be 14 or 16 or 10, what’s the best recipe? And I was saying this two or three years ago, which was, ‘Let’s let it play itself out, because we don’t have enough data points.’ In the perspective of historical (considerations) we’re talking about a small, small, small percentage, but we’re making historical decisions that would be landmark. So you just look at what’s happened over the last three or four years in college football. Look at the Big 12 and go, this year’s championship game. It’s the second year in a row that we’re the only league that can say they can guarantee (a matchup of) their top team versus their second-place team. That game had the third-highest rating of any college football game this year. Ohio State-Michigan was one. Georgia-Alabama SEC Championship was two. Big 12 Championship was three. Why that’s really relevant is, to put it in context in our footprint in the Big 12 — in the total Big 12 footprint, there’s 35 million households, 26 million of which are in Texas. The ACC footprint alone is 90 million (households). So our footprint’s a third of the ACC and of our third, five-sixths of it is in Texas. So the fact that that game could be the third most watched game in all of college football this year should tell us something. And what I think it’s telling us is fans want the best to play the best, right? So you’re now starting to hear rumblings that the Big Ten may get rid of divisions, because they haven’t been able to get it right yet. So is that an indictment on 14 or 16 is too big and 10 is perfect? I don’t think it is, but what it shows you is let’s not make these broad-brush conclusions because none of us have the right data. We have 10 because those are the cards we were dealt and we decided to play the cards we were dealt rather than add more, because we felt adding more was just gonna water down our hand — not because those institutions aren’t great institutions, but they weren’t going to add anything in the television climate. So when you start to think about, well, then where is the state of college football today — because all of the television contracts come due between ’23 and ’25, until we go through that next period, and probably increasingly prior to that next period, we’re gonna continue to have stories written about Armageddon, right? I can tell you within the Big 12, there isn’t any discussions, appetite, there’s nothing even — there’s no pulse for anything but what we have. I’m not naive enough to think that ever is forever and never is forever, but I can tell you there isn’t any discussion. I don’t know about the other leagues, because I’m not in (them). I have heard that there’s just not an appetite — the destruction that took place whenever that was seven years ago … has really tainted I think some people’s beliefs about, ‘Well, should we be doing this?’ You look at the Big Ten and go, Rutgers and Maryland. I mean, ‘Wow.’ Other than the money, they haven’t helped that situation and that’s unfortunate because both of those schools are good schools, but it’s just been a tough — we all want things to happen, like tomorrow. And you’ve gotta let it play out. Rutgers and Maryland may end being great decisions for the Big Ten, but if we judge it in the last 24 months, you’d go, ‘Whoah,’ right? Well the Big Ten didn’t make the decision for 24 months. They made it for the long-term, right? And I think that’s what will happen for the future of college football.”
Q: It’s changed so much since the previous “Armageddon,” too. I know how much upheaval it caused for you at that time, and TV still is hugely important, but we’ve seen the hits that (it’s) taking with cord-cutting and changing markets, etc., as well.
A: “It was a linear marketplace the last time it happened and it’s still linear — it’s still the engine that’s pulling the train, but the engine, there’s some other pieces to that engine now, and in ’23 to ’25 there could be even a bigger element of that engine.”
Q: Switching gears, with regard to Coach Campbell’s recent contract extension, how has it become even more critical to make sure to add extra money for assistant coaches on a regular basis? To ensure that it’s clear that assistant coaches are valued?
A: “It’s always been, by industry standards, it’s always been important. But I’ve grown probably more acutely aware of how important it is based on what I saw at the end of Coach Rhoads’s tenure and what I saw happen with Coach Campbell bringing his staff and just having a much better appreciation for having everybody on the same page and everybody feeling like they know their place and their roles. So keeping that together is vital. And also, as we look and go, ‘Who do we want to be? — so if you want to be ‘x’, then you need to look and feel and behave like ‘x.’ So that’s part of what Matt and I spent time looking at and I really appreciate that he is as keenly focused on what’s in the best interests of the program versus just what’s in the best interests of Matt. So as a result, we both knew that we needed to do something for the assistant coaches in order to, one, be more like who we’re trying to be, and number two is, to make sure that they know we know they did a great job and that we’re valuing the job that they did and that we want them to stay here.”
Q: You brought in a team of coaches, and that’s so different from what we’ve seen sometimes, with piecemeal staff changes, etc. So how good was it to not have to require constant assimilation of new ‘teammates,” given this team was essentially already in tact and solid?
A: “The start-up influence was huge, because when Matt interviewed, we talked about that. ‘Are you gonna bring your staff?’ And kind of the joke was, ‘Well, if you’re not bringing them I’m not hiring you because that’s a bad sign they don’t want to come with you.’ But also it was this sign, you know, you’ll get off to such a better start because you’re not going to spend the first two or three months dealing with personnel and trying to figure out who to interview. You’re gonna have so many issues that are gonna have to be (dealt with) right now and, so, if you’re dealing with all of personnel, other stuff’s gonna fall by the wayside that’s gonna impact the margins. So by having everybody just come, (it) got them up and running quicker. Beyond that, what I saw, was just the cohesiveness of that group. When they’re recruiting, it isn’t, ‘I’ve gotta get mine, because I’ve gotta look good in coach’s eyes, because then I’ll get paid more money.’ They honestly all look at it and go, ‘We’re all here to get the next best 22 or whatever players we’re signing. Let’s not worry about who gets the credit because we’ll all get credit.’ And that goes back to, well, then they need to get rewarded compensation-wise because they’ve figured out how to do it as a team.”
Q: From the outside it’s been a meteoric rise for Cyclone football, relatively speaking, in three years with Campbell at the helm. Does it feel like that from the inside, too?
A: “Well, when you’re here every day, it’s kind of like when your wife comes home from getting her hair done, do you notice? Hopefully you do, right? If you’re smart, you do, right? But when you see your kids every single day, you don’t see them changing and getting older and growing and then grandma and grandpa come and go, ‘Wow! Johnny’s so much bigger! You’ve grown so much in a year?’ I’m here every day, so I just see them continuing to grind and work the process. Matt goes in — I call it going down the rabbit hole — about as far down as I’ve ever seen a football coach. They just get down there and that’s what they do. And they don’t spend a lot of time coming up and worrying about stuff that I’ve watched other coaches worry about that you just go, ‘Really? That’s what we do. Let us do it and you keep doing what you do.’ He stays in his area and just does an unbelievably great job. So I see that and so you sometimes (don’t think) to step back and go, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long ways.’ Eight wins, a potential for nine wins this year. Six wins in the Big 12. Those are big benchmarks for this program, but it doesn’t feel like it’s that quantum of a leap because I’ve been watching it every single day. So none of those leaps, from my eyes, have happened — we haven’t gone from 50 to 100. We did go from 50 to 100, but I only saw, I’m seeing us go 98 to 99 and 99 to 100. And somebody on the outside might go, ‘Wow, they were at 60 and now they’re at 100? Because I see it changing daily. I’m not watching it changing weekly or monthly or yearly, right?”
Q: We talk about ISU fans’ loyalty a lot. How much do enhancements in facilities, game experiences, etc., go hand in hand with that, sort of as two sides of the same coin?
A: “I think, big. We get asked all the time, ‘Well, how have you guys been doing it?’ And my answer is there’s no one answer. There’s a lot of things that have caused that kind of wave of environment. I would say some of the initial things were, you go back to where we initially put money in our facility plans. We widened the concourse. We added concession stands. We added restrooms. We’ve put in the video boards. We changed the policies on tailgating. We did some things that created a foundation that was gonna allow for sustained growth. Our marketing team did a really good job of price points and promotions and mobile ticketing and different sales plans and so as a result, we’re marketing into a foundation that wasn’t winning, but it allowed us to be able to grow versus you get everybody here and you’ve got bad bathrooms and poor concessions. And then, obviously, the football team has gotten better and Coach Campbell has lit the match when it comes to that, but there was an audience in the stands for him to energize, versus him having to do something to hopefully get people in the stands that will be energized. So I think that all kind of came together and at the same time, I think there were some things happening outside of athletics. The recession hit. More people were staying at home. Because of that, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) became much more an important thing in our society. Iowa State does a really good job with that, so growth starts to happen in the student body. So there were some parallel things. The Tailgate Tour got changed. We went from 40 to 60-year-old males at a country club to families and children and tailgates. So all of that kind of came together. Fred (Hoiberg) and Paul (Rhoads), they played a big part. They were seen as ‘us’ and they got people excited. So there isn’t one thing. It really was kind of the art of it all together. Now Matt’s clearly lit a match and that has ignited some people.”
Q: Could you offer another Alamo Bowl update?
A: “It’s at 14,000 for what we’ve sold. The folks in San Antonio are really very pleased with what we’ve done. It will be, if I was guessing, I’ll say 20-25,000 people. I get it. That’s a little bit more expensive for some of them to get down there, but there’s also a lot of people in Texas — we’ve got a big alum base in Dallas. So the Riverwalk should be pretty Cardinal and Gold.”
Q: Must help that it’s drivable, too …
A: “Yeah, because flights were pricey and logistically from what I understand, they sold out pretty quick, so people had to get really creative and drive to some other airports and do some things, but we’re gonna have a ton of people there and it’s gonna be really, really fun.”
Q: How nerve-wracking was the “recruitment” of Coach Campbell to Ames? We’ve written a lot about it, but I wonder how you managed any anxiety mixed with excitement and resoluteness that such a situation would naturally give rise to.
A: “There’s anxiety. There’s a tremendous adrenaline rush. And you’re running on — to me, it’s a competition, right? So you’re constantly thinking and strategizing because you don’t control the outcome. So you’ve got to have a lot of balls in the air, but the creative juices, the competitive juices, I think, come out, but yeah, there’s anxiety. But show me an athlete that doesn’t at some point in the competition have to go through that moment of, it’s probably a little of, ‘Can I do this?’ In those moments, we had to trust our strategy, but had other options if your strategy fails.”
Q: How do you like where you’re at with winter sports right now, with some fall obviously still mixed in?
A: “The fall was awesome and volleyball just put a finishing touch on that by winning the (NVIC). So arguably our best fall ever, by finishing second in the Big 12 standings for all sports. So as we turn to the winter, yeah the early signs are women’s basketball looks like (it’s) gonna have an outstanding season. They’ve got a great nucleus. Men’s basketball is off to a great start. Wrestling has shown more promise — we knew that we would be better, but I think they’ve shown a lot of promise early. So that’s gonna be a real energized group. I know our indoor track programs will do really well. Haven’t heard much about gymnastics yet because it’s still a little early and swimming is pretty steady. So I fully envision that we’ll have a really good winter and come out of it probably with our best fall/winter ever just based on where the teams are at this stage.”
Q: How is the Sports Performance Center coming along? Are there any other facilities updates?
A: “The big news was the Regents approved it (in November), so we will break ground sometime in the spring so the architectural staff and the operational staff are working really hard to start the bid packages and all the things that have to go into place. Fundraising has been phenomenal and my guess is after the first of the year we’ll start making more announcements about what we have raised, but the funding has been absolutely phenomenal. We’re going back to the Regents in February for a project at Hilton that we hope to start, hopefully, this summer, that would be kind of a parallel project to what we’re doing here at football. So, yeah, there’s a lot happening. There’s a lot on the plate when it comes to facilities.”
Q: You’ve obviously gone through a lot of things personally during your time at Iowa State, from your youngest child, James, battling cancer [author’s note: he’s doing fine now] to your own heart attack to the tragic death of Celia Barquin Arozamena this fall. Does pouring yourself into the AD job help or hamper your ability to manage emotions during difficult times?
A: “Let me first back up and say I’ve immersed myself into this job, where they always tell you, ‘Don’t let your job define who you are. Let you define who you are.’ I’ve described my life as a ball of yarn. And the ball of yarn has got different colored strings based on the things that matter the most in my life, so my job, my family, my health, my faith. And I can’t pull the ball of yarn apart and it would just be an exercise in futility to try to separate all the yarn. It’s so intertwined, so I would counter by saying those times have been easier to get through because the support network is huge, because of our awesome fan base. So none of those situations I’m able to separate — I mean, I can compartmentalize with the best of them, but I can’t pull James’ life out of my personal/professional life. I can’t pull my own heart attack out of that. It becomes kind of part of the story. And Celia’s situation, as tragic as that was, it’s kind of part of the fabric now of who we are and what we went through as a community. So I don’t think it makes it harder, I actually think it makes it easier.”
Q: So the response to difficult times kind of reaffirms things that matter most?
A: “Oh, absolutely. I say all the time that Ames is a company town and we’re the company. It was the perfect place for me to raise my family because we just fit this culture.”
Q: What has proven to be the hardest thing to accomplish, sports performance-wise, in your tenure as ISU’s AD?
A: “Winning in football has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. There’s some aspects of the job that I would look and go, ‘I never thought about, well, what level of fundraising we would have to hit before I would go, ‘Wow, that was better or worse, right?’ But I can now look back over 14 years and just go, ‘Pinch me. Our fans have done unbelievable things for us. And our fundraising has gone phenomenal, but it’s also gotten exponential in this last facility project,’ where if you would have asked me 10 years ago I would have laughed at you if you said we could raise the amount of money we’ve raised in the last several months. But what does that mean for 10 more years from now? Will that number continue to get exponentially — I don’t know, right? But the football piece I just, if you’d asked me, I would have thought it would have been — not that I thought it was gonna be easy, but it’s certainly been harder than I thought it would be. And it’s been just a constant grind with getting knocked back every so often, but we’ve continued to ratchet our way up here and now we’re starting to get to some areas where we’re on the part of the mountain that no one’s been.”
Q: You touched on how the atmosphere for football had been built already. Matt touched on it when he took the job, too. How integral was that to his success so far in three years? Did the winning part suddenly seem simple, given that robust foundation?
A: “I don’t know if I could use the word ‘simple,’ (laughs) but I know what you mean. I know this. When I talk to some of my peers, especially some peers that have moved and they say, ‘Remember what I told you.’ Because I think there’s some that now look at me and are envious of the fact that we’ve got to stay here for 14 years and for the most part, we have a community that loves the Cyclones. And I’m not saying that there’s not times that they want to eat their own and there’s not times that they get under my skin and that we don’t have some people that behave just like the people they like to criticize, but, but, the critical mass is very appreciative. But we’re gonna be challenged by that. One of the things that I said and if I say this in this interview, hopefully you can write it in a way that protects me — I wanted to beat Texas as bad as anybody. I did. But I’m ok we lost. And the reason I’m ok we lost is, in some ways, maybe it was happening too fast for us. That the team isn’t where Matt needs it to be and that team needs to keep grinding and the day that they think they’ve arrived is the day we’re about to get our legs taken out from underneath us. We learned at Texas that we’re not at that level yet and we’ve gotta get some more young men in this program and we’ve got guys in the program that gotta work even harder. And our fans, I don’t want our fans to go from the Liberty Bowl to the Sugar Bowl and then when they go back to the Alamo Bowl they turn their nose up at it. So in some ways, we’re gonna get to experience it in the right way, so that when you go to the Sugar Bowl, you actually have a much better appreciation for it. Next year, if we end up and we’re in the (Camping World) Bowl, we still should be excited about that. I hope we don’t ever get to that spot where we say, ‘We’re fatigued (by) this stuff.’ That was maybe a little lesson we learned when we lost that Texas game. That, we’re close, but we’ve still got a long ways to go and everybody’s gotta stay focused on that.”
Q: I don’t know if I’ve been around a football coach who talks more about failure than Matt Campbell does. And that’s a good thing because of what he means by it. Is that an element that maybe leaders can cling to a little bit better — the idea that you’re not really trying if you’re never failing?
A: “I think back to when I first started and we put out some kind of lofty benchmarks and I remember hearing people call it arrogance, and cocky, and all I was trying to do when we did that was to change the paradigm and say, ‘OK, everybody’s gotta have some stretch goals.’ And it’s OK — you know, a lot of people don’t like to say what they want to do, because if they do and they don’t do it then somebody’s gonna say, ‘Well, you didn’t succeed.’ My whole life the things that have meant the most to me that have been accomplished were the ones that were probably the most unrealistic to accomplish. So the satisfaction that comes with doing something — especially if it comes when people didn’t think you could do it; that, I think, is also one of the key ingredients when we hire people, that somebody’s up for the challenge instead of coming here thinking, ‘Ah, I’m in the Big 12. I’m somebody now.’ You’re not anybody. Trust me. OK? But when they think they’ve gotta prove that they belong here — I think Matt’s got a little element of that in that he loves being the underdog. I think that’s why we play good on the road, because things just get more laser-focused to people in those environments. So that was really where I come from when I say, losing to Texas, I’m OK with it, because hopefully we can use it to get more laser-focused so that when we do have a team that’s really probably more equal to them, that we’re ready to go. Because, could we have beaten them? Yes. But it was gonna take our absolute best and they were probably gonna have to play a little off that day. And that’s just where we’re at today. But there’s gonna come a day. There’s gonna come a day where we line up and it’s gonna be even-steven (with everybody), and whoever’s got the bigger heart and whoever’s got the more desire is gonna get it.”