Matt Campbell: In the face of “real life adversity,” ISU players finding ways to serve

Dec 28, 2019; Orlando, Florida, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell runs out with teammates prior to the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

 A June return?

 Perhaps July?

 Or even August?

 Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell and his staff have a plan in place for each of those potential COVID-19 pandemic-based scenarios because … of course they do.

“What would that look like?” Campbell said Tuesday during a conference call. “I don’t like to waste a lot of time on hypotheticals, because I think you can get lost in that, but I do think you want to have a plan and we’ve certainly put a plan in for each of those time frames and then went back to work more on the present.”

 Campbell — as he often does — drew on lessons he learned as a player and a coach at Division III powerhouse Mount Union to make an important point.

 Players can and should be self-accountable. It’s what he’s been weaving into the culture through four seasons in Ames and the season to come — whenever that may occur.

 “I coached Division III football at Mount Union and I played Division III football at Mount Union where you didn’t have much engagement,” Campbell said. “There was no spring practice. You didn’t have many guys on campus through the summer and then in August, everybody was accountable to their own workout and what they needed to do. August 1 you got there and four weeks later you were getting ready to go play football. Fortunately for us at Mount Union, we were pretty good, so we held a standard of excellence in the offseason. We knew what that looked like and felt like and then we got ready in September to go kick everybody’s butt. We didn’t need much time.”

 Campbell said most of his players have gone home to deal with the impacts of the pandemic. Some of their families are struggling, he added. Players are “stepping up” and helping out in a variety of ways, he added.

 Some are working. Offensive lineman Trevor Downing is working full-time on his family’s farm. Wide receiver Ezeriah Anderson picked up a job at a grocery store down in Florida. Defensive back Kym-Mani King is working. So is defensive end Zach Petersen — as are more Cyclones who, like all of us, are trying to do their part amid this tense time of undetermined duration.

 “There’s a lot of examples and I would have to get all those to you, but it’s fascinating to watch,” Campbell said. “And as much as that, I’ve been watching a lot of those guys that have younger siblings and trying to help out as providing the child care for their families, it’s been heartwarming and I really appreciate all the young guys we have in our program.”

 Football can wait. This is a human story. Like all of them, there are triumphs and travails. The only way forward is collectively charging through adversity — not shrinking from it.

 “That’s where all these things that we’ve talked about over these last four years and have worked really hard to lay a strong foundation to (come into play),” Campbell said. “Adversity shows the gaps that you have, or the strength that you have. I think the one thing I’ve been really proud of is watching our kids continue to find ways to engage, whether it’s Madden online, or trick shot challenges; whether it’s just their ability through FaceTime to stay engaged and some of the older guys picking up some of the younger guys over the last couple weeks. I think that part has been really rewarding to me and that’s probably as good as any win I’ve seen us have as a football program, because this is real life. This is real life adversity. Sometimes, I think, we even forget, man, these kids are going home and some of these kids, these young people, their parents are struggling. Maybe they’ve been laid off. Maybe they’ve lost their job. They’re home helping out. We’ve got some guys that are actually working right now to try to help out, so to me, that’s real leadership. That’s standing up — and you’ve got to remember, really, our society hasn’t seen this, or felt this (for a long time), and, again, what happens is adversity hits and true leaders stand up and begin to lead. 

 “We talked a lot about that before our kids left (for spring break). … I don’t know if they knew how serious this was, but I think the reality set in really fast and to watch our guys, not only with each other, but emerge as great leaders at home and taking care of their parents, stepping up and helping with child care, stepping up and getting a job — those are things that I’m really proud of.”

 Again, football can wait. But day-to-day challenges can’t. Coaches continue to connect daily with designated groups of players. The bonds remains strong, even as the physical distance between many of them can be vast.

 “You almost tackle it like a new opponent,” Campbell said. “Obviously, it starts with a little bit of anxiety, but then you’ve got to sit down and you’ve got to say, ‘How do we win this challenge? How do we give our kids the best opportunity to thrive through it?’

 Coaches and players take stock. They offer mutual support. They talk about ways to get faster, smarter, stronger — simply better. And then this cycle repeats.

 “You’ve got to find a routine,” Campbell said. “If you’re sleeping in ‘till 11 o’clock every day, it’s probably going to be really hard for you to come back and thrive from this situation. It all starts with the communication piece (and) holding people accountable through a standard through communication of getting a great routine set. We’ve worked really hard with our guys over the last three week and I feel like we’ve made great progress. That’s been our starting point: Trying to create a positive routine through academics, with nutrition, with strength and conditioning, with football — and continuing to put their days together and holding them accountable through communication. I think that’s been really positive for us.”

 Football will come. Coach and players will continue to hold themselves — and each other — accountable. They don’t need to be together at all times to do that, Campbell knows that from experience. Leaders within his ISU program are learning that now as uncertainty has become the norm. So if all the Cyclones can’t be together until August, or even later, the time apart can still lead to great gains. 

 “For four summers I worked a job tearing down and rebuilding bridges,” Campbell said. “So, again, I think it can be done. I’ve seen it happen.”


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.