Trust is key in ISU AD Jamie Pollard’s plan to allow up to 25,000 fans to attend football opener

Iowa State University athletic director Jamie Pollard speaks at a news conference on Sept. 24, 2019. Photo credit: © Olivia Sun/The Register, Des Moines Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Ultimately, Iowa State Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard settled on trust.

He believes in the judgment of Cyclones fans. He believes in his staff and university administration. He believes in his football coach, Matt Campbell.

“We are blessed,” Pollard said Monday in a Zoom meeting with the media.

 Let’s hope that continues to be the case. Iowa State announced Monday that approximately 25,000 fans will be able to attend the Sept. 12 season opener against Louisiana — if they agree to adhere to COVID-19-prompted safety protocols laid out in a letter to ISU supporters.

Some will call his plan ambitious and laudable. Some will raise eyebrows. Some more will be adamantly opposed to having any fans in attendance — or even playing games at all.

 That’s the world we live in and Pollard’s firmly rooted in our collective reality.

“What I really want to stress is our ability to have success with this plan is going to be almost 100 percent contingent upon our fans complying,” said Pollard, who also thanked ISU President Wendy Wintersteen and other key administration and faculty officials for their leadership in the decision-making process. “We feel that if there is any fanbase in the country that has the wherewithal or capacity to thread this needle with us, it’s the Cyclone fan base. But we need them to comply. We don’t need fans showing up to tailgate despite the fact that we said not to tailgate. That will not be well received, it’ll be policed and it’ll damage our ability to have fans for the Oklahoma game. Fans will be required to wear a mask. If they don’t wear a mask, we won’t be having fans for the Oklahoma game. 

“We’ve laid it out as straightforward as we can be. The fans that have chosen to still come, need to understand that our expectation is 100 percent compliance. I’ll personally have zero tolerance for any fan that doesn’t comply — I don’t care how much money they give this institution. If you want to be in the stadium, you’re going to have to comply. If you don’t do it, then we don’t want you here. I don’t care who it is. This is a big opportunity to support our student-athletes — they said they want to play and have fans. We’re putting in place what we feel is absolutely necessary for us to be able to do that.”

 Iowa State’s plan consists of eight points. First, fans who feel ill are urged to stay home. Second, fans should arrive early, park, and go directly to their seats. Third, no tailgating is allowed. Fourth, face coverings must be worn at all times. Fifth, fans should begin entering Jack Trice Stadium as early as 90 minutes before kickoff and stagger their arrival times to prevent massing at entrance points. Sixth, socially distanced seating arrangements must be universally complied with. Seventh, fans should stay in their seating area as much as possible. Eighth, good judgment is needed when exiting the stadium and social distancing is vital here, as well.

“We’ve got a really good chance for it to go well,” said Pollard, who added that around 5,000 students are included in that current number of roughly 25,000 fans. “Also, (we’d like) Iowa State University to be a model of how you can accomplish this. And what better opportunity for our fans to shine. We do a great job of showing how good we are at bowl games. We did a great job with (ESPN College) GameDay (last season). We do a great job with game attendance. Let’s show the country that Ames, Iowa, and Iowa State Cyclone fans can nail this. That would be really a great national story.”

 Pollard said he understands he would have received political blowback if he’d chosen a less aggressive approach in terms of in-person attendance, as well. You can’t win — or please — them all.

 “I don’t get caught up in the politics part of it,” Pollard said. “It would be disingenuous for me to say I’m not aware that it’s out there, but that wasn’t part of it. For me, it comes down to one thing and one thing only and that’s, is there a safe pathway forward? I can control some of the safe pathways by the mitigation steps we put in place but from a medical standpoint, that’s not my area of expertise, so I have to rely upon others for that. I have my fair share of donors whose ears were pinned back saying we should be playing and I heard from just as many who had their ears pinned back saying we shouldn’t be doing anything. I respect their opinions but at the end of the day, we have to try and figure out how to keep the ball in the fairway. If we can keep the ball in the fairway, in a safe manner, from a medical standpoint, then I think we have a responsibility to try and continue. 

 “We’ve talked about it, there are other issues. There are economic issues — I have 215 staff members. What (Iowa Athletic Director) Gary Barta is dealing with right now, I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. That’s tough, to look across the table and start laying people off. And sons and daughters that you sent off to college to their dream school because they want to swim or be a gymnast, and then you take it away from them? I know that wasn’t an easy thing to do. I don’t want to be in that spot if we can avoid it. In the end, we may not be able to avoid it. That’s my message to this fan base: Do your part. Do your part and let’s see if we can make this happen. If we can make it happen, it could be an incredible success story. If it doesn’t work — for whatever reason, then we have to pull the plug but I’ll know we tried. The effort to try isn’t based on any political motivation.”

 No, it’s about faith and trust. It’s dependent on compliance from the fan base, but choosing this path forward — at least for now — has been deeply influenced by how Campbell and his staff have handled their response to the pandemic, too.

 “We’ve got an incredible head coach — and I don’t mean that just because I’m sitting here as the Iowa State athletics director,” Pollard said. “I could not have picked a better person to be in the bunker with during this process — and I didn’t know that going in. And when I say, ‘Going in,’ I mean going into COVID. I’ve always felt coach Campbell is a very special person, but to watch how he has navigated this process is absolutely phenomenal and unless you’re really in it here and know what’s happening on a daily basis, that may sound like coach-speak or AD-speak. But I’m telling you, coaches that were able real early on to block out all their normal coaching tendencies of, if I yell the loudest I get what I want — Neanderthal thought processes — and have approached it so logically, so rationally, so unemotionally, that as Matt would say, it won’t be Iowa State that shows up and doesn’t have a team. Because he’s methodically worked his way through this. 

 “Are there frustrations? Absolutely. … But coaches who planned for that, how they broke up practices, how they conducted practices, what days they go hard after testing, that in and of itself is an art. If — if — we’re able to get through the entire season, I would contest the team that’s gonna end up on top at the end of the year (will have) a combination of a very athletic team, a very mature team and a team that is coached by somebody that is an absolute artist figuring out how to navigate all this. And right now I’ll tell you, we’re blessed to have Matt Campbell, because, and I used this statement a long time ago, but the man’s playing chess while everybody else is playing checkers. So do I think somebody’s going to default out with the 53-man roster? I’ll bet somebody does because there are some coaches who just can’t get out of their own way and you had to adjust. You had to adjust in ways you never could have imagined you had to adjust.”

 Campbell and his staff has done that. Now it’s up to fans to reward Pollard’s trust by working together to ensure a common goal is achieved.

 Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Stay tuned. 

 The stakes are high and buy-in must be universal.

 “If everybody complies and it’s just not possible, then our plans didn’t work,” Pollard said. “And you know what? We tried and we’re no worse off. If it’s because people don’t comply, then that’s a whole other deal. Because there’s two variables. We can put the best game plan possible (together) and we feel like we’ve put together a great game plan and then people have to execute that game plan. If the fans execute it and the game plan didn’t work, then it didn’t work. But if they don’t execute it because some fans come and spoil it for everybody else, then we’ll know at least a reason why it didn’t work.”