Dec 5, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell waits to do a TV interview after the Cyclones defeated West Virginia 42-6 at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, December 5, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports
As Saturday nears and the kickoff of the 2020 Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington gets closer and closer, I can’t help but reminisce.
I can’t help but think of how many times Matt Campbell has referenced this senior class coming up the tough side of the mountain and think about how this fan base can relate.
I am 36, there are most certainly many, many more Iowa State fans that have seen more, been here longer, and been waiting a lifetime for what this season has become more than me—but I can’t help but think of the road that has gotten us to this point.
Think of all of the things that we have seen along the way (again, from a 36-year-old).
No stands in the south endzone and no Jacobson building to the north.
The helmet car.
No press box.
The hot tub at the south end of the stadium.
No stadium lights.
Indoor practice at Lied Recreational Center.
Four grass hills.
Losing 15 consecutive games to an in-state rival.
Open parking right next to the stadium.
A struggling program.
No hope. No path to hope. No real glimmer of light.
Growing up with Iowa State football in the ’90s was not for the faint of heart. Iowa State averaged less than three wins per season and never won more than four games throughout the decade. They barely averaged more than one conference win per season and never won more than two conference games in a single season.
There was the Jim Walden triple option. Todd Doxzon, Bobby Utter, and Todd Bandhauer behind center next to Blaize Bryant and Calvin Branch in the backfield. Chris Spencer, Ed Williams, Ty Watley, and Damien Groce catching passes. Kevin Lazard, Dustin Avey, Jeff Waters, and Mark DouBrava on the defensive side. Ty Stewart and Jeff Shudak handled the kicking duties.
But in the middle of that decade, a new coach came along and he recognized the talent of a running back already on campus. Dan McCarney who was a former Hawkeye became one of us more than we ever knew he could and Troy Davis put a spotlight on Iowa State that shone for two years. A spotlight that had been dark for the better part of two decades. Media coverage that had otherwise forgotten about the laughingstock of college football that resided in Ames.
When I reflect on this program and the program defining season that has happened in front of our eyes, I simply don’t have the words to explain the surreal feeling. It is all too unbelievable.
It was hard enough to comprehend the win over Nebraska in 1992. But that was one game, this is a season of work coming to fruition built upon the foundation of the last four years by Matt Campbell that is built upon the land as prepared by Paul Rhoads and Dan McCarney and countless other members of the staff and hundreds, if not thousands of players through the years. This moment is what they all dreamt of and they all played a part in getting to this point.
It is all so surreal, that I can only think of past obstacles, challenges, and shortcomings to describe just how unlikely it is to have the Cyclones in this position.
For the majority of my life, the crowning achievement was a 3-6 Cyclone team upsetting one of the nation’s best, 19-10. A single game. A blip on the radar. One unexplainable circumstance that resulted in an unlikely upset.
When I reflect on my history with Iowa State football I think of that Nebraska win.
I think of the best thing going in the 1990s being a single player who burst onto the Heisman scene, twice.
I think of the bowl game drought and the longer drought of winning a bowl game.
I think of the 1999 game versus Kansas State where a 28-7 lead vanished into a 35-28 defeat.
I think of all the “good” teams we had that didn’t stand a chance in four or five games each season.
I think of a #9 Iowa State team travelling to Norman, Oklahoma.
I think of Missouri in 2004.
I think of Nebraska in 2005. And Missouri. And Kansas.
I think of years with seasons full of hope to maybe get to six wins.
I think of a BCS changing win over Oklahoma State.
I think of a blocked extra point.
I think of missed field goals.
I think of FCS losses.
I think of a change in format in the Big 12 and how I very literally believed that Iowa State would never have a chance to not just make the conference championship game but finish the regular season with the best record.
I have over 30 years of history, experience, and evidence to show that this simply was not an option. That when things looked like they might be okay, they usually weren’t. When things looked bad, they were usually terrible.
There were flashes in the pan, there were bright spots. Dan McCarney, Troy Davis, the entire 2000 team that started this 20-year process, the mid-2000 resurgence that put the team on the brink of the championship game twice, the competitiveness of the Paul Rhoads teams, but more often than not what Iowa State fans knew was that something would go wrong. It was ingrained in our brains.
In some ways, we’re playing with house money versus Oklahoma but in so many more ways that sells this team and program so short of what they can do and how good they are. They didn’t back into this with flukes and luck, they played a nine-game round-robin schedule and earned their place atop the standings.
This coaching staff and these players have accomplished so much but there is still so much more on the table. That’s how good they are.
When I think about what this season means, my uncle who went to every home and away game for multiple years in the 1990s comes to mind.
I think about my dad and all of the moments we shared centered on Iowa State football and how he couldn’t possibly foresee what has come to be.
I think of all of the lifelong Cyclone fans—fans who have been around much longer than I have, that were never really sure this could happen but they kept coming back game after game, year after year, and decade after decade, waiting, hoping, and praying for this.
I don’t have words to explain the feeling of this season. I can’t do this program justice based on everything I knew, heard, and saw my entire life, let alone the life of someone who has been around a lot longer than I have. But regardless, we Iowa State fans have seen some stuff. That’s why we collectively don’t care what anyone wants to say about if the Cyclones deserve to be No. 6 or throw the Louisiana loss in our face.
That isn’t the point.
The point is this team has done something we were told and conditioned to believe that it couldn’t.
I can’t explain this feeling by any means other than the past 30-plus years of my experiences saying that this could not happen.