Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell holes up the trophy after defeating the Oregon Ducks 34-17 at the 50th PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Network
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Matt Campbell has not forgotten.
The words of those who doubted Campbell’s decision to leave Toledo and take over as the head coach at Iowa State back in Dec. 2015 still ring in his ears. He thinks of them every day.
He thought of them again on Saturday while standing at the podium inside State Farm Stadium immediately following the No. 10 Cyclones’ 34-17 win over No. 25 Oregon in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
“I remember the comments when we came here and (people) said ‘Boy, coaching at Iowa State is a death sentence,'” Campbell said postgame. “And I always chuckle at that. That always rings in my ears about those comments made. It’s probably what’s been a driving force every step of the way for myself and our staff, that you just keep going to work, and you love young people, you inspire young people.”
Congrats on your validation, Coach.
Saturday afternoon in Arizona the Cyclones proved something with their first New Year’s Six bowl win. They proved something to the college football nation that those of us in Cyclone nation and most people in Big 12 country have known for some time.
The Cyclones belong.
It would be hard to sit and watch what Iowa State just did to Oregon and not come away feeling like the Cyclones were one of the best teams in college football this season. There were obviously some bumpy moments, but Iowa State’s performance can more or less be categorized in one way: domination from beginning to end.
Iowa State owned this football game.
Tweet your fake outrage in support of the Group of 5 schools and the College Football Playoff committee’s continual snubbing of them. Tell us more about Indiana and how they deserved to be on this stage more than Iowa State did. Go ahead and mention all the recruiting rankings you want because what do you know about five-star culture?
You are welcome to do those things until you are blue in the face. It is not like Iowa State has never been doubted before. Campbell heard it from the moment he took this job.
Iowa State is not a death sentence anymore. Iowa State is the real deal.
“This team literally became the best version of itself it could be,” Campbell said. “You’ve heard me talk a lot about reach your full potential. Well, this 2020 Iowa State football team reached its full potential. There’s not one regret. There’s not one, man, woulda, coulda, shoulda. This group’s literally reached its full potential and become the best version of itself it can be.”
There is nothing flukey about anything this team was able to accomplish in 2020. They were able to complete the greatest season in this program’s 128-year history despite perhaps the most daunting circumstances considering the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They did it behind one of the best running backs in all of college football, Breece Hall. He ran behind an offensive line that grew each and every week. That rushing attack group was dominant again on Saturday and helped Iowa State hold a nearly 25-minute advantage in time of possession.
By the way, basically all of them will be back next season.
They did it behind a junior quarterback who will eventually leave this school as its greatest to ever play the position — and that departure will not be coming anytime soon as Brock Purdy announced postgame he’s returning for his senior year in 2021.
He will bring back all of his top wide receiver targets and at least one of his all-conference tight ends as Chase Allen announced his plans to return next season. The other two have the option to come back, including All-American Charlie Kolar, who said he plans to reflect and evaluate his future in the coming days.
The majority defensive core that completely stifled Oregon’s offense on Saturday and held opponents to just 26 second-half points in the team’s final six games will return. It is not outside the realm of possibility to see some of the seniors come back for one last run, as well.
I say all of that in order to say this.
If you thought this ride was fun, the program has all the pieces it needs to take you on another next season. Saturday’s win probably guarantees they’ll not only end this season as a top-10 team, but have an opportunity to start next season in the exact same position.
Cyclone football, meet uncharted waters.
Expectations are about to be sky-high for this program and rightfully so, but do not expect the messages to change.
“I think the reality for us is that every year you’ve got to start back over at square one. And nothing’s promised to you,” Campbell said. “You’re never promised in life your hopes and dreams. And the reality of it is, you got to go back in the dark and you’ve got to work and strain to become the best version of yourself that you can be.”
The absolute best part of this rise over the last five years is it has been done in the most Iowa State way possible — with people.
Nobody in the Cyclones’ program was anointed as the next great thing. There are no five-star recruits on this roster. Shoot, there are only four four-star recruits and only one of them plays on the majority of snaps.
While Campbell was a sought-after coaching candidate, there were still people who doubted how well he could do outside of the MAC. He still has never won a conference title as a head coach.
This is a team of people who decided to do things the hard way. They decided they wanted to climb the rough side of the mountain — and on Saturday in the shadows of the Camelback Mountains they completed their climb.
“I just got done telling these guys, the three years prior to coming here — 3-9, 2-10, 3-9 — and we recruit all these guys with a hope and a dream,” Campbell said. “And then all of a sudden, we’re 3-9 year one. And I think it’s so fitting that, as we leave here, and this senior class leaves here now 9-3, they really flipped the script the entire way. Maybe for some programs, that’s easy to do; but I think you guys know the history of this program for the last 100-plus years. It’s not real easy to do here. And this group did it. This group literally rewrote the history books.”
Not too bad for a death sentence.