From the CW Pod: Matt Campbell on ISU football’s historic (and “bizarre”) 2020 season

Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy (15) scores a touchdown against the Oregon Ducks in the first half at the 50th PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Network Ncaa Football Oregon At Iowa State

It was indeed a head-scratcher.

 How did Iowa State not only lose to what turned out to be a very good Louisiana team in its season opener last fall — but lose by 17 points while struggling to execute well in all three phases of the game?

 The answer, of course, is complicated.

 Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell provided vital insight into the circumstances surrounding that setback recently during an informative and entertaining podcast with Cyclone Fanatic publisher Chris Williams:

 “Number one, let’s give Louisiana credit,” Campbell said. “They’re a really good football team. And they proved to be a very good football team for the remainder of the football season. But I will also say, you know, three weeks prior to that, it was pretty much evident (to) our football team the Big 12 was going to shut down. They weren’t going to play football. For the first time we were dealing with, ‘Man, now what are we going to do?’ — even to the point of conversation with our seniors of, ‘Hey, listen, like, I’m sorry, you know? We thought we were gonna play and we’re not playing. What are you going to do? Are you going to come back for another year?’”

 The Big Ten and Pac-12 Conference had announced they would not be playing last fall, so all the other Power Five conferences, including the Big 12, were expected to follow suit. Well, we all saw how that turned out. The Big 12, SEC and ACC made it clear they would find a way to play football, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 eventually reversed course. 

 So a season would be played — and what a historic season it was for ISU (9-3 record, best regular-season mark in league play, a 17-point win over Oregon in the program’s first appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl). But when what seemed lost unexpectedly was regained entering week one, the Cyclones faced other major obstacles that had lingered from the onset of fall camp.

 “The only time we had COVID(-19) issues at all was, man, you start fall camp and you’re down almost 40 guys,” Campbell said. “So we’re going into our first football game where almost a third of your football team, really, was their first week of practice. And I was really proud of our kids because we played. We needed to play. … And then oh, by the way, man, you run into a stadium and there’s nobody there. All of a sudden it’s almost like a bizarre situation. I didn’t do a good job as the head football coach in that game. And you know what? It was one of those situations that there are no excuses. It just, it was what it was.”


 It also set the stage for the pulse-pounding surge to come. The Cyclones were one 3-point loss to Oklahoma State away from running the table in Big 12 play and fell just short of attaining a conference title in the championship game against Oklahoma.

 All of the elements that framed that season — and its perplexing season opener — coalesced to turn extreme adversity into an unprecedented success. A program-record nine ISU players earned first-team All-Big 12 honors (Brock Purdy, Charlie Kolar, Breece Hall, Xavier Hutchinson, Colin Newell, JaQuan Bailey, Will McDonald, Mike Rose and Greg Eisworth).

 “After that game (against the Ragin’ Cajuns), there was not a finger point,” Campbell said. “There wasn’t a hint, there wasn’t even an ounce of hesitation in terms of our players. I met with our seniors on Monday after that game and we had a bye, if you remember, after that game before we got into conference play. And, not, I mean, how our seniors — the confidence that they had in themselves, in myself and our staff, in where we were going, I said, ‘Man, we got a chance to do some special things right now.’ And I think we learned from some of the things that we needed to learn from that game. I thought as coaches and certainly the leadership in our program, they gave ourselves a chance to really kind of pick ourselves up off the mat and respond. And like I said, man, you would have loved to win the first game. You would have loved to do all those great things, but man, we didn’t. So how do you respond to adversity? And, again, I think it showed a lot about the character of this team, because TCU (which ISU bat in week two), again, one of the most talented teams in our conference, no question. You and I both know the respect factor you got for a Gary Patterson football team. And then to go down there and win, which we had not done a whole lot since I’ve been here, and then maybe in our program’s history. To be able to go against a team like that and play the way we did and kind of respond, I thought that was really big just for the psyche and the confidence of this football team moving forward of who we were, and who we wanted to become.”

 Without that loss — and the adversity that accompanied it — who knows how the rest of the season would have unfolded? Could have been even better. Could have been worse, too. What’s clear is the Cyclones took that loss and turned it into fuel. We saw what happened next — the start of a memorable and unprecedented ride for ISU that ended in a Fiesta Bowl win.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think maybe one of the most enjoyable years that I’ve ever had in terms of coaching,” Campbell said. “From my end of it, really even the challenge of leading young men through March, April, and May, it’s really why you coach, and in in a lot of ways, it’s why you coach at this level, because I think that those were really hard, challenging times for our young kids, and, really, for our coaching staff too. We’re fortunate that we’ve got really good people to lead with. I think we knew that hard times were coming, and that there were going to be real challenges, and that we were going to have to rise up and lead through. I think that’s the greatest gift we have, is we’ve got great people. It’s not just about one person. It’s about all of us. And we’ve been able to come together and grow together through this process. So I think when you sit at the end of it, you say, man, what a great reward that it was just to go through it. Because I think it forced all of us to really grow: (Me), our program, and I think the individuals within the program. We were all able to grow immensely through what transpired the last nine months.”