Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell is dunked with Gatorade by his players in the second half of the Fiesta Bowl against the Oregon Ducks at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Change is constant, but every spring practice slate remains the same for Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell.
Forget bells and whistles; bulging playbooks and intricate schemes.
Thank grit and focus; mastering the fundamentals and techniques associated with each position group.
You know, “the details.” Once again, as always …
“I think that’s what spring practice is about,” Campbell said Thursday as he neared the conclusion of his sixth spring in Ames. “I think that’s something that we have always really concentrated on is really the fundamental and technical part of the game. Obviously, you know, I think, from when we were here early (in his tenure) you’re trying to figure out who your players are and maybe what scheme you want to run, but I think that the more we’ve grown, we’ve really settled into who we are, and schematically what we want to do. So now it’s about how do we do what we want to do?”
Answer: With ever-increasing precision and consistency.
The same buzzwords and themes constantly crop up for Campbell’s rapidly-rising Cyclone program for one obvious reason. They form a framework for success that’s brilliant because of its simplicity — and no one can argue with the results.
Iowa State is coming off just its second-ever 9-3 season in school history. The Cyclones manhandled young but talented Oregon, 34-17, in their first-ever New Year’s Six bowl appearance. And ISU will almost certainly be ranked somewhere in the top 10 once official preseason rankings come out.
Does any of that matter now (or then, or in the future)? No. But, again, all of the achievements and accolades point to a system that works. No complexity is required nor desired.
“Our playbook, even though maybe (it) sometimes looks expanded, is very thin, anyway,” Campbell said. “So I think more of mastery of skill (is) really what we’ve been after, honestly, over the last two years. I think that’s kind of been our focal point since 2019, (it’s), man, how do you continue to master your craft? And when you’re dealing with 18 to 22-year-olds, that’s easier said than done. So I give a lot of credit to our kids and, really, I give a lot of credit to our staff, because I thought our staff was incredible, and really has grown over the last few years. I think with that growth, our players certainly have benefited and they’ve done a great job of letting our coaches benefit them, so it’s been an enjoyable process.”
Where does that lead the Cyclones in 2021? No one inside the Bergstrom Football Complex is talking about that in terms of wins or losses. Change is constant, but that mentality remains the same. Let the outside world make pronouncements — good or bad. ISU rises and/or falls based entirely on the fuel it manufactures and refines from within as spring dovetails into summer, and finally, the fall.
“I think those guys have had tremendous purpose,” Cyclone defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said of his veteran-laden unit that helped guide the team to an 8-1 regular season Big 12 mark in 2020. “I think the concern you have is that if the same team is coming back, you’re going to be just the same. We can’t — even though (most of) the same people are coming back, we have to be a better team. We have to be a better defense. We have to be better at our techniques. And I think that’s the reality of when you have veteran teams in my experiences that, you know, ‘Hey, you’ve got this team coming back.’ Sure. If it’s the same team, we’re in trouble. If it’s an improved team, you know, we’ll be better, and that will help us. I think those are the things that you look at as a coach, as I do, is, again — being in this (game) a little bit — that becomes the real thing. The reality of that is our older guys, that group that you’re talking about, has had tremendous intent and purpose at practice, and in the weight room and in the dining hall, and all of those things. And as long as they’re improving will be a better team moving forward.”
We call Heacock “The Professor,” but you don’t need an honorary Ph.D. to understand that.
Mastering the details can put players into an almost meditative state. Calm, but primed for deeper insights and growth. Every rep — in the weight room, or on the field — can be a game unto itself. Win each one and the sky’s the limit as what’s done in “the dark” turns into plays made under the lights.
“I’m in my fourth year now, so having the game be even slower, you know, than it was the year before, or my sophomore year, or my freshman year — and so we get into these games, and there’s just little things in the game, where an interception, or fumble, or something that I do because of my decision making, you know, can really flip the momentum of a game,” said star ISU quarterback Brock Purdy, who is 19-6 as a starter in Big 12 regular-season games. “And so, for me, as a quarterback, I understand the position that I play is really valuable to the success of the team, and now if anybody can handle that, I know that’s me. So for me, I’m growing. (I’m) meeting (with) coach Campbell, all the time throughout the week. (Quarterbacks) coach (Joel) Gordon, you know, we’re just going over the basic IQ details of football, and so I feel like that’s helped me right now. Obviously, when we go out on the field and everything, I’m seeing everything really well, so I’m excited about that moving forward. I’m going to have good summer, good fall camp, and be ready to roll when the season comes around.”
That’s Sept. 4, when Northern Iowa comes to town — a matchup, hopefully, to be contested amid the atmosphere provided by a full Jack Trice stadium.
The last time the Cyclones met the Panthers in the 2019 season-opener, Purdy needed to pounce on a fumble at the goal line in triple overtime to avert a loss. ISU was ranked No. 21 at the time. So external expectations mean nothing, even as they evolve and ratchet upward. Every spring, summer and fall hinges on boring, bedrock “details” that never change, but once again, as always, matter the most.
“We have really high expectations for ourselves, but we also know every season and every year is defined by who you are at the end, and not who you are at the beginning,” Campbell said. “I think it’s fun, where you have a veteran group that understands that, and you have a coaching staff that understands that and, man, doesn’t really get wrapped up in the noise; doesn’t get wrapped up in the good or the bad,” Campbell said. “All they do is just keep staying the course. I think that’s what I envisioned as a coach, to be honest with you. Can you ever create a program where it’s about what’s right and not about what’s said about you, or, what’s the external scoreboard, but what’s about the internal scoreboard? I think that’s been been been something that I passionately appreciate, and something that I’ve always dreamed of. Can you have a program that’s about the right things — the internal pieces? I think that’s where we’re a lot closer today, six years into it than maybe we’ve been, you know, and certainly where we were when we started here. I think that’s probably my greatest appreciation.”