MASTER BUILDERS: How ISU’s Class of 2017 and other current seniors turned “hope” into “reality”

Jan 2, 2021; Glendale, AZ, USA; Iowa State’s O’Rien Vance (34) and Anthony Johnson Jr. (26) celebrate a turnover against Oregon during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Breen-Arizona Republic Ncaa Football Oregon At Iowa State

Anthony Johnson excitedly accepted the recruiting card from Iowa State assistant coach Tyson Veidt, then set it aside.

The then-junior at St. Petersburg (Fla.) High School had some Googling to do. 

 He frowned at the results.

 “I saw 3-9,” Johnson said Monday during the Cyclones’ annual media day. “I went to class. One of my friends asked me (about it). I threw the card away and said, ‘I’m not going there. 3-9? I’m not going way down there for that.’ And lookie here, I’m here — and a lot has changed.”

Indeed it has.

The standout senior cornerback will enter ISU’s Sept. 4 season-opener against Northern Iowa on a 28-game start streak. He was one of four true freshmen not to redshirt in 2018 and perfectly epitomizes how no one — or no program — should be strictly evaluated based on the recent past.

 Not without a deep dive into what undergirds the superficial numbers.

 Not without understanding that success is not a static concept, regardless of the starting point.

“I think as the program gains confidence and success, you gain it in yourself, too,” said All-American Class of 2017 senior tight end Charlie Kolar

 In 2016, Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell pitched a fresh start with a new staff. In 2017, the proffered vision centered on hope — a message that resonated then with the vast majority of ISU’s current 26 seniors, who have helped turn Googling the Cyclones’ profile and results into a much more pleasurable viewing experience.

“It wasn’t really much (about) convincing,” said senior wide receiver Tarique Milton, who plans to return to his play-making ways after an injury-riddled 2020 season. “It was just more me seeing an opportunity to change the program around. That’s what I wanted to be a part of. … I wanted to go somewhere where I could help change the program and turn that into a big school.”

 Mission (partly) accomplished. ISU went 8-1 in Big 12 play last season. The Cyclones played in and convincingly won their first Fiesta Bowl game, upending Oregon, 34-17. They’re broadly considered to once again be the primary threat to knock Oklahoma off the Big 12’s top pedestal — and most of the players doing the nudging were the hope buyers of the past.

 But Campbell and his staff weren’t just selling hope in the early years. They were also providing it.

 “They were one of the ones who took a chance on me when nobody else would,” said three-year starting linebacker O’Rien Vance, who despite having a tremendous high school career at Cedar Rapids Washington, had one major conference offer in ISU’s. “At the end of the day, even if we weren’t to have had the success we’ve had, I still would have stayed. I still would have been here because of the fact when someone takes a chance on you, you don’t back out on them. You don’t try to let them down.”

 Vance — a big part of the Class of 2017 — recently spoke to the team about his experience with the program. He’s clearly one of the success stories, but it’s a decidedly two-way street. And as Vance articulated that transformational, not transactional relationship he and so many others have built with Campbell and his staff, offensive coordinator Tom Manning listened approvingly. 

 “Man, I sat there really just in amazement of, wow, he really gets it,” Manning said. “What a great leader and (he) just appreciates how hard it’s been and also I think he just really appreciates his experience here, and for us, that’s really what it’s about. We couldn’t be more proud of those guys and we’re certainly excited to play football with them (again).”

 So is everyone, whether coaching, playing or watching. The construction project never ends. There’s never a finished project regardless of what the scoreboard or standings say — and that’s what makes it so intriguing and enticing.

 “It’s true in all aspects of life, but especially in football, the more you play and the more you take reps and stuff — and it’s not that, at least not for me personally, I don’t think I ever have it figured out,” Kolar said. “I just think of more things I can get better at. The better I get at football, the more ways I see I can improve at football. I think as a team, it’s kind of the same way. When you’re just trying to win six games and get to a bowl game, or win eight games, then 10 games, or whatever — that’s never been our goal. We never set a goal on wins. You just take a win. But when you get better as a team, you also look at wins and find more and more things wrong with them — not in a negative way. Just so you can get better. So I think it really is good for our team that everyone’s really driven and we have most of our starters back. I think a lot of guys are built the same way on the team, which is nice.”

 It’s also essential. Good can’t be good enough unless it’s time to stop. And the Cyclones aren’t remotely interested in standing still now, or ever.

 “You look at this year’s senior class and you look at some of these guys that came in, and you were selling hope,” Campbell said. “You were selling an opportunity and I think that’s where your emotion and appreciation for the guys who believed that this could happen and then, man, they went to work to make it happen. I think that’s, to me, what you’re so grateful for — a group of young men that really demanded to create change. It wasn’t easy, especially through the early part of it and it certainly hasn’t gotten any easier as you continue to try to build it. So just a sincere appreciation for that group of guys, because they really came in when there was no reality. There was just a hope. And those guys made the vision a reality.”

 That cadre of players includes early doubters such as Johnson and lifelong fans such as senior center Colin Newell, who grew up in Ames. They’re all believers now — and it’s not just because of Campbell and his staff. It’s because of who they see when they look right, left and center. Google might not have an answer for what that means, but Newell can provide a satisfying one without any technological assistance.

“I think the biggest thing is since day one it’s truly been about the culture of this place,” Newell said. “That’s everything that’s been instilled in us. It’s what we believe in. It’s why we believe in each other. It’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had. Everyone on this team is really good friends. We hang out outside of football. It’s not like it’s just here. We want to hang out with each other and I feel like that drives everybody to dig a little deeper and be the best person that we can be.”

 The best team, too. Eventually, Johnson saw the glimmers of hope that 3-9 team provided and committed before the 2017 team broke through for an eight-win season. So while that recruiting card almost certainly went out with the trash and recycling, what it signified transcended hope. It was destiny. 

 “We’ve all got the same goals, the same mindset,” Johnson said. “(Campbell) recruited the same people, just different variations. That’s really what it is.”

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