Photo courtesy of Iowa State Athletics
Friday morning, I posted the first of our “What We’re Asking” series of columns you can come to expect on media availability days during Iowa State’s 2021 fall camp.
Each evening after those availabilities, I’ll follow those columns up with a “What He Said” feature breaking down how those questions were answered by each coach — starting with Matt Campbell.
1 – What’s his reaction to the drama of the last few weeks spurred by Oklahoma and Texas’ decision to leave the Big 12 for the SEC?
The short version of what Campbell had to say about the ongoing Big 12 realignment saga was more or less exactly what you’d expect.
That is a whole lot of nothing.
“Probably a better question for somebody else here because my focus has been zero on that,” Campbell said. “To say it doesn’t matter or I don’t care is probably wrong. But to say I’ve thought once about it is probably right. My focus has solely been on our kids and our football team and making sure we continue to do what we need to do in the present.”
Nobody should have expected Campbell to unleash some epic soundbite trashing Oklahoma, Texas and the trajectory of college football as we know it.
That’s not his style.
One of the things I’ve been asked the most during this entire thing has been how it will impact Iowa State’s recruiting over the next several years. That uncertainty seems like easy ammunition for opposing coaches looking to negatively recruit the Cyclones. It would be hard to be a young man looking for their next home and not be somewhat uneasy about the idea that nobody knows how this will end Iowa State.
Campbell’s response to how you combat those concerns was… *chef’s kiss*
“Win,” Campbell said. “When you win, people want to play for winners. And when you want to have success, people want to be around a program that’s having success. I think winning not only on the football field but then also winning in, man, how are you developing your student-athletes? How are we helping them with life after football? How do we create an environment that kids do feel confident and safe to come in your program? I think that matters way more than anything else.”
You can go more in-depth on what Campbell had to say on this topic in Rob Gray’s story on the matter right here.
2 – What percentage of his roster is vaccinated?
This was an easy one for him to answer.
“From a standpoint of our guys being vaccinated, we’re well over 90 percent of our team,” Campbell said. “Hopefully really close to 100 percent by the time we actually start the football season.”
Wow. That’s huge.
As I wrote this morning, like it or not, the percentage of players vaccinated on college football rosters is going to be an ongoing discussion point, especially if (or more realistically, once) a team is forced to forfeit due to the number of players out with the virus or due to contact tracing.
Kudos to Campbell, his staff and the program’s medical staff for doing everything they can to ensure that doesn’t become a concern for the Cyclones this fall.
As for getting over the hump and reaching that 100 percent number …
“I think every one of those situations is a little bit different,” Campbell said of the program’s remaining unvaccinated players. “But, whether it’s a family value, whether it’s a health concern, I think there’s a lot of different reasons. And again, that’s a personal choice, too. And so, giving our kids the opportunity to make the best decision for them and their family. It’s ultimately their responsibility to do that. And my responsibility is to help continue to provide, man, here are the facts, here’s what we know. And then you make the best decision for you and your family.”
3 – How has he seen the changes to name, image and likeness legislation manifest inside the program?
I’ll just let the man speak for himself here.
“I do think that’s a huge positive for us,” Campbell said of the changes to NIL legislation. “It’s another educational piece. I think our guys have done a phenomenal job handling it. As I told our players, it’s not like they gave you name, image and likeness and gave you four extra hours in the day to say, ‘Hey, listen, let’s go get good at education. Let’s go get really good at our sport. And then hey, oh, by the way, let’s take the extra four hours and go get better at name, image and likeness and make a little bit of money.’ So, I think our guys have handled that. My only ask is our thing here is man, the image of one projects image of all, right? How you use your name, image and likeness, how you carry yourself in this community, how you act. It’s about all of us. It’s not just about a singular person. But the guys that have been able to use that have in a positive way.”
Learning how to work name, image and likeness opportunities into the student-athlete experience was always going to be a balancing act. But, shoot, the student-athlete experience is a massive balancing act on its own, let alone when you add another piece outside of school and football.
Campbell has approached all of this the correct way, though. He knows his players and how dedicated they are to their craft, both in the classroom and on the football field.
If that man trusts his guys to make the right decisions and not let the opportunity to make money distract from what they’re in Ames to do, then who is anyone else to question it? Campbell has proven to be pretty damn smart about these things. He and his staff have done an outstanding job recruiting great kids who have their priorities straight, as best exemplified by how well they handled playing in a “bubble” last season.
Hopefully, this will put an end to people tweeting at these guys telling them to watch some film or do their homework every time they tweet out a new t-shirt, autograph signing event or whatever else.
Or, even better yet, if you don’t have something positive to tweet at an 18-to-22-year-old kid, don’t tweet at them at all.
“Something else we talk a lot about in our program is, ‘Get more out of yourself than you take from the whole,'” Campbell said. “I really feel like our kids understand that value system and have really done a great job with name image and likeness. How could it affect your team in a negative way? How can it affect in a positive way? I really think, at this point, it’s all been positive.”
4 – What has been the message to the team when it comes to handling the outside hype of being a top-10 team in the preseason?
So, as part of this question this morning, I impersonated Matt Campbell by dropping basically every Matt Campbell-ism I could think of in one quote.
What happened, in reality, was way freaking better. It actually came as part of a larger series of questions from WHO TV’s Mark Freund about athletes and mental health, framed around Simone Biles’ recent struggles during the Olympics in Tokyo and the impact the pressure of everyone expecting greatness from her had on her mental state.
I’m just going to let Campbell roll here with a series of long quotes because they’re awesome, and I don’t want to break them up.
“I wish you had asked me two years ago because I would tell you, I probably did a really poor job two years ago, when maybe (the program’s rise) started to (gain steam),” he said. “We played in the Alamo Bowl following that season in 2019. I really look back on that 2019 season and say, ‘Man, I don’t know if I was good enough in addressing expectation and standard.’ Man, you had some young players that were forced upon expectation, then you had some older players. I think it took the ability for me to sit down and talk to our kids to understand maybe where some of my shortcomings were as the head football coach, how do I address it, and really, then have even more awareness to say, ‘Gosh, we got to be better, and it’s got to start with the head football coach.'”
“I think those are things that we learned two years ago that have helped guide us, and we didn’t just get good, and expectations didn’t just happen. We’ve been really good here for the last four years. So, I think there has been a growth process and understanding that, especially at a place like Iowa State, where success hasn’t occurred with great consistency and all of a sudden, you start to kind of move up that ladder. You do feel that from a coach standpoint, from a player standpoint, and I think everybody’s been able to evolve as our program’s evolved. Understanding the value of what you just said (about mental health) really is real, and how can I do a better job of protecting, guiding and educating our kids?”
What would he have done differently in 2019?
“I think it’s just falling back on what our core values have been,” Campbell said. “Relationships, culture, the best interest of our football team is still the 18 to 22-year-olds. Then also with our coaching staff, I think sometimes my greatest fault is you’re talking about a guy that worked up from Division III football and a staff that’s worked up from Division III football and sometimes a lot of time our motto has been, ‘Man, if you work harder then you’re going to be better.’ At some point, I think there’s a realistic piece, and you guys probably have done this in your own profession, man, at a point can I work smarter and understand what’s evolving around me and be better for the situation that I’m currently in? That doesn’t mean we’ve worked any less or not worked to the standard that has been what’s allowed us to be successful, but I think working smarter, I think defining who we are, defining, man, again, we set the standard and expectation for who we are, not the outside noise, and really kind of honing in on those things. It probably escaped me a little bit in 2019. I probably did a really poor job, to be honest with you.”
That’s pretty heavy stuff from a guy who is widely regarded to be at the top of his profession. There aren’t many coaches across the country with, one, the humility to admit his past flaws so openly in a media availability setting, and, two, who are self-aware enough to be able to recognize and, ultimately, take steps to fix those shortcomings.
We all know Matt Campbell has proven himself to be a great football coach. These are the types of things that prove the type of person he is and why people are drawn to him in the way they are.
He is quite literally built different, and things like this are why we as Iowa Staters are lucky to have him as our football coach.
5 – What has the program carried forward from last year’s COVID-19 adapted fall camp into this year’s more traditional setup?
Another one that is pretty straightforward and just about exactly what I expected from Campbell. He didn’t give us any specifics about how much hitting they’ll do this fall or if they’ve changed the kinds of drills they do, but you can read between the lines to understand how his priorities have changed from the past.
Sure, fall camp is important. It lays the foundation for what your football team will be during the season, but you still have to keep in mind that the most important days are still ahead and being at your best for those days is the biggest key.
“I think the biggest thing from my end is understanding that we want to be our best on those 12 Saturdays,” Campbell said. “I think my growth has come as, man, I could sit and practice for four hours and love it. Now, I don’t think our kids would love practicing for four hours and for their best interest to be better the next day. That’s probably not the wisest thing to do. I just think, again, having a global perspective of everything you do in your program from January till the end of December or January is the betterment of putting your kids in the best position to be their best on Saturday. What does that look like? How do we get there? Whether it’s us as teachers or coaches, or whether it’s how we feed them, how we rest them, how we recover them, and how we practice them. So I think all those things fall on my shoulders. And you know, I think just growth of, again, I’m 41 years old, I don’t have it all figured out, right? Just trying to take what’s worked well, what hasn’t worked well, and continue to try to evolve to be the best we can be and help myself and help our kids be the best version of myself that I can be for them.”