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
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2016 when Matt Campbell stood at the post-game podium.
Iowa State had fought admirably in the season finale against West Virginia, but ultimately the Mountaineers were too much and Iowa State was handed its ninth defeat of the year, losing 49-19.
It was Iowa State’s 37th loss in four years.
Campbell gave a few typical end-of-game, end-of-season answers before he paused for a moment of reflection:
“I love this place. I believe in it more today than the day I got here. I know where we are going. At the end of this, we are going to win a championship in the Big 12. We are going to figure out how to get that done. Pretty soon we will have a football team that matches the fans’ commitment to us.”
Four years later, with 90 seconds on the game clock, Iowa State was 32 yards away from accomplishing what had to sound asinine to most when Campbell took that podium after the West Virginia game.
Iowa State stood toe-to-toe with the behemoth known as Oklahoma and was driving for the ultimate strike in the Big 12 Championship. This was no longer David vs. Goliath, quietly, David had become a monster of his own.
We all know how the game ended, it was not Iowa State’s time. Brock Purdy’s desperation heave went begging and was intercepted.
Oklahoma 27, Iowa State 21.
The Iowa State locker room in the cavernous halls of AT&T Stadium was emotional. These men who had given their all for the elusive championship fell short.
But in the rawest of emotions comes great power.
First came the demolition of the talented Oregon Ducks, one of the nation’s biggest brands. A sleeper-hold of a second-half held the four and five stars with the flashy uniforms to 88 yards and no points.
The Cyclones cruised to a 34-17 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
As one Cyclone told me after the game, “Oregon talked more trash than anyone we have ever played in the first half. We didn’t hear much in the second.”
The Cyclones’ celebration was earned, but eyes instantly looked forward.
There was more to get done.
The announcements came quickly after the game, first Mike Rose, then Brock Purdy, Chase Allen, Greg Eisworth, Charlie Kolar, Enyi Uwazirike and Sean Foster.
Run it back, 2021 could be special.
It’s fitting that in a year with so much promise surrounding Iowa State football, the college athletics world has been turned upside down just weeks before the season.
It’s the life of an Iowa State fan. If it was easy, you’d have given up years ago.
But the beauty of sports is in the battle, in the finality of the scoreboard. Talking heads, recruiting rankings and TV networks can’t make a game-saving tackle on a fake punt to keep a season afloat.
Nobody knows what this season or the future of college athletics will ultimately have in store.
But these Cyclones have given us hope in this moment, given us a reason to dream bigger than we ever have.
All of those years toiling in the tailgating lots aspiring to get to this place and here we are. The chaos of the outside world may chirp and try to take away that joy, but it’s not possible.
They have no idea what we’ve all been through to climb the mountain.
It feels like we’re all in the locker-room scene in the 1989 movie Major League with irreverent manager Lou Brown at the front of the room:
“I’m not much for giving inspirational addresses, but I’d just like to point out that every newspaper in the country has picked us to finish last. The local press seems to think that we’d save everyone the time and trouble if we just went out and shot ourselves. Me, I’m for wasting sportswriters’ time. So I figured we ought to hang around for a while and see if we can give ’em all a nice big sh*tburger to eat.”
Take a second Saturday to reflect on the journey.
That early Saturday morning wake-up call is better than Christmas morning. The sight of friends and family reuniting in the best kind of reunion. Seeing the Jack Trice Stadium turf for the first time in almost two years, all the hardships of a brutal 24 months put on the back-burner for a few hours.
Keys rattle. The kick goes through the end zone (we hope).
This is where we’re meant to be.
These are our Cyclones.
The elusive Championship remains, but Campbell’s words from 2016 ring loudly. “We’re going to figure out a way to get that done.”
The wait is over, welcome back Cyclones.